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

Monday, May 31, 2010

A few days off

I'll be back soon! I've been working quite hard the last few days and am now feeling a li'l bit run down (it doesn't help that Felix the cat has been unhappy after having to have an operation, and has had to be kept inside ... and as a result is keeping us awake a lot of the time).

Okay, today I need a restful day. Will leave y'all to talk among yourselves.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Teenage births and abortions - responsibility is better than moralism

Citing a new study in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, The Globe and Mail reports that Canada experienced a significant drop (36.9 per cent) in teenage births and abortions between 1996 and 2006. This is attributed to better access to contraception, better sex education, and changing social norms, but not to a decline in actual sex among teenagers. Rather, Canadian teenagers are now more likely to use condoms and/or the contraceptive pill than was the case in the mid-1990s.

I don't actually see anything terribly wrong - I mean morally wrong - with having a child when you're very young or with having an abortion. In neither case are you hurting someone else (leaving aside the very brief pain suffered by a fetus if the abortion is late enough in the pregnancy). However, having a child when you're still a teenager is highly imprudent (in modern societies where it takes so long to be qualified for most careers), and having an abortion is traumatic. It's better for teenage girls not to be confronted with the choice of either a career-stopping event or an abortion, so it's preferable if they are able to have active sex lives without getting pregnant. But for adults to insist that teenagers abstain from sex is unrealistic and in any event an outrageous demand - by what right do we tell young people who are biologically ready, and psychologically eager, for the extraordinary joys and pleasures of sex not to seek them? Why are we entitled to impose this burden on younger people with less power? (It's not as if the teenagers set things up so that early motherhood is such a career-stopper. Maybe we could do something about that.) When adults talk that way, demanding abstinence, it's pompous bullshit ... and it's no wonder that many teenagers regard it as such.

It's better and smarter if, as a society, we teach young people to have sex in ways that avoid pregnancy ... and to provide emotional and other support for those teenage girls who do nonetheless get pregnant. Moral condemnation and harsh treatment get us nowhere.

So, public policy should look kindly on teenage sex while encouraging teenagers to use the contraceptive pill, condoms, oral sex or mutual masturbation (as alternatives to vaginal sex), and whatever other practices are likely to make teenagers' sexual conduct safer and less likely to lead to pregnancy. In addition, public policy should make it easy for teenage girls to get tested for pregnancy and to obtain abortions if they so desire. We shouldn't be too solicitous of the "rights" of moralistic parents who make life hell for their children.

Above all, we should be frank about what we ask of teenagers, and should avoid loading them with moral guilt about behaviour that is very natural to them.

It seems that many people leap from the (perfectly plausible) idea that we'd like, as a society, to reduce teenage pregnancies to the (dangerous) idea that teenage sex is morally wrong. That's precisely the wrong approach. The more successful approach is to give teenagers reliable information and encourage them to think about it and use it responsibly. It seems fairly clear that unwanted outcomes (basically, teenage pregnancies) are lower in countries that take the latter path. As suggested in the article, it's actually better for societies to take a more relaxed, less moralistic, attitude to teenage sex. Paradoxical perhaps, but true.

E.g. compare the dramatic difference between the less moralistic Canada and Sweden, on one hand, with the more moralistic US and UK:

Among the four countries compared for 2006, Canada boasted the lowest teen birth and abortion rate per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 (27.9), followed by Sweden (31.4), England/Wales (60.3), and the United States (61.2).

The policy choice is clear-cut.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

ARC journal rankings, for those who are interested

For those who are wondering, this is how ARC journal rankings work (and as you can see we at JET really wanted what is signified by that "A" ranking; "A*" would be even better but we'll have to work on it):

=========================
Tiers for the Australian Ranking of Journals
Overall criterion: Quality of the papers
A*
Typically an A* journal would be one of the best in its field or subfield in which to publish and would typically cover the entire field/subfield. Virtually all papers they publish will be of a very high quality. These are journals where most of the work is important (it will really shape the field) and where researchers boast about getting accepted. Acceptance rates would typically be low and the editorial board would be dominated by field leaders, including many from top institutions.

A
The majority of papers in a Tier A journal will be of very high quality. Publishing in an A journal would enhance the author’s standing, showing they have real engagement with the global research community and that they have something to say about problems of some significance. Typical signs of an A journal are lowish acceptance rates and an editorial board which includes a reasonable fraction of well known researchers from top institutions.

B
Tier B covers journals with a solid, though not outstanding, reputation. Generally, in a Tier B journal, one would expect only a few papers of very high quality. They are often important outlets for the work of PhD students and early career researchers. Typical examples would be regional journals with high acceptance rates, and editorial boards that have few leading researchers from top international institutions.

C
Tier C includes quality, peer reviewed, journals that do not meet the criteria of the higher tiers.

"A" ranking for Journal of Evolution and Technology

The Journal of Evolution and Technology, of which I am editor-in-chief, has received a prestigious "A" ranking as a peer-reviewed journal from the Australian Research Council.

This is good reason to pop the champagne corks. My thanks to all the staff and contributors who've helped us reach this high standard, especially to the wonderful, ever-helpful Marcelo Rinesi. This should make JET all the more attractive as a preferred place for Australian academics to submit articles, and I'll be doing my best to spread the news. It's also a great incentive to us all to maintain or exceed our standards. Having achieved such a high ranking for 2010, we certainly don't want to let it slip.

Congratulations to us all, once again.

On the moral authority of religion and science

In the light of the recent discussion of these issues sparked by Sam Harris - and reminded by the fact that I am giving a paper at this year's AAP Conference - I dug out my paper from last year's conference. This extract seems salient:

What I want to say has two components. First, it is not true that the actual religions have any special authority in the realm of ethics — though they might have if their supernatural claims had actually been true. Second, it is not true that science has no authority in this realm.
The situation is this: science cannot tell us the ultimate point of morality, but neither can the actual religions. Let me explain what I mean.

The ultimate point of morality cannot be obedience to the will of a god or a group of gods. This would raise the notorious Euthyphro problem: does conduct become morally correct because it is in accordance with a god's commands, or should we obey the god's commands because they track the independent requirements of morality? If the former, we seem to be stuck with the idea that murder and rape are wrong only because of the arbitrary commands of a powerful being (this being could have made murder morally right simply by commanding it). If the latter, then why not find out what the independent requirements of morality actually are, i.e. the requirements that are independent of the god's will?

So what is the ultimate point of morality? I don't see how either religion or science can tell us! Some candidates include: Individual flourishing (for which we'd need a definition that is not already moralised); social survival or something like escape from a Hobbesian state of nature; the reduction of suffering; or the maximisation of overall happiness. There may be other candidates, or perhaps we could adopt some combination. But we can reach a conclusion on this kind of question only by rational reflection on our values, the realm of secular ethical philosophy. When we so do, we can never step entirely out of all our values at once, so there always remains an irreducible element of what we really do most deeply desire the world to be like. As Hume argued, "oughts" can not ultimately be derived from reason alone without that element of desire — but nor can they be derived by solely from revelation.

However, once we know what morality is aimed at, a god or angel or wise ancestor could be a reliable moral advisor. I.e., such a cognitively superior being might well be able to tell us what kind of moral code (social or personal) best conduces to, say, human functioning (again, in some sense that is not already moralised).

If prophets were genuinely receiving information from a god or other supernaturally knowledgeable being, this might well have included such reliable information on how we should act to obtain our ultimate moral goal or goals.

The difficulty is this: in the real world the holy books seem no more reliable about ethical matters than they are about empirical matters such as the age of the Earth. Sophisticated religious adherents tend to interpret the holy books more in keeping with what they know from elsewhere about what conduces to flourishing (or social survival, reduction of suffering, and other such goals). Far from being authoritative, the holy books end up needing to be interpreted in the light of secular wisdom about what actually conduces to such goals as flourishing or happiness.

I conclude that one of the actual religions could have a degree of moral authority if it were actually tapping into the knowledge of a cognitively superior being such as a god. In principle, however, science can have exactly the same kind of moral authority.

Once again, science cannot settle ultimate "ought" questions, such as what should morality be aiming at. But if we can answer that question, perhaps through some process of rational reflection on our values, science can, in principle, give us information about how to achieve our goal. Say that we are trying to come up with a set of virtues to teach our children and aspire to ourselves, with the aim of advancing human flourishing (again, in some sense that is not already moralised). In principle, what we now need is information about the world, including information about human nature.

As to the latter, various fields of science (and not just the controversial field of evolutionary psychology) can now study human nature, and the outcomes may have implications for how we should try to constrain our own conduct. As we learn more, this can feed back into our moral understanding. Hume believed in moral progress, as understanding increased and civilization developed; and, in principle, I see no reason to think that he was wrong about this.

However, science, like the religions, is limited in the ethical realm. Given the current state of sciences such as psychology, the quality of any advice coming from science leaves much to be desired. We do not have an exact science of what best contributes to, say, individual and collective human flourishing.

For the moment, at least, we must rely to a large degree on such things as historical experience, folk understandings of what makes people happy, our own experience as individuals, and so on. Moral philosophers need to reflect on all of these things. They can also reflect on religious texts from various traditions, of course, since these may contain some wisdom, albeit seemingly not supernatural wisdom.

....

And a bit later:

Once we have an answer to the ultimate questions in the ethical domain, science can investigate such questions as how human flourishing or the minimisation of suffering (for example) is best achieved. However, we also need to rely on personal and historical experience, etc., since the most relevant sciences (such as psychology) are relatively imprecise and at an early stage of development. Religion has failed to give us reliable information about these questions, though it could have done so in principle if it had obtained the information from a cognitively superior being such as an angel or a god.

Thus, science and religion are both are unable to answer the ultimate questions in the ethical domain. However, in principle, both can answer less-than ultimate ethical questions, as well as empirical questions. The poor record of religion in answering empirical questions, and the poor record in improving on other sources (such as literature and human experience) in the ethical domain suggests that the actual religions are not in receipt of information from cognitively superior beings.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

They need to get me to talk at TED

Seriously. Tell the TED people!

It won't happen any time soon - the way for someone like me to get such gigs is, I suppose, to write a best-selling book. That's easier said than done, as Ophelia was saying the other day. But I keep thinking that it's possible to give a better approximation to the truth on the whole "science of morality" and "is morality objective" thing. Even a 20-minute summary of the full thesis (not just part 1) of Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong would actually be worthwhile. This thesis is unknown to the general public, but very important. Mackie makes all the good points that Sam Harris makes and others besides, without falling into any serious metaethical traps. Obviously, the book could do with some slight updating, as it was published over 30 years ago. But I've been reading it (yet again) and am amazed (yet again) at how solid it still seems. It was way ahead of its time in 1977 - though in another sense long overdue, as Hume's useful ground-clearing work, which Mackie follows, was resisted by philosophers for over 200 years.

Hume and Mackie do, in fact, provide the foundation for something like a scientifically-informed practice of ethics. They also show that philosophy can make progress.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Crikey on Ministers' private lives

Yay for Crikey!

For those who are not aware of this issue, NSW Minister for Transport, David Campbell, resigned from his position a few days ago after he was exposed by Channel Seven as frequenting an up-market gay bar (to be clear, this is not just a place for a drink; it's a place where gay sex can and does occur in the rooms provided for it).

I'm all for freedom of speech, but the intrusion by large media companies into people's private lives disgusts me. Campbell should not have resigned over this incident, which relates to a purely private matter; he should have been given the full support of his colleagues, including the Premier; and I hope that we now see some more exposes of the private lives of muck-raking journalists. Only the muck-raking ones, though. Their private lives are not matters of public interest, but their hypocrisy may be.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Back from talk at Embiggen Books

I'm just back from giving a talk at Embiggen Books on the Sunshine Coast. Embiggen Books is a wonderful enterprise and deserves your support if you get a chance. It has a thriving mail order business, and is a possible alternative source of books on science, philosophy, etc., in addition to Amazon and Fishpond. It has a huge range of titles, including, of course, 50 Voices of Disbelief.

The talk was taped and will appear on the site at some stage - I'll doubtless let you know when it's up there, but probably quite soon!

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Defending freedom and reason."

I've just changed this blog's site description to the above - I think that's more accurate. It represents what Metamagician and the Hellfire Club has become, in practice, over the past four years.

Aussies, have your say on the school chaplaincy scheme

The federal government funds a scheme that provides school chaplains to primary and secondary schools. This was started under the regime of John Howard, but continues under Kevin Rudd. The Rudd government has promised to "provide an additional $42.8 million to extend the NSCP for all participating schools until December 2011."

However, you can have your say about it. There is currently a public consultation process which you can read about here. The process runs in two stages, with a first call for submissions open until the end of May. A discussion document will then be produced, and a second process opened in June. Submissions can be sent to: chaplaincyconsultation@deewr.gov.au.

Frankly, not that much notice gets taken of individual submissions from members of the public (as opposed to lobby groups or supposed experts). However, the cumulative effect of many submissions going one way or the other does matter. Personally, I think that the government has no business funding religious views in public schools, even within the constraints described on the site. There's even some doubt as to whether this is constitutional in Australia (but that's a long story in itself). Even if you disagree with me, go ahead and let 'em know what you think.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

University goes batty

An academic in Ireland has been disciplined for sexual harassment because he supposedly showed an article to a female colleague in a spirit of sexual innuendo. The article was about the fact that fruit bats engage in oral sex. His defence was that it was part of an ongoing academic discussion about non-human sexual behaviour - but really ... even if there was a degree of innuendo or an attempt at nerdish flirtation, so what?

Antonia Senior says:

Why does it matter? What is wrong with modern womanhood that we insist on parity in all things, yet retain the right to behave like heroines in 19th-century novels who accidentally stumble across some copulating horses? It is bad enough that the modern office environment makes us pretend that humans don’t have sex; now we must all collude in the myth that animals are built like Barbie and Ken, all smoothed over genitalia and wholesome innocence.

Sexual harassment law is not supposed to be about totally de-sexing interaction between men and women. It is about enabling women to work in environments that are not hostile to them (whether because of sexual predation by those with power over them, or because of pervasive expressions of misogyny, or other reasons). It's intended to support, not undermine, women's equality.

There are sometimes fine lines to be drawn here, but we can usually recognise sexual harassment when we see it. Incidents like this demonstrate a lack of common sense. For its part, the university administration has acted stupidly. And a woman who complains about something like this, acting like a nineteenth century shrinking violet, does her sex a disservice and cannot be considered part of the feminist cause. The message she sends is that women cannot be trusted as colleagues in the workplace, because they will freak out over trivial incidents.

Feminism is not about taking all the fun from life. It is not about stamping out all sexual innuendo. It's not about rationalising prudish attitudes to sex. It's not meant to limit reasonable freedom of speech and expression, including academic freedom. It's all about women being given proper credit for being as capable as men. That includes their competence in taking part in ordinary and reasonable social interaction in the workplace. So don't support the "victim" in this case in a spirit of feminist sisterhood. This is not feminism in action, even if she thinks it is. She's set back the feminist cause, not helped it; she's made it look as if women are not good colleagues in the workplace, and it would be safer not to hire them.

The wrong person was disciplined here. The harm was done by somebody disrupting the workplace - wasting the university's time and resources - with a complaint about such a trivial matter. She should be counselled and warned not to do this again.

Go here to sign an online petition protesting the university's action.

Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?

The scribbling update is that I did in fact manage to complete, and then revise and polish, 22,000 words (three chapters) of the planned book. Yay for me! I'm now on a break from that, but need to catch up with some stuff for The Journal of Evolution and Technology. I'm also going to visit the Sunshine Coast to give a talk at Embiggen Books this coming Saturday.

So ... I'm still on a blog semi-break as previously announced, though there hasn't been that much sign of it, I suspect. C'est la vie!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

John Wilkins on demons

Great post by John Wilkins over at Evolving Thoughts.

Sample:

Child pornography is not about to warp your kids minds or put them at risk – we should prevent it, but not surrender everything about the internet that makes it great, and certainly not everything about our rights that makes this the most peaceful, best educated, healthiest, most survivable period in history in many places in the world, including mine. My predecessors and ancestors fought for those rights. I don’t want to see them restricted because we fear demons.

New review of 50 Voices of Disbelief in Psychology Today

Not a bad review - brief but positive.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sam Harris on a science of morality

Introduction

In his recent contribution to The Huffington Post, Sam Harris offers a detailed defence of his proposal for a science of morality, writing in the aftermath of reactions to his TED talk back in March. A great deal of his defence concentrates on answering the latest criticisms from Sean Carroll.

I'm not going to attempt a point-by-point adjudication of claim and counterclaim from Harris and Carroll. That would require at least a full-scale academic article, and even a few relatively quick observations will end up being quite long enough.

I think that Harris still misses the thrust of some of the points made by Carroll, and it's unfortunate that his initial responses to criticism were so impatient (especially referring to them as "stupidity" on Twitter ... for which, to his credit, he apologised). There's room to see good points on both sides, and the policy conclusions needn't differ.

Science?

At the same time, I don't really mind the concept of a "science" of morality. I'll qualify that later, but I don't see any clear boundary between science and philosophy anyway. Back in the eighteenth century the word "scientist" didn't even exist, but David Hume clearly thought he was engaged in a first comprehensive attempt at what we'd now call a science of morality, examining the subject from an empirical perspective - and you know what, he was right! It's not that he conducted experiments, but he laid a theoretical foundation based on the empirical knowledge available, and his foundation is still invaluable for those who want to build on it. Much modern moral philosophy and moral psychology does exactly that (though of course much of it is a program of resistance to Hume).

So, I'm not hung up about words such as "science". Nor am I bothered by the prospect that various kinds of empirical investigation may inform our decisions, including decisions about whether to criticise particular moral systems. What's more, I think we can make rational judgments about whether existing moral systems are "good" in much the way that we can make judgments about whether particular hammers are "good". A hammer is a good one if it's effective/efficient for its purpose. A moral system is good if it does what we want from moral systems as a class. Like hammers, moral systems can be replaced or improved.

Criticising moral systems

It follows that I agree with Harris that we can criticise various cultures' moral systems and their various prescriptions for human behaviour. In doing so, we don't need to find a way to deduce objectively binding "ought" statements from pure "is" statements that make no reference to affective attitudes (such as values and desires) or social institutions (such as codes of ethics). I don't believe that can be done - here I agree with Carroll, if not for precisely the same reasons - and I think Harris got off on the wrong foot at TED in trying to do so (and claiming that certain dubious metaethical claims were "obvious"). Carroll was correct to pull him up on it, and those of us who dissected the specific arguments were similarly justified.

But Harris doesn't actually need to make an unheralded breakthrough in metaethics to establish his main point about the possibility and desirability of criticising moral systems. If those moral systems are harmful to human wellbeing ... then criticise them for it! I think hammers exist to drive nails and that it's approximately correct to say that moral systems exist to conduce to human wellbeing and, to some extent, the wellbeing of other sentient creatures.

To repeat an earlier post, I agree with Harris that:

1. We can criticise the moral codes, cultural practices, etc., of other cultures (or, if it comes to that, our own).

2. When we do so, our criticisms need not be arbitrary, idiosyncratic, or unreasonable. On the contrary, they may be perfectly reasonable, non-arbitrary, and inter-subjectively justifiable.

3. Many people take a contrary view, often reflected in public policy. That's wrong and dangerous.

Some disagreement

Here's a sketch of where I think Harris is still getting things somewhat wrong. He concedes the main point that critics have been making when he says: "Of course, goals and conceptual definitions matter." That alone is enough to establish that he's not an extreme objectivist about morality, even if he thinks he is (since he doesn't want to use academic philosophical language, and is rather scornful of it, it's difficult to be sure where he stands on some metaethical points).

But he seems to think this is a relatively trivial problem. It isn't. Our goals when we use a hammer are usually uncontroversial - we (usually) want our hammer to drive nails into wood. By contrast, the goals of morality are much more controversial, the controversy goes very deep, and we have no decision procedure that has any prospect of producing universal convergence among philosophers, let alone all the people who reject a reason-based approach to morality.

In both his TED talk and his new article, Harris says that something similar applies to medicine. I.e., there is no total, final, uncontroversial agreement about what we're trying to achieve when we practice medicine, but we still do so in the real world without any great problem.

Good point. But actually, if Harris were deeply immersed in bioethics he'd realise that it's not so simple. In medicine, there are many marginal cases where deeply contested values come into play and it's not clear what we should do (or how we can ever get unanimity about the relevant values). What can be said about medicine is not that its goals are uncontroversial; its purpose is certainly not as clear-cut and uncontroversial as the purpose of an ordinary tool like a hammer. However, the goals of medicine are much less controversial than those of morality. We can define "health" with enough precision and agreement to get by in most circumstances. There are lurking difficulties for doctors, and they sometimes affect public policy, but surely they're not at issue in the majority of doctor-patient interactions.

Likewise with science. Its purpose, I suppose, is to develop well-evidenced and robust theories about the mechanisms or workings of the natural world - or something of the sort (I'm open to better formulations). This purpose could be contested, however, by someone who considers it futile, or impious, or counterproductive to ... yes ... human wellbeing. What we can say is that there's not all that much dispute about the purpose of science, or about the idea that pursuing it is a good thing to do (even if the "good" here represents a moral evalution, it can be an evaluation from one of the less-contested parts of morality relating to the desirabity of finding out about the world). However, there is some dispute, even if not enough to cause much difficulty with the everyday practice of science. Then again, it causes quite a bit of difficulty in some areas, most notably in biomedical research (which is a different practice from medicine).

What is morality for?

Morality is at the other end of the scale from hammers. There's an enormous amount of disagreement about what we're trying to achieve, and whether we're trying to achieve anything at all beyond, say, applying moral truths revealed by a prophet or a god. We can ask, "What is morality actually for?" ... And we'll get many different answers, including from people who say it's not "for" anything: we just do have an obligation to act in certain ways and not act in others.

There's so much disagreement that most of the intellectually rigorous discussion of morality that's available relates to foundational issues: issues of purposes or goals or definitions. There's certainly a field within philosophy that gets on with proposing the details of what we should be doing, how we should be living our lives, etc. I.e. there's the field of applied ethics. However, morality is far more controversial as a practice than medicine or science, because it's far less clear that the values built into its foundations are acceptable or even roughly agreed. Indeed, people who "do" applied ethics often disagree with each other about fundamentals in a way that is not so much the case with people who practice medicine and carry out scientific research.

Unfortunately, we are nowhere near to having the sort of general agreement as to the goals of, well, moralising, if you will, that we do with practising medicine or science. So it's no use arguing:

P1. The ultimate goals of medicine and science are contestable
P2. We can practice medicine and science with no terrible difficulty.
C. We can, with no terrible difficulty, practice anything whose ultimate goals are contestable.
Hence, we can, with no terrible difficulty, practice a "science of morality".

The correct conclusion, at "C.", is that we can, with no terrible difficulty, practice some things whose ultimate goals are contestable. As far as this argument goes, whether morality is one of those things is left as an open question. It really depends on just how much debate there is about a practice's ultimate goals, and how this pans out in practice. Unfortunately, the ultimate goals of morality are so controversial, and so disputed at such a deep level, that it's not surprising when much of what goes on in moral philosophy relates to trying to get agreement on the ultimate goals.

Conclusion

As it happens, I think that the goals of morality - or at least the point of the practice that we can ascribe to it - relate to a complex of human needs, interests, widespread desires and values, etc. This is pretty vague, but that's the nature of it. Morality evolved with us, biologically and culturally: it's not something we literally and consciously invented, with a clear-cut purpose in mind. But we can ascribe such goals as social survival, amelioration of suffering, providing a framework within which lives can go well (by whatever standards!), and probably other things of that kind. I don't terribly mind these being summed up as "wellbeing" as long as it's acknowledged that that's more a placeholder for a lot of rather vague and contested stuff than a label for something with a meaningful metric. Perhaps there's a meaningful metric for pleasure, but no one seriously thinks that morality is just about pleasure or that this is what "wellbeing" means (none of which is to deprecate pleasure, by the way).

On the other hand, the situation is not so hopeless as to make criticism of existing moral systems impossible or undesirable. If morality has something to do with the sorts of things I identified in the previous para, we can criticise particular moralities that have taken on a life of their own and make a poor contribution to those things - or are even counterproductive to them. Nor is information that science obtains about the natural world (which, importantly, includes us) irrelevant. We can, for example, use that information in our attempts to ameliorate suffering. So, I think Harris's actual conclusions are correct: we can have a science of morality, or, rather, a scientifically-informed practice of morality, as medicine is a scientifically-informed practice; and we can (and should) critique existing moralities. Vulgar cultural relativism is untenable and misleading, and we should put it behind us.

But his program won't be as straightforward as he makes it sound. Its aims and criteria will always be more deeply and pervasively controversial than those of science or medicine.

But again, Harris is mainly an activist, not an academic philosopher. I don't mind if he deals in approximations and simplifications. For that reason, among others, I've supported the broad thrust of what he's saying from the start. On the other hand, he shouldn't get tetchy when others want to question some of the details. Activism is important, and it requires the use of approximations. But intellectually rigorous debate is also important and shouldn't be seen as just a nuisance or a distraction.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Death of Ronnie James Dio

Terrible news - Dio had been suffering stomach cancer for some time, but last I'd read it was said to be in remission.

There's another of the gods of rock 'n' roll lost to us, though at least he made it to a, well, sort of reasonable age, 67. Of course, that's still far too young. I was privileged to see him perform live on two occasions, once back in the '80s, when he was touring with his own band, and again very recently when he was fronting the reunited Dio-era version of Black Sabbath (officially known as Heaven and Hell). Even in his sixties, Ronnie James Dio was an exciting performer and still the quintessential heavy metal vocalist. I'm so glad I had the opportunities to attend his performances.

My sympathies to his loved ones.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Metaethical, neo-Humean limerick

While I'm getting around to a longer, time-consuming post, I'll dig out my famous metaethical, neo-Humean, hypothetical-imperative-explaining limerick:

Though an “is” alone won’t give support
To a value, a norm, or an “ought”,
If you mix on the fire
Both belief and desire,
You’ll get thought of an “ought” of a sort.

"If I had a hammer ..."

Speaking of nailing things down, say I reach into my toolbox, down in the garage, and produce a hammer, which I offer to my friend X. X needs it to drive nails because, I dunno, maybe she wants to build a table or to hang some stuff on her walls at home. "This is a good hammer," I assure her (maybe her own hammer was broken, or something).

Consider the word good.

Following J.L. Mackie and other philosophers, I'm going to say that this word means something like "effective for the purpose in question between me and my friend". I.e., it's effective for the purpose of driving nails into wood. It gets its effectiveness from such things as the weight and hardness of its head, the sturdiness of its construction (the head won't break off when my friend uses it to strike a nail), maybe something about its balance. Somebody who knows a lot about hammers could doubtless assess mine on the basis of such properties and tell me whether I really have a "good" hammer. There can be an entire science (or at least an engineering discipline) of hammer design.

Still, its goodness as a hammer is ultimately about whether it's effective in doing the job of driving nails.

In other words, we assess whether this is a "good" hammer or a "not so good" hammer relative to a standard: the standard of effectiveness in driving nails. In that innocuous sense, judgments about hammers are relative.

It would be crazy to assess this hammer relative to some other standard, such as its ability to catch mice or mop the floor. (If it were a warhammer, we'd have a different standard.) In the circumstances, my friend and I know what we want from my hammer. The standard we use is not arbitrary or idiosyncratic. And I can't make the hammer a good one just by thinking about it.

However, note this point: the standard we use for judging the goodness of hammers relates to the needs, interests, desires, etc., of beings that possess subjectivity, in this case, all the human beings who need (if they are to fulfil their perfectly understandable goals) tools that are effective in driving nails. In that innocuous sense, goodness-of-hammers talk is subjective.

All of us, always, live in a social world that is awash with the needs, purposes, goals, desires, values - affective attitudes, in short - of human subjects like ourselves. Philosophers' thought experiments about other minds aside, there's nothing odd or mysterious about this. We swim in human society like a fish swims in water. Well, not exactly like that ... but you get my drift.

Notice, though, getting back to the hammer, that it really does have the properties - the hardness, weight, sturdiness, balance, etc. - that make it effective for driving nails. If all human beings suddenly vanished, it would still have those properties. We can be total realists about these properties of hammers, including the functional property "effective for driving nails" (to be even more specific: it is effective for driving nails when used by an adult human being of ordinary strength, not so effective when used by an alligator or an octopus). What we can't do is claim that the "goodness" of the hammer is divorced from all human subjectivity.

And yet, to repeat, our judgments about hammers are typically not arbitrary or idiosyncratic or unreasonable. We can, quite rationally and non-arbitrarily and for reasons that could be provided to others (who'd understand them), decide to discard one particular hammer and choose a different one. Or we could get our existing hammer fixed with a new handle, if that's what's needed. We are not made for hammers; hammers are made for us.

What if someone, let's call him "Y", picks out a strange-looking tool and says, "This is a good tool!"

In reply, I ask, "Good for what? Driving nails? Sawing wood? Drilling holes? Turning screws?"

"No," Y says, "you miss the point. It just is a good tool."

"What?"

"It's a good tool. It has the property of being good."

"Yeah, but for what?"

"It's not good by a standard," he says scornfully. "And its goodness has nothing to do with anyone's goals or needs or desires, or anything like that. It's good in a way that transcends such things. It just is good. All tools should be like this tool, but not because that would make them more effective at filling any need or purpose that anyone might want a tool for."

After a few iterations of this, I am none the wiser about what this tool might be effective for or how its use relates to any human desire or purpose or goal or anything like that. I'm not confident that the damn thing is any use to man, woman, beast, or tentacled alien.

Y keeps insisting that this is all irrelevant. It just is a good tool, he argues. Why don't I "get" it? It has this OBJECTIVE PROPERTY of goodness that has nothing to do with what people might want to use tools for. Its goodness does not relate in any way to any of the stuff I want to talk about.

Frankly, I think Y is deluded. I hope that Sam Harris agrees with me.

Societies' codes of morality (and their individual moral rules), are like hammers. Discuss.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A science of morality?

I've finally read the piece by Sam Harris that appeared nearly a week ago in The Huffington Post. It's complex, difficult, and impossible to discuss properly in a short post. When I get a chance, I'm planning to give as full a response as I can, but I'm thinking of doing so over at Sentient Developments, where I may get a larger audience; the issues are important enough to look for the biggest audience possible. (The only worry is that Sentient Developments seems to be having an hiatus at the moment; so maybe, but maybe not.)

Don't worry, if I post there I'll also link from this blog. Either way, you won't miss it.

I still have a lot of quibbles with Harris, although I think this new piece is an improvement on his earlier presentations of the argument. I should also say that I agree with the main conclusions if they're formulated something like this:

1. We can criticise the moral codes, cultural practices, etc., of other cultures (or, if it comes to that, our own).

2. When we do so, our criticisms need not be arbitrary, idiosyncratic, or unreasonable. On the contrary, they may be perfectly reasonable, non-arbitrary, and inter-subjectively justifiable.

3. Many people take a contrary view, often reflected in public policy. That's wrong and dangerous.

Put another way, the main conclusion is that we should (this can be a "should" of practical rationality if you're worried about moral "shoulds") resist the temptation of various kinds of vulgar moral relativism that have become popular and seem to encourage an undesirable quietism.

Again, I agree with this conclusion if it's put that way. Indeed, I'm tempted to say that disagreement would be irrational. :)

However, all this can be supported with cogent arguments without making grand claims about deriving values solely from facts, oughts solely from is's (with no reference to such things as social institutions or affective attitudes), and so on. Indeed, Harris does exactly that in The End of Faith. He made some wild-sounding claims in his TED talk, but he now seems to have dropped these.

Nonetheless, some of the arguments and formulations in the Huffington Post essay still seem to me to be going down the wrong track. I care - partly because I have a professional interest in this: my PhD thesis, as submitted and approved, does not go into metaethical points, because I ripped all that stuff out as opening too many additional cans of worms; but a lot of my actual research, which found its way into chapters of the initial draft of the thesis involved precisely these sorts of metaethical issues. I've spoken about them at philosophical conferences and seminars in the past, and will do so again at this year's AAP conference. I've also touched on them in published articles.

Apart from my professional interest, I think it's important to get these points right. Even if we all agree with Harris's conclusions - at least the way I've formulated them above - we need to have our arguments in the most precise and cogent form we can find, and to have a clear sense of what the counter-arguments would be. I also think that the approach Harris takes leads him to miss an important conclusion: moralities are made for us, not us for them, and they can be changed to suit our purposes. He probably agrees with this, but if so he never spells it out clearly.

So, I'm going to put in some effort to nail this down further. Soon. Not now, but soon.

Steve Zara on banning the burka

This is a nice post on a subject that creates passions on all sides of the argument. Go and have a look, and maybe give Steve your comments. I'm basically in agreement with his points, and I've never favoured banning the burka, much as I dislike it for a whole range of reasons. Also, there's a difference between not banning it and giving it special accommodation in our society: there may well be reasons to be tougher on regulating where it can be worn. For example, nobody should be allowed to give evidence in court in garments that hide their faces or conceal their body language. Nor should anyone expect to get a job interview in such clothing. In these and many other cases, other people absolutely have to be able to judge demeanour.

Anyway, I've posted on this before. It's Steve's turn to provide a forum for the issue.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

For someone who's supposed to be on a blog break ...

... I've been fairly prolific lately. But the (relative) blog break continues. I'm currently working on the first three chapters of the intended book. I got the last of them into reasonably complete form and good shape yesterday. Am now doing layers of revision and work on the scholarly apparatus. I'm also trying to write a completely unrelated paper in my head for the AAP conference, and likewise for a talk (more related to the book) for my impending Sunshine Coast trip. So ... pretty flat out just now.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"Reason Makes a Difference"

I urge my Australian readers (and others, if interested) to look at the new Reason Makes a Difference site, which attempts to inject a reason-based approach into grassroots political lobbying here in Australia. It's at an early stage yet, but I expect that its campaigns will appeal to many secular people ... and probably to many reasonable religious people as well.

Its first and current campaign relates to the trial of secular ethics classes as an alternative to taxpayer-funded religious education in NSW state primary schools. (In case you're wondering it's in favour of the trial ... while the Sydney churches have come out strongly against it.) You might be persuaded to support this campaign (there's a link to help you email NSW politicians about the issue).

Reason Makes a Difference has chosen as its philosophical basis a declaration made by the International Ethical and Humanist Union back in 2002. I can quibble about almost any such declaration or manifesto, but I have no significant problems with this one, which also has the virtue of brevity ... and it's not like we're being asked to sign our names to it.

Do have a look. This site could provide a great contribution to public debate.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Will people please stop commenting as "Anonymous"?

This has caused confusion before, and it's happening again. We get more than one commenter who can't quickly be told apart. Please try to establish some sort of identity. If necessary, sign your posts.

If you comment as "Anonymous" there's a danger your comments will be deleted. That's not necessarily because I'm out to get you. It might simply be that I've mistaken you for someone else. Sometimes we get more than one person commenting as "Anonymous" on the same thread, and there's at least one "Anonymous" who is banned from this blog. If I mistake your comments for one of his/hers - and I can only make the judgment on the basis of style, obsessions, and the like - it will go.

Yes, Rob, I'm talking to you. Your comments are welcome, and you sometimes sign them so I can see it's you ... but if I'm not sure it's a comment by you, it can be vulnerable to purges. The same applies to everyone who uses "Anonymous". Establish some sort of identity, which obviously needn't be your real-life one, or risk losing comments.

Polish singer could be jailed for "blasphemy"

Over at Paliban Daily, it's reported that Polish pop singer Doda (Dorota Rabczewska) has been accused of blasphemy.

To be sure, I can't tell from the post whether she faces any formal charges - the accusations come from the leader of a religious organisation called "the Committee for the Defence Against Sects". However, Wikipedia seems to think that charges have been actually laid, based on this brief Telegraph article. Charges were also laid earlier this year against her fiancee, Adam "Nergal" Darski — lead singer for the heavy metal band Behemoth. He was charged with blasphemy for destroying a Bible during a stage performance two years ago, after calling the Catholic Church "the most murderous cult on the planet".

Doda's own self-expression was rather mild by comparison. Apparently she said, in an interview, that she found it easier to believe in dinosaurs than the Bible - adding: "it is hard to believe in something written by people who drank too much wine and smoked herbal cigarettes."

Regardless of the merits of what Doda and Nergal may have said or done to express their anti-religious attitudes (and I'm not at all convinced by Doda's herbal cigarette theory!), they should have freedom of speech and expression. Unfortunately, blasphemy is no laughing matter in Poland, where it carries a possible sentence of two years' imprisonment.

I do disagree with one thing in the Paliban post, though. It concludes:

Blasphemy laws are an offense to anyone who values liberty and intellectual freedom. They are a tool used by religious fundamentalists to silence nonbelievers. Fundamentalists of different religions do not use the laws to silence one another (such as Christians vs. Islamists); no, they are used solely against the secularist. Maybe it’s time for the secularists to start suing the religionists!

Not quite so. Experience here in Australia shows that believers are sometimes quite happy to sue each other, as well, over speech issues ... if the law provides a mechanism for it. The repeal of blasphemy laws is an issue for everyone, whether you are a religious believer or not. It's not just about believers versus non-believers. It's about freedom of speech.

H/T Damien Broderick.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

More on Deveny and Irwin

One of my (female) Facebook friends made two points in commenting over on Facebook. 1. In her opinion, Bindi Irwin's outfit at the Logies was not all that sexual or necessarily inapppropriate for an 11-y.o. girl. 2. In her opinion, Deveny meant something more like (this is my paraphrase, not her wording), "Bindi Irwin looks so uptight. She oughtta go and get laid."

There are a few points to be made here. First, I can't find a photo of Bindi Irwin at the 2010 Logie Awards, so I can't provide a link to enable you to judge for yourselves. But I do think point 1. is plausible. What is hyper-sexualisation of children in Deveny's eyes might be harmless dress-ups in someone else's eyes. I actually do think there's too much moral panic on the Left about this issue of sexualisation of children. A lot of what gets damned by Lefty thinkers like Clive Hamilton strikes me as fairly harmless (though sometimes absurd, as when little girls are given padded bras). I also think that some of it is probably not so harmless. These are matters of judgment, and we could have an interesting discussion about any particular case.

But whichever side of the line Bindi Irwin's outfit falls on, and whether or not Deveny is jumping at shadows in this case, I see Deveny as belonging to the movement on the Left that is currently very jumpy about this issue of sexualisation. So that provides me with a context to read her in a certain way.

It's not a conclusive point, but it's a point.

Second, if Deveny had actually meant what my friend suggests, I think there would have been more natural and sufficiently pithy ways to express it, such as, "Bindi Irwin needs to get laid."

Third, if Deveny actually meant what my friend suggests, that would, indeed, be an outrageous thing to say about a pre-pubesecent child. Even I, one of the most sexually libertarian people you'll find, would be outraged.

Now, Deveny does say many outrageous things. Her other comment that got her into trouble was certainly outrageous, however interpreted, so she's not inhibited. But her more usual schtick is to say things that would outrage Christians, especially Catholics, as with her frequent claims to masturbate using a crucifix (again, claims which I assume are to be given a non-literal meaning such as: "I am contemptuous of the Catholic Church and its anti-sex ideology"). It would be out of character for her to make a comment so guaranteed to outrage people who share her social and political positions. So, knowing Deveny's modus operandi, I find the interpretation offered by my friend implausible. Possible, but implausible.

Fourth, for all that ... maybe my friend is right and I am wrong. I don't claim infallibility, I welcome intelligent discussion of the issue, and she has provided it.

Moreover, fifth, if she's right, then the outcry against Deveny is more justified. I feel slightly icky even spelling out the proposed interpretation. Being the person to say such a thing in the first place is a bit hard for me to comprehend.

But sixth, not only do I think what I think, for the reasons in this post and the previous one. I am also quite confident about what I think. Open to argument, but confident.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Tone ... and Deveny

This is adapted from my latest comment on the "tone" thread, after someone asked me for an example of talking about tone intelligently. I may as well paste a version here, as the comment got quite long.

First, let me say again that the tone of a passage is not relevant to the formal cogency of its arguments. Someone who confuses the two things is not discussing tone intelligently.

But think about Catherine Deveny recently being sacked from her column with The Age for saying, on Twitter, "I hope Bindi Irwin gets laid." (She also made another remark that contributed to her sacking. That's not relevant to my point, and I confess that I find it harder to put a charitable interpretation on the other example.)

Now, there are lots of things that might be said about Deveny's now-notorious tweet. E.g., it might be said that it was unfairly picking on, or making fun of, an 11-y.o. girl. We could discuss that separately, and I think there's a bit to say on both sides. But what can't be said, by someone with an intelligent sense of tone, and language more generally, is that Deveny literally meant that she hoped 11-y.o. Bindi Irwin would have sexual intercourse with someone after the Logie Awards.

To understand the tweet you had to model the assumptions the speaker twitterer (tweeter?) was making about her audience. She was addressing her Twitter followers as people who'd be alert to a non-literal, satirical meaning, to a pithy way of articulating a point that would take a long time to nail down in expository prose, to a mordant wit, etc. The remark was a joke, but also a particular kind of joke.

You have to imagine sitting watching the TV with Deveny, or sitting at the table with her at the Logies, as she makes a whole series of mordantly humorous, vaguely snarky comments. Then a famous 11-y.o. girl walks past wearing a sexy "glamour" outfit. You both, perhaps, share the idea that such outfits are not appropriate for girls that young. In any event, you're certainly both aware of the issue. Deveny looks at you in a certain way, and says, drily, somewhat disapprovingly, "I hope Bindi Irwin gets laid." Perhaps she reinforces the effect by rolling her eyes or giving a quick, meaningful glance in the girl's direction.

As a result, what she really communicates is a sort of half-amused, half-despairing disgust that such a young girl has been dressed up in such sexy clothes. It's almost as if someone has styled and clothed this sub-adolescent female person to display herself to potential sexual partners. Or so Deveny insinuates.

People who didn't "get it" have accused people who are trying to explain the above of merely rationalising, but I don't think that's remotely true. We're explaining the message that anyone reading Deveny's twitter feed, with the context of the Logies and a knowledge of Deveny's modus operandi and what was going on, would have picked up.

The way she expressed the message doesn't make her argument against what she sees as the outrageous sexualisation of an 11-y.o. girl either more or less cogent. But the way she said it drove home her point that there was, as she perceived the situation, something ridiculous, and something creepy, about putting clothes like that on someone so young. So there was a reason to say it the way she did (she was, of course, also restricted to 140 keystrokes).

Furthermore, in the aftermath of her sacking, the debate about whether she said something that was a sackable offence, etc., its's a good idea to have an intelligent understanding of what she was communicating and why she said it in the way she did. Many of the people baying for her blood either lack this or are being disingenuous.

Of course, Deveny didn't think all this through consciously at the time. It would have seemed a natural way for her to make her point. As we all do, she has a kind of tonal repertoire that she calls on more-or-less automatically. Nor did people who "got" it have to think all this through consciously as they read their Twitter feeds. But we can't now have an intelligent discussion of what she meant, whether she was justified in putting it that way, and so on, without being able to think through and talk about tone and related aspects of language in use in social contexts.

So yes, I want us to be able to discuss tone with some sensitivity and intelligence. I think that judgments about tone can be important. That doesn't mean I'm with the gang who attack every author they dislike for allegedly taking a hostile tone ... rather than discussing the cogency of the authors' arguments. But it does mean that there are many ways, in many contexts, where tone matters, and we should be willing and able to discuss it.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Forthcoming gig on the Sunshine Coast

For the full info, go here. The short version of the story is that I'll be speaking at Embiggen Books, in Noosaville, on the topic, "Voices of Disbelief, and Why We Need Them." I'll place 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists in the perspective of the continuing culture wars, and in the historical perspective of religious moralism and intolerance through the ages.

When? Saturday afternoon, 22 May.

Where? Embiggen Books, 4/205 Weyba Rd, Noosaville, Queensland.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Tone. Need I say more?

The tone of a passage of text is part of the meaning that it conveys. That's about the first thing you learn in English 101, and it's the reason why tone is important. As a one-time English lit. teacher, I wince every time I see the suggestion - usually from commenters in the blogosphere, not so much in actual blog posts - that tone just doesn't matter. It really does.

One of the things that people coming to university straight from high school have usually not picked up is the whole concept of tone, although it's not actually that difficult. It's analogous to the tone of voice that you adopt in oral communication, which conveys not just a lot of affective content, i.e. the emotions you are feeling, but also your attitude to the listener. Your tone may be conspiratorial, inviting the listener to plot and plan with you. It may suggest that the listener treat what you are saying as a joke, or as irony or sarcasm. It may communicate anger at the listener, or it may invite her to share your anger with a third party. It may suggest that you hold your listeners in contempt, or that you respect them (even if you are disagreeing about something). It may express amusement or exultation, and invite a friend to join in. And so on. It's a very important part of communication.

In face-to-face communication, much of this is conveyed by literal tone of voice - which can be cashed out more reductively in terms such as volume, pitch, pacing, intonation and emphasis, and the like. Some of it is conveyed by facial expressions, another part by gestures/body language. All these combine to carry much information to the hearer about how you regard him or her, how you want your words to be taken, how you are encouraging him or her to feel or act. In many circumstances, this might even be more important than the literal words, as they would appear if transcribed (if I am speaking to someone I love, the most important message of all for her to understand may well be that I'm speaking to her lovingly).

Of course, literal tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures/body language are all missing in written communications. However, skilled users of the language (whichever language it is) are able to convey much the same information through register, vocabulary, prose rhythms, and style. Skilled readers are able to use these cues to pick up the information, some of which may be quite subtle (sometimes so subtle that two equally skilled readers may disagree as to what actually is being conveyed ... and sometimes that's because of deliberate ambiguity on the part of the writer).

Unfortunately, some writers and some readers are much more skilled at this than others. In a standard English literature course, you will invariably encounter writers who are masters at it. But students are not always masters - if you actually teach literature, press for detailed responses to a passage of prose or verse, and maybe mark essays, you'll discover that a lot of otherwise-intelligent people are not all that good at picking up on the tone even of relatively simple texts, especially if these are from earlier historical eras. Talking about these aspects intelligently is not easy at all; and most people, when they can, avoid saying anything too detailed.

Much of what goes on in a university Eng. lit. course is all about reading complex texts, trying to develop some sensitivity to the less literal apects of what they convey, and learning to write about this intelligently, and to debate it. (Lit. students please take note.) There are real skills to be learned here, and I bristle at the notion that it's all bullshit, or that this kind of literary training imparts nothing of substance. It imparts a great deal of knowledge, and it opens up capacities for understanding and enjoyment of our heritage of drama, poetry, and prose narrative. Not to mention a heightened sensitivity to elements of everyday communication.

So, forgive me when I'm unamused each time that I read something about how tone is unimportant, or that comments about tone are ipso facto beside the point, or that they're some kind of mumbo jumbo. Some kind of fraud. That's not the case at all.

Of course, there may well be a sense in which, in a particular context, tone does not matter. If I offer a formal argument for some proposition, complete with premises and conclusion, it doesn't matter if I adopt language (or, in a face-to-face discussion, provide other cues) that suggests I think you're a fool. No, that's wrong. It does matter, perhaps in more than one respect, that I'm conveying information about what I think of you ... but it doesn't matter in this respect: It Doesn't Affect The Cogency Of My Argument.

If someone complains about the tone of one of my posts, I am entitled to respond that this goes nowhere towards showing that any argument in my post lacks cogency, or that any conclusion I've drawn is false. And yet, I took the tone that I did for a reason. My choice of vocabulary, my prose rhythms, and so on - all the elements that add up to "tone" - are conveying something important about how I feel about my readers, how I'm inviting them to think or feel about others (or themselves) and so on. The tone I chose to adopt will have consequences: some people may be amused, others may be hurt; the general tone of a larger cultural conversation in which I'm involved will be affected to some degree, perhaps making it easier for people to get along, perhaps making it harder; particular third parties may be affected if I've managed to insinuate certain attitudes towards them.

The tone that people take with each other, and their perceptions of tone, are not trivial. They can make or break relationships.

For these sorts of reasons, intelligent discussion of tone is always in order. The problem is likely to be that a lot of discussion of tone is just not very intelligent - how many reviews of The God Delusion have you read that show a tin ear for Dawkins' control of tone? Many reviews don't show any sensitivity at all for the varied tones: the humour; the quiet thoughtfulness and introspection; or the comical intoxication with language itself in Dawkins' famous denunciation of the Old Testament deity. Generally speaking, the reviewers just don't "get" it. But the cure for that isn't less discussion of Dawkins' tone; it's more intelligent discussion of Dawkins' tone. A hackneyed adjective such as "strident" doesn't cut the mustard.

To say that intelligent discussion of tone is always in order is not to accept that the tone of political, scientific, or philosophical discussion should always be calm and respectful. There's plenty of room for passion, mockery, and outright denunciation. Not all the time, perhaps, but in their place. Some things deserve to be denounced or mocked, and sometimes it's necessary to use these elements of language to bring home the essential implausibility or even absurdity of a position. Someone who can adjust forever to logical arguments, in the process moving to a wildly implausible but internally consistent position - may well be shaken into seeing how the whole thing looks from the outside.

Complaints about tone can be misguided, as in this link, and they sometimes seem like attempts to evade other matters to do with the cogency of arguments or the correctness (or plausibility) of conclusions. But again, discussions of tone should not written off as automatically illegitimate or intellectually bogus. Rather, the point is to insist that discussions of tone be intelligent and that judgments about tone be relevant to matters at hand.

If, for example, you think the widespread adoption of a particular kind of tone - say, a denunciatory or mocking tone - is poisoning debate ... well, you need to show that this tone really is widespread, you need to be able to define the tone of your examples with some precision, you need to show the links between them that you claim to see, and perhaps much else. And you need to put your own plausible argument about why the effects you foresee will occur, as opposed to the effects that the writers concerned may have in mind.

Tone matters, but dumb complaints about tone are, as they say, Not Helping. They don't make progress.

If you want to talk about tone, go ahead, but try to say something intelligent about it.

Sean Carroll and PZ Myers on metaethics

Just quickly, let me jog your memory of debates we had a few weeks ago after Sam Harris gave a talk at TED, in which he raised issues about the objectivity of morality, the prospect of grounding it in science, and how you might derive "ought" from "is" (though most of the talk really seemed to be on the more plausible theme that science can inform morality).

Sean Carroll has now given a more definitive statement of his view, which criticises the Harris approach, and PZ Myers has responded, pretty much siding with Carroll. Both of these posts are worth your attention, and I agree with just about all of what they say.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Another Gerard Manley Hopkins error

Page 118 of James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. If you have the book to hand, see if you can spot the error.

"Tone does matter"

Discuss.

I'm planning to have something to say about this, as a one-time English literature teacher who does actually think that it's important to be sensitive to tone, and to be able to discuss matters of tone intelligently. But here's your chance to get in before me, if you want. I'll try to get back to the issue tomorrow.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The 1983 scientology case

I'm rereading/studying this famous High Court case from 1983 as research for The Book. At issue was whether Scientology is a religion, which meant that the judges had to grapple with the question: "What is a religion, for the purposes of the law?" Though three separate judgments were published, they are not wildly incompatible with each other. It's more a difference of emphasis. The analyses of the judges are well worth reading. All held that Scientology is a religion, contrary to the views of some other courts, but it's not so much the result that's useful now as the reasoning along the way. Justice Murphy's judgment is especially good (Edit: though maybe a bit too broad and pragmatic in how he eventually defines a religion).

Wordcount update

After five days (which included one day off), I've written over 12,000 words of material that's in not bad shape. Yay for me! But posts will still be thin on the ground, and rather short, for a while.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

British employment law case on religious discrimination

Full (rather concise) judgment here.

US Supreme Court - cross is now a secular symbol

The US Supreme court, by a 5-4 majority, has held that it is okay for the government to use a cross as a "secular" symbol in the context of a war memorial. In that context, the cross is now de-Christianised, according to the majority, so no question of separation of church and state arises.

This will not please American secularists, and who can blame them? It gives the government much more authority to spray the landscape with Christian symbols, and of course many Americans don't read the cross as merely a secular symbol of the deaths caused by war. Thus, Derek Araujo at the CFI says: “This endorsement of a sectarian religious symbol for purportedly non-religious purposes should disturb religious and secular Americans alike.”

Well, yes. Quite right. But that's the way a lot of these cases are now going to be decided, by de-Christianising the Christian symbols and interpreting them as "just ceremonial deism" or even as symbols that have, in context, taken on a secular meaning. Once you do that, you can avoid some of the hard questions about separation of church and state, because you assert that such-and-such a Christian symbol or practice is no longer "the church", but now has some non-religious meaning in American culture.

I'll cop some reaction to this, but I actually think the position was pretty arguable in the particular case. I don't know how things stand in the part of California where the cross was set up, but here in Australia a cross really might be interpreted, at least to some extent, as a secular symbol if it were connected with memoralialising the sacrifices involved in war. To some extent, the meaning has segued from a specifically Christian thing to a more ambiguous thing as a result of our exposure to countless images of crosses on war graves ... in contexts where all the emphasis is on the horror of war, and none is on religion. So, I could actually live with the outcome of this litigation, at least if it were viewed as an isolated development.

The bitter pill to swallow will be when (and if) the Supreme Court upholds the National Prayer Day legislation, which is blatantly and unambiguously religious. The case is a long way from reaching Supreme Court level, but surely it will. I can see no plausible legal basis to save National Prayer Day, but when you count judges ... well, there's four unequivocally conservative judges plus Justice Kennedy. If they vote as expected, the law will change. With Justice O'Connor gone, the balance of the bench has altered considerably, leaving Justice Kennedy as the only swing judge. Kennedy will sometimes vote against the government in cases like this, but only if he sees something at least mildly coercive. Given his previously-expressed views, the law in the US will soon allow a lot more non-coercive endorsement of religion by the government. That's where all this is heading, and it's not a good destination.