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

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Aussies, what would it take for Julia Gillard to clinch your vote?

Roll up here and tell us. Unfortunately, there are signs that she is going to be rather cautious about moving away from existing Labor positions. That's understandable, I suppose. In her shoes, I would be cautious too. With the election about two months away (I'd guess), this is not a time to start looking crazy-brave. She's a realistic politician, and I respect that. Still, it's disappointing to see her expressing conservative views on topics such as gay marriage.

In my case, the real vote clincher would be some suitably strong signal that she's going to back away from additional censorship of the Internet. The Conroy-Rudd approach is dangerous at so many levels, and this is a symbolic move that she could make with little backlash. Numerous people out here in the electorate would be applauding like crazy.

How about it, Prime Minister?

Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life

No one is being asked to sign this, which is just as well - I am reticent about signing things drafted by others. Still, I wouldn't have too many quibbles about this one, and it's a great document for discussion. (I can think of at least a couple of quibbles, off-hand, and maybe there'd be more if I really thought it through. But they're not huge, and and as with other such documents I'm not posting it for the sake of my quibbles but for info and discussion.)

H/T PZ Myers

=========================
The recent Gods and Politics conference in Copenhagen adopted the following Declaration on Religion in Public Life. The conference was the first European event of Atheist Alliance International, and was co-hosted by AAI and the Danish Atheist Society.

We, at the World Atheist Conference: “Gods and Politics”, held in Copenhagen from 18 to 20 June 2010, hereby declare as follows:

•We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.
•We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.
•We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.
•We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.
•We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.
•We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.
•We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.
•We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.
•We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation.
•We reject any special consideration for religion in politics and public life, and oppose charitable, tax-free status and state grants for the promotion of any religion as inimical to the interests of non-believers and those of other faiths. We oppose state funding for faith schools.
•We support the right to secular education, and assert the need for education in critical thinking and the distinction between faith and reason as a guide to knowledge, and in the diversity of religious beliefs. We support the spirit of free inquiry and the teaching of science free from religious interference, and are opposed to indoctrination, religious or otherwise.
Adopted by the conference, Copenhagen, 20 June 2010.

Please circulate this as widely as you can among people and groups who advocate a secular society.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pretending to be the victim

Here's the final post made at You're Not Helping. Here we see this dishonest little anonymous coward, this person who hid in the long grass and lied and lied about himself and everyone else, actually claiming to be the victim!

Of course we still don't know whether the information given even in the final post is true. That's the thing about fakes: once they are known to be fakes, you never know whether to believe anything they say.

Obviously there are more lessons here than just the one about dangers inherent in anonymity, but that one is a pretty good start.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Death of a blog

The You're Not Helping blog used to be here. The anonymous coward who ran it has evidently removed it, or at least stopped it and put it behind a wall, or something, after admitting that he is one person (not several as claimed), entirely male (not a mix of male and female as claimed), and based in a different place from where he claimed. He also admits that a number of the frequent commenters there, among his cheer squad, were sockpuppets. How embarrassing.

The blog I'm talking about started out looking like it might be, well, helping. It proposed to be a balanced, fair, civil, analytical commentary on the on-going accommodationism debates as they unfolded. It would, we were assured, criticise both sides where merited. At first, it looked as if it might operate like that. There was definitely a legitimate place for such a blog.

But over time it degenerated into vendettas against individuals, unmerited accusations of dishonesty, crazy theories about the wrongs committed by "New Atheists", misrepresentations of views and arguments, and a tone of near-hysterical hostility towards various individuals (most notably, but not solely, Ophelia Benson).

Well, it's gone.

One lesson to draw is about anonymous cowardice. Now, I totally understand that many people need to use pseudonyms so they can express or explore unpopular ideas, or frequent odd nooks and crannies of the internet, or engage in a certain amount of robust interaction with others - none of which might look good to straightlaced current or potential employers (or family members, potential lovers, or whatever). That's fine. Anonymity and pseudonymity have their place. In an oppressive society, they may be very needed - though not so much if you live in Australia or the US or some other Western liberal democracy.

Anyway, anonymity can have its legitimate uses. On balance, it's a reasonable precaution for most people in many situations on the net. But it can also be abused. If you use it to defame real, identifiable people who do not possess vast political power but do have real reputations, families, employers, etc., to worry about, then be careful you're not abusing the privilege of going invisible here on the interwebz. Even if you chose anonymity for a legitimate reason, you may be tempted to abuse it. That may not even be for your own good.

Some of us, like me, don't like using defamation law on principle (though there are limits .. since I think using defamation law is justified in some situations). But even if you're confident that you can exclude defamation law as a factor in what you say, there comes a point where you are simply abusing your anonymity to act like an arsehole. You don't get to use it to harm good, honest people in a way that you'd never do if you had to stand behind your words and take responsibility for them with your real identity.

I can't respect the use of anonymity for that purpose, and I'm glad to see the end of this dishonest blog. Oh, and so much for the moral superiority of accommodationists.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Oh no, those dogmatic atheists

Over at Blag Hag, Jen McCreight blogs about a panel at the recent conference Evolution 2010. One panel, which was devoted to the subject of communicating science, apparently turned into a fest of accommodationism, with warnings to the audience not to offend the religious by suggesting any tension between religion and evolutionary theory.

Now, of course, there are religious positions - such as a strict deism, but also some liberal positions - that do not conflict with science, at least not in any direct way. While I would argue for more subtle forms of incompatibility even between some of these positions and science, it really depends on just what positions we're talking about.

But that's not the big problem in the US if you want to defend science. The big problem is that a very large proportion of the American population buys into fundamentalist positions that are plainly incompatible with science (i.e. the incompatibility does not go by way of any kind of contestable philosophical-scientific argument). E.g., these people believe in a literal creation about 6000 years ago, in the tower of Babel and Noah's flood as historical events, and so on. No matter how hard we try, we can't cover up that at least those positions are rendered untenable by science.

Anyway, Jerry Coyne and Ophelia Benson are already blogging about the issue, in response to Jen's post. Good for all of them. I just want to home in on one point, elaborating something I said in a comment at Ophelia's place. Even my Christian friends should be able to agree with this.

It arises from Jen's report that:

The reason why people feel compelled to do this [back away from critiques of religion] is because religion holds a special status in our society where it can't be criticized, even when it's blatantly wrong. This really came out in the second part of the symposium, which was by a woman from AAAS (I unfortunately missed her name). She said there's no use in including creationists or atheists in the discussion because we're extremists who won't change our minds.

This is sheer stupidity. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there is some kind of spectrum of belief that runs from atheism to Christian (given the context) fundamentalism by way of various moderate and liberal religious positions. This is slightly odd because it's not at all clear what parameter is increasing or decreasing along the spectrum in the way that wavelength decreases as we go from red to violet. But let that pass - maybe we could think of it as a spectrum of decreasing trust in holy books or some such.

Granting that, then, occupying a position at the end of a spectrum of beliefs is completely orthogonal to occupying a position of greatest dogmatism about one's beliefs. In principle, the person in the middle of such a spectrum may turn out to be the most resistant to revising her position. I.e., a person who believes in God but denies biblical inerrancy may be every bit as dogmatically committed to her position as the person who believes in both and the person who denies both. She might be more so. After all, how many people who occupy such a position are really likely to become atheists when they hear the arguments for atheism? How many of them are really likely to embrace a position that the Bible is inerrant when they hear the arguments for that position?

Furthermore, even if this person is not dogmatically committed to her position but the other two (the atheist and the fundamentalist) are … so what? If I am open to changing my mind on some position that I hold, why does that make it less a good idea for me to talk to people with different but more strongly-held views? If I'm open to changing my mind, then presumably I am open to the idea that these other people have strong arguments that I ought to listen to. So why not hear the arguments? Why avoid dialogue?

As it happens, fundies do tend to be dogmatic. It's hard to get them to change their minds on anything. They'll perform extraordinary mental gymnastics to preserve their basic position, even though it is so plainly opposed to the core findings of modern science. But that degree of dogmatism has little or nothing to do with where they fall on the supposed spectrum of views. The dogmatism comes about partly because they have an integrated system of thought, and they are very resistant to giving up one part of it – the rest may then collapse! They tend to see themselves taking part in a narrative of history with more-or-less determinate dates for key events in humanity's relationship with God: the special creation of each individual kind of plant and animal; the fall of humanity from grace; the establishment of God's covenant with Abraham; the presentation of the Law to Moses; the sacrificial atonement for our sins when Jesus was crucified and resurrected; and an end time still to come, when Jesus will return in glory, leading up to a final apocalyptic war between good (God) and evil (Satan) in which good will prevail. If you remove any element from this, the whole structure is threatened.

By contrast, atheists, qua atheists, don’t commit to any integrated system of thought. Some atheists might, of course. Some may be committed to, say, a version of Marxism, and they may cling to this as dogmatically as any Christian fundamentalist clings to the Bible and the form of theology that I just sketched. But most atheists involved in the current religion/science debates are not like that: they have views that allow a lot of room for disagreements about the specifics. If they change their mind on one aspect, there's not likely to be a whole structure of thought that starts to totter. Thus, these sorts of atheists may be open to changing their minds on many things - including on just how pernicious or otherwise they think religion (or a certain kind of religion) is. They are most unlikely to resist well-established conclusions from the physical and biological sciences.

What about religious moderates and liberals? Some may not have closely-integrated thought systems, and so they may not feel that they must hang on to every point or else see their whole worldview come crashing down. But some may have such integrated systems of thought. There might well be some whose reason for maintaining religious belief at all depends on certain key ideas, and they might therefore be reluctant to give these up or even examine them critically.

Whether someone is locked in to an integrated system of thought that has little flexibility in its joints really does depend on what she actually thinks, rather than where she is on some spectrum of bible acceptance or scepticism. Yes, some atheists could have an emotional commitment to some total system of thought, and this might make them dogmatic, but that is not because they are (for example) less inclined than moderate or liberal Christians to take the Bible as authoritative.

I’m not suggesting that it’s only a matter of how integrated your system of thought might be. There may be other issues, such as just how emotionally invested you are in your system of thought and how much seems to be at stake. If you think that changing anything will put your spiritual salvation at risk, you may be more resistant to changing your thinking than if you merely fear discovering that you're wrong. Again, some atheists may be very heavily invested, emotionally, but so may some moderate and liberal believers. There's no reason to think that the latter are going to find it more easy to give up cherished ideas than anyone else. (Conversely, some atheists may not cherish atheism at all, but merely feel driven to it by logic and experience.)

There are many possibilities, but the idea that the people at the ends of the assumed spectrum must be more dogmatic than those in the middle is just wrong. If Christian fundamentalists are especially dogmatic it may be evidenced by their maintenance of a position in flagrant contradiction to science, and it may be caused by commitment to an integrated system of thought with little give, by their sense that the stakes are very high, and maybe by other factors (e.g. if they reached their position through childhood indoctrination). These factors may not apply so much to liberal and moderate Christians, but nor need they apply to atheists. Again, there is just no reason to think that the degree of someone's dogmatism will correlate directly with her distance from the centre of some alleged spectrum of viewpoints.

I feel that I'm labouring a point here. I'm spelling out something that should be obvious. But it looks like the above has to be said, coz someone has been around the corridors of the AAAS bopping people with the stupidity stick.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Jenny Blackford poem in Midnight Echo

"Mirror" appears in the current issue of Australian horror magazine Midnight Echo. As Jenny explains:

"This issue, edited by the formidable Lee Battersby, includes my first published poem since Dolly magazine published a poem of mine that had (quite separately) won the Hunter Valley Research Foundation Poetry Prize (for schoolkids). In both cases, I was 15 or 16. I rush to assure you all that the Midnight Echo poem was written much more recently. I'm glad that Lee apparently decided that I hadn't lost my poetry mojo."

Richard Carrier on defining naturalism

An interesting essay by Richard Carrier in Free Inquiry. The opening para reads:

What is naturalism? As a worldview distinct from any form of "supernaturalism," "naturalism" is the belief that nature is (probably) all there is, and nothing supernatural exists. Of course, the word naturalism can be used in other ways. In the art world, it means one thing; as a special term in epistemology, it means something else; and so on. But as a worldview, as a comprehensive picture of the nature and content of existence, naturalism is the converse of supernaturalism. What does that mean? Attempts to distinguish the "natural" from the "supernatural" often fail on basic requirements of coherence and utility. I predict that all successful attempts will reduce to this: naturalism is the view that everything mental is fundamentally nonmental. That sounds bizarre and unexpected, but it appears to be correct.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Accommodation watch

You might like to check this out if you didn't see Brian's comment on my previous post. It's a new blog specifically devoted to the accommodationism debate.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

What an historic day!

Julia Gillard 's rise to become Australia's 27th prime minister and first female prime minister is an extraordinary achievement. Now we wait to see how she'll perform in the role. I thought she made a damn good start in her interview on The 7.30 Report tonight - she handled Kerry O'Brien's sensationalist questions expertly. As far as I'm concerned at the moment, what matters is how she'll handle policy, not what may or may not have been said in private conversations between her and Kevin Rudd.

Meanwhile, in other news, the longest professional tennis match ever is currently taking place at Wimbledon! On any other day, that would have received first billing. Even on a day like today, the mind-boggling stats are worth a look.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Is torturing babies really, really wrong?

Or is it, as I argue, just really wrong? Find out the answers to all these questions and more at the Australasian Association of Philosophy annual conference at the University of New South Wales in a couple of weeks. The final conference program has just been published, and I guess I can start working out what sessions to attend (as well as writing my own paper, which I've been composing in my head for the last couple of months).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cumulus shaped spirituality

This comment by Eric MacDonald deserves to be spread around.

Sample:

One of the things that bothers me more than anything in the absurd assumption that is being made when people talk about the compatibility of religion and science is the sheer diversity, and, so often, perversity, of religious belief. Religions come in so many different shapes and sizes, that the claim that religion is consistent with science is almost certainly false for most religions and for most religious beliefs. If the claim is being made that practicing a kind of cumulus shaped spirituality, without any clear ontological commitments, is consistent with doing science, then, of course the answer is, yes, there is no problem. You can even do it and take an interest in collecting match boxes. But if the religious belief happens to be that someone, somewhere, has authority to speak in the name of a transcendent being for which there is no evidence, that this transcendent being speaks to and communes with, human beings, that it has made an appearance in various guises in the world, that it causes miracles to happen and bodies to rise, or brings luck and good fortune to the favoured, punishes the wicked (for any given religious definition of what that word mean ins its various religious iterations) and authorises outrageous immoralities and injustices in its name, then it is not compatible, and it fatuous to suggest otherwise.

Yes, a cumulus-shaped spirituality with no clear ontology to be seen is consistent with science, or it can be. But of course, that's not something the anti-accommodationist crew have ever denied. Eric makes the point well.

We're not saying that there can never be any logical consistency between science and a sufficiently thinned out (or amorphously shaped) sort of religion. As we've explained so often, that was never the point.

But most real-world religion has plenty of ontology in its diet, and a lot more substance than a cloud. You can't move from the sort-of acceptability of certain kinds of ontologically starved or fuzzy or nice religion (or the kindness and niceness of your local Anglican or Lutheran minister) to a stark claim that: "Religion and science are compatible." That's a pious hope or a marketing slogan. It's the fairyhouse of wishes, baby, not a truth about the world.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

What is the purpose of morality?

Over on the Center for Inquiry site, Ron Lindsay asks this question, which has also been occupying us here of late. Sample:

There have been innumerable articles, manifestos, and pamphlets that set forth some set of humanist values and principles that we are supposed to embrace. I don’t necessarily have a problem with the content of these lists of values and principles, but I am concerned that usually there is no explanation why a humanist or anyone else should adopt these values and principles. In other words, there’s little attempt to provide a method for approaching ethical issues. Sure, there is often a reference to using our reason, but although use of our reasoning powers is a good thing, by itself it doesn’t get you very far. If we are to be serious about developing a humanist morality, it seems to me that it is incumbent upon us to explain why we believe people should adhere to the values and principles that we advocate.

I am not proposing that we aim to develop a decision procedure that will generate the one right answer to all our ethical issues. Such a dreamy goal cannot be achieved, in part because there are a considerable number of ethical disputes to which there may not be one right answer. But we can develop a process of analysis and reflection that will provide some moral guidance by limiting the range of ethically acceptable answers -- which by itself would be a significant achievement.

One important element of our methodology should be a specification of the objectives of morality. If we can reach consensus on what morality is for , then it becomes a bit easier to resolve ethical dilemmas. One can critically examine a proposed course of action by considering whether it would further the objectives of morality.


Sam Harris would answer this question by saying that the purpose is "the well-being of conscious creatures", but that answer isn't obvious to everyone. (I've said before that I find it acceptable as an approximation, but even if that's right - and it's open to challenge - there's huge room to argue about "approximation to what?".)

Part of the problem is that it may be almost as difficult to get agreement on the answer to this question as it is to get answers to direct questions about which morality is "true". The purpose of something deliberately designed, like a car or a hammer, is pretty obvious in most contexts. When we're talking about something like morality, even the word "purpose" isn't quite right. Still, I think it's a good question, and you'll see me worrying at it further as time goes on. To me, it's one of the central questions of philosophy, as well as having practical urgency.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book review - Everyday Practice of Science

I've been sent a review copy of Frederick Grinnell's Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic (Oxford University Press, 2009). Grinnell is a practising scientist (a cell biologist) and an expert in scientific and medical ethics. That's an impressive combination, so I felt very positive about the book when I opened it. It promised to do a good job of explaining how the practices of working scientists relate to the arguments that are eventually used to support scientific findings.

Grinnell makes a pretty good fist of this - although there is relatively little that would be unfamiliar to philosophers of science or to scientists who reflect on the foundations of the scientific enterprise, it's explained clearly, generally seems plausible, and gives due acknowledgment to both the messy elements of actual scientific practice and the sorts of arguments that are used to support scientific theory. There need not be an easy match - e.g. data obtained from a series of experiments meant to test hypothesis A may, serendipitously, give some help to hypothesis B that the researchers didn't even have in mind. While Popperian arguments based on hypothetico-deductive reasoning may provide powerful support for some body of theory, the actual process that was followed may have been rather different. When scientific papers are published, they may leave out much of the messiness of what actually happened, day-by-day in the lab, and instead describe the experiments in a way that reveals the logic of the argument.

By all means read this for yourself. I have no difficulty with this point, and even Karl Popper realised that something like this is true. He never claimed that hypothetico-deductive reasoning describes the actual process of scientific discovery, only that it is the logic of scientific discovery. Even that may be an exaggeration, as not all scientific arguments are necessarily about how observational data corroborate or falsify hypotheses. Still, these arguments are used, and it is useful to think about how they relate to actual practice.

I'm not sure I agree with all Grinnell's views about research ethics, but let that pass. Well, except for this: I can't help but cavil at a reference to Peter Singer's "moral skepticism", when the views discussed actually have nothing to do with moral scepticism. Singer may, in fact, be committed to a form of moral scepticism, if he's pursued far enough, but he's always been rather ambiguous about that. He is mainly known for his views about normative ethics, not metaethics, and here he does not look like a moral sceptic at all. He does reject many substantive moral positions that he considers wrong, and he is certainly sceptical about the content of traditional morality, but that's a very different point.

Moral scepticism is a metaethical position (or, rather, a cluster of such positions) from which there seems to be something bogus about the whole enterprise of morality or moralising. For a moral sceptic, there's a sense in which morality is bunk, that it can't deliver on what it claims (though there may still be perfectly good reasons for you to act kindly and cooperatively, to encourage others to do so, and so on). None of this has much to do with Singer, and certainly not with the views that Grinnell discusses.

My big problem with the book is rather different, and relates to the never-ending argument about religion and science. Grinnell considers their relationship in a chapter of almost 30 pages in a book of about 200 pages, so it's a good-sized chunk. He argues throughout the chapter that religion and science are "complementary", but his arguments for this are very weak.

The main point seems to be that science and religion cannot conflict if religion minds its place and only talks about matters of purpose, meaning, and an unseen world beyond "shared sensory space". This is, of course, a version of Stephen Jay Gould's principle of non-overlapping magisteria. And I agree that religions can avoid clashing with science if they thin out their truth-claims until they are no longer offering explanations of the way things are in the world that we perceive through the senses. That, however, is a lot to demand of religion.

But even if religion keeps to what Grinnell (like Gould) thinks is its proper turf, it's not at all clear why it is thought to have correct answers to questions about the "meaning" or "purpose" of life, or about the existence or character of any unseen order, or about moral questions. I see absolutely no reason to think that religion is authoritative on any of this, and Grinnell doesn't provide one. On the contrary, he notes that there are many different sets of supposed religious truth about the unseen order, etc. Given this "fragmentation", why assume that any of these sets of "truths" is actually correct?

Grinnell says: "Science provides the technology for doing things. Religion provides the values to do what should be done." But that is false. Some values may come from religion, but others may be innate - I may have an inborn tendency to value my own survival, or to value getting food, water, and sex - while others may be taught by parents or the larger culture, or emerge from reading literature or from a process of philosophical introspection, or from somewhere else again. To suggest that religion is the source of our values, working in a complementary way with science, is nonsense at worst and an extraordinarily controversial claim at best. Inverting a famous statement by Einstein, Grinnell says that "Science without religion is blind," but this is just not right.

There is no reason whatsoever to think that we need religion as our source of guiding values, or to prefer whichever values do come from religion to any others that we might obtain from numerous other sources. There may be good reasons for science to enter into productive relationships with literature, or the law, or secular philosophy, by why should it take any notice of religion? No reason at all that I can see, except a wish to pander to religion's grandiose self-conception as a fount of values and otherworldly knowledge.

What's probably true is that we need affective attitudes (desires, hopes, fears, values, and so on) as well as factual knowledge ... or we will never be motivated to do anything. But no one can seriously maintain that religion is or should be the source of all our affective attitudes. That would be a mad claim. How do intelligent people like Grinnell come to think this sort of stuff, and how do they get away with publishing it?

I don't want to be too hard on Grinnell in particular: he has written an interesting little book. But I'm tired of ill-evidenced claims that religion (or some particular religion) somehow provides an authoritative source of values or moral guidance or knowledge about some hypothetical "unseen world" or ... No, stop - we have no reason to think it provides any of those things. It's time to stop saying this placatory stuff about religion. Religion is something that science can well do without - and so can we all.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Big Brothers Rudd and Conroy are watching

Every day I get a little bit angrier with our current government, here in Australia. I'm not suggesting that the alternative is any better - quite the contrary - but the continuing creeping totalitarianism of the current bunch frightens me and pisses me off. No, I do not want a record kept of my email conversations or of the websites I've looked at. I've committed no crimes, and I don't want my privacy invaded as if I were a suspect being investigated or an accused criminal awaiting trial.

With no better alternative coming from the other side of politics - surprise! surprise! - something drastic must be done. Perhaps we need nothing less than an entire new mainstream political party. Sorry, but the Greens don't cut it - besides, I don't entirely trust them on issues relating to our personal freedoms. The newly-formed Sex Party has policies as good as any I've seen, but its relatively narrow focus takes it out of the mainstream. Still, it'll get my first vote at the next election, later this year. After that, into the future, who knows?

But wake up Australia. Somehow the people, energy, time, and money must be found to defend our liberties. The situation is pretty hopeless when even voting out the incumbents won't make things better - and will probably make them worse. I mean, for the Flying Spaghetti Monster's sake, do we really want Tony Abbott as our prime minister? No, we don't ... or at least I don't. But we can't go on handcuffed to the present crowd forever, just because it's the lesser of two evils.

If it's the lesser of two evils, we need to find an alternative that's actually not evil. But where?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Science/religion compatibility yet again

H/T Ophelia Benson and her commenters.

This topic is, of course, never ending. It's been brought up this time over at the Huffington Post, by Alan I. Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Executive Publisher of Science, .

As usual with accommodationists, there is no real understanding of what non-accommodationists actually say, which has its nuances. What we say isn't just "religion and science are incompatible", which is ambiguous, and could mean various things that are false. We do say that, but we go on to gloss what we mean by it.

In my case, what I say is something like this: they are incompatible in a sense. Accordingly, it is misleading to state simply “science and religion are compatible” as if there's no problem. If you say that, you'd better gloss it, and you'd better acknowledge that, in the sense that actually matters to traditionally religious people, they may not be compatible, and that there's thus a big problem. When I was a religious person, I didn't care whether it was psychologically possible for some or even many people to be both (a) scientists and (b)religious. I cared about the consistency between (1) the truth claims of the sort of the religion I subscribed to and (2) the more robust truth claims of science, and inferences that could be reached from these together with other fairly plausible premises.

The position as I see it is something like this: viewed historically, religion needs to thin out its epistemic content, or to introduce notions of the capricious way supernatural beings act, or to adopt intellectually unacceptable ad hoc tactics of various kinds, in order to maintain a formal compatibility with the scientific picture of the world; the advance of science pushes God into smaller gaps; and some religious views are plainly inconsistent with robust scientific findings. All this reflects a general mismatch between the scientific approach to the world and the religious approach, which follows from (1) the fact that they use different methods for discovering the truth and (2) the methods of science do not, historically and contingently, reach the same conclusions as previously reached by religion. It turns out that religion needs to adapt constantly, thinning out its original truth-claims or making various ad hoc manoeuvres, or it find itself plainly contradicted by science.

All of this then feeds into arguments that the religions of the world are probably false across the board. The evidence is that they use unreliable means of looking for knowledge - but why, if they have access to gods, angels, etc.? Meanwhile, various specific religions are already falsified to the extent they are plainly or less plainly inconsistent with robust elements of the scientific picture of the world.

As far as I know, non-accommodationists like me, Jerry Coyne, and Ophelia Benson all see it much the same way. We are not clones of each other, and our views may have minor differences. Jerry and Ophelia might not sign on to every word in this post. But we are all prepared to spell out something like the above story – and we have done so on various occasions. We don’t claim that no religious view could ever be logically consistent with what is known by science at a particular point in history - that's palpably false because some religious views, such as an extreme Deism, are so thinned out as to be unfalsifiable - but we do object to simplistic, misleading claims that “science and religion are compatible”.

Nothing about the non-accommodationist accounts is falsified by telling us, over and over, that a lot of scientists are religious. That's really about psychological compatibility. Note, though, that the evidence suggests that a far higher proportion of scientists are not religious, compared with the general population.

Moreover, those who are religious tend to have a very thinned out view - in this survey data only 3.7 per cent of scientists found most truth in a particular religion! By contrast, 73.5 per cent thought there was basic truth in many religions, but one must wonder what those basic truths are, since 62.2 per cent either just plain do not believe in God or say they don't know and there's no way of finding out. Those figures must overlap heavily, so it looks as if the sort of truth that many scientists find in religion is most likely some kind of generic morality or the like. (Only 9.7 per cent believe in God without any doubts and only about 23 per cent attend church more than 1-5 times per year.)

More research needs to be done, but the data we have is totally consistent with the non-accommodationist idea that science tends to push people either away from religion entirely or into some sort of "thin" religion with little of the traditional content. That is not going to comfort religious people who are suspicious of science, and nor will it comfort those accomodationists who want to paint the picture that there's just no problem. For what it's worth, the data we have favour the non-accommodationist position, once the latter is understood - and not represented by a straw man version.

Frankly, I think the better evidence is what you get when you simply place the claims of various religions side by side with the more robust findings of science. Given what we now know, do the religious claims seem plausible or not?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Center for Inquiry - a letter from the Board of Directors

Please have a look at this letter signed by CFI chairperson Richard Schroeder. It puts the situation at the Center in a different light from much of the material you've probably been reading, though it's consistent with my interpretation from the bits and pieces of information that had been coming out: see my previous post.

Sample from towards the end:

Will this latest round of criticism hurt the organization and our cause? Candidly, it will do some damage to our work, which is a shame. But our movement is resilient enough to withstand these attacks. The vast majority of our staff and supporters understand the reality of the situation and understand that we are committed to moving forward with our work of promoting science and secularism.

I expect that we'll see further attacks on the CFI board and management. If they weren't already on the way, this letter from Schroeder will doubtless provoke them. The organisation's problems are compounded by the fact that nothing it does will please everybody - while the old guard attack it for becoming too "New Atheist" in its orientation, people like me will, from time to time, think some of its decisions are too accommodationist. I don't need to back away from my criticisms of any individual decisions to say yet again that CFI is broadly based and cannot possibly please everybody all the time. Indeed, any flagship organisation has that problem. CFI remains a flagship for advocacy of reason and science. It would be tragic to see it fail.

Please think carefully about whatever you read from the CFI's critics. It can't necessarily be accepted at face value.

As for me, I actually have no dog in this fight - I'm not linked in any substantial way either to Paul Kurtz or to the current management. No one had put me up to writing the previous long post, or suggested to me the interpretation that it contains. It was simply what I'd gleaned from the public evidence. I do think I have some feel for how these sorts of disputes happen, but I'm not going to try to pull rank and claim epistemic superiority, dismissing your viewpoint if you don't have life experience similar to mine. That's a reprehensible tactic in this sort of discussion.

You'll have to decide for yourself, but just think about it. Given the contents of Schroeder's letter, what do you really think is the more plausible scenario? Has the entire board gone crazy ... or was my previous post probably about right? Hey, forget my previous post if you want: does Schroeder's letter have the ring of truth? It certainly does for me, but you'll have to be the judge for yourself.

Monday, June 14, 2010

For Zeus's sake, get behind the CFI

This article by David Gibson at Politics Daily reflects on the current infighting at and around the Center for Inquiry. Gibson has spoken to the antagonists, and reveals more detail than we've seen to date as to how they perceive the situation. Some of his language, unfortunately, suggests a bias against the so-called "New Atheism" - the views of Richard Dawkins, et. al. It's especially tendentious, not to mention sneering and snarky, to portray current debates like this:

The wider debate among secularists over whether to engage religious believers, or whether snark and sneer are the best ways to defeat faith and rally unbelievers to atheism, seems destined to continue.

That suggests a writer who has never read, say, Dawkins' The God Delusion, or has read it with a tin ear. While mockery of religion's absurdities definitely has its place, there's far more than that to the varied "New Atheist" critiques.

Paul Kurtz gets the last word in Gibson's piece - and the most praise for what he's accomplished in the past. In a sense, that's understandable; Kurtz is a larger-than-life figure whose record is truly amazing. But if you read the article without the preconceived idea that the CFI's (relatively) new CEO, Ron Lindsay is the bad guy ... a different picture emerges from the background of facts.

Kurtz had known Lindsay for a long time when he supported Lindsay taking over the organisation's management:

The dispute between Lindsay and Kurtz has been festering for two years, almost since the board of directors named Lindsay as chief executive in June 2008 at the request of Kurtz himself, who has known Lindsay for 25 years. Until 2008 Kurtz had been both chief executive and chairman of the board of CFI, with complete control over operations, and the board wanted to diversify the authority structure, Lindsay said. But, he added, "Paul simply did not want to give up any significant authority. And it spiraled from that. ... Nothing apparently could be done to satisfy him."

Following this saga from the outside, I have to say that Lindsay's account has the ring of truth. This is a familiar scenario: an organisation's founder and powerbroker, someone with dictatorial authority, looks for a trustworthy, competent, and rather younger CEO. So far so good, but then he expects the latter to act like his puppet, getting angry when the new guy has anything like a mind of his own. From here, it looks as if Kurtz wanted Lindsay to have the heavy responsibility that goes with a management position, but no real authority to make his own decisions and lead the organization into the future. Kurtz tried to keep that for himself, and reserved the right to undermine the new guy at every turn. That has included going public to attack the CFI's policies while still sitting on its board.

There's a word for that. The word is "disloyalty". Another word is "unprofessional". As a board member of any organisation you have your say in-house - that and your vote that goes with it. Within the boardroom, you may command personal authority from your vision and experience. But you just don't wash the board's dirty linen in public, not if you want to stay there. Apart from the formal minutes of meetings, what happens in the boardroom stays in the boardroom. Grudges on the board are not aired in public. If you really must publicly attack the positions the organisation is taking, on which you had your say as a member of the board, then it's incumbent on you to resign.

We owe Kurtz a huge debt of gratitude for building the CFI and its associated entities, including Prometheus Books. This mini-empire of advocacy for reason and science couldn't exist without his talent, intellect, and energy, but now it's bigger than he is. If we have to choose between Kurtz and the CFI, I'm going to opt for the CFI every time.

While Kurtz has been softening his critique of religion, the CFI retains an edge - supporting initiatives such as Blasphemy Day and involving itself in constitutional litigation. Some of its recent decisions look like undesirable compromises (surely Chris Mooney is an odd choice as a CFI podcaster), but that's inevitable. After all, the organisation represents a spectrum of viewpoints. We'll inevitably see some of that in its activities and publications. Generally, though, the Center remains true to Kurtz's original vision - truer to it, I think, than Kurtz himself. He seems to want to lead it in new and quieter directions. He does, of course, have the right to change his mind and take a new path. What he can't do is complain publicly when others decline to follow - not if he wants to stay a board member.

I'm growing tired of the many complaints going round that Kurtz was somehow ill-treated. To me, it doesn't look that way at all. On the contrary, the board showed a lot of patience with him - perhaps, out of respect for him, a bit too much. The board ultimately acted properly to support its CEO after Kurtz's public attempts, as a director, to undermine him. Putting it bluntly, the CFI is not Kurtz's private fiefdom or a toy that he can play with as he pleases. For better or worse - I think for better - that isn't what he built. It's a serious organisation with a built-in mission of its own, the mission that he and others planned for it. Frustrating as he may find it, the CFI doesn't, and can't, follow its original master's changes of heart.

Kurtz's recent resignation from the board looks petulant, but at least it's more honorable than staying there and continuing with public criticisms. His ongoing campaign against the new management looks even more petulant: it's doing the job of harming the CFI, but it's unworthy of him.

But most importantly, I’m disappointed to read that the CFI's current appeal for donations had made only $50,000 at the time Gibson's article was written. I hope that a lot more has gone in by now. I do urge all my readers to donate a few dollars if you can.

The CFI and its management still deserve our support. The Center is still a flagship of reason and science. For Zeus's sake, let's all get behind it and the team led by Ron Lindsay.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Interesting article on the Templeton Foundation

This piece by Mark Oppenheimer is critical but balanced. Oppenheimer edited a Templeton publication until he fell out with the powers that be ... but this isn't just a grudge article. On the contrary, it seems he's trying very hard to be fair.

Read his story - some fascinating impressions of what is "Templetonian".

The Andy Muirhead case - ABC overreacts

Andy Muirhead, a popular Australian television compere, comedian, and radio broadcaster, has been charged with accessing child pornography.

In response, the ABC has placed him on leave without pay (effectively suspending his employment), suspended his TV show, The Collectors, including at least one episode that has already been taped, and even taken down the show's website.

Muirhead may well be guilty, though he is presumed innocent in the courts. A charge like that brought against him is of such a nature as to bring the accused's employer into disrepute, especially when it's a managerial employee or one who provides a public face for the employer. Muirhead fits into the latter category, so I'll have no problem with it if they fire him in response to a guilty verdict (and they can hardly continue to employ him if he goes to jail). Also, this charge is not the sort of thing they can investigate themselves, when the evidence is in police hands - it's not as if it were something simple like punching his boss in the pub. So I don't think it would be fair for them to fire him at this stage. Sending him off on leave without pay may be a reasonable compromise, and perhaps accords with their policy and the terms of his contract.

No solution is entirely fair in these circumstances, but I'm the last person to deny that employers, as well as employees, have legitimate interests. Muirhead probably agreed in advance that this is how any such incident would be handled, and some of the reports talk as if going on leave without pay was his initiative. There might even be an agreement with his union to handle such things in this way. It's a little bit murky, but I'm basically cool with it.

But why refuse to show episodes that are already taped? Why suspend the entire show? This seems enormously unfair to the show's other presenters, whose careers will be harmed by it. Whatever Muirhead has done, it's hardly their fault. Surely one of them could step up and compere The Collectors in Muirhead's absence, or another compere could be found within the ABC. And why delete the show's website as if it doesn't even exist? This all seems like magical thinking, as if the show and all associated with it have now been polluted. Perhaps that's how ABC managers think the public will react, but will it? It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why would they not react with worry about the careers of other (much-loved) people on the show - careers that Muirhead has jeopardised if he's guilty?

It looks to me as if the ABC has overreacted. Perhaps that's to be expected as soon as anything to do with pedophilia becomes public. What do you think?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Church-state relations in European human rights law

Anyone want to broach this long article and tell me what it says? I'll await your reports in the morning.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Salman Rushdie: "We're losing the battle for freedom of speech"

Rushdie is on the money here. I can actually understand why Germany and Austria (and maybe some other countries like Poland) would ban holocaust denial - different jurisdictions do have different concerns arising from different historical experiences. At least for a period, you could argue, the Holocaust should not be denied within the borders of the countries most associated with it.

But that's open to debate. The overall message is that freedom of speech is far too precious to be trumped by hurt feelings.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Talk at Embiggen Books

My recent talk at Emiggen Books, up at Noosaville on the Sunshine Coast, is now available here. (Notice the total lack of Powerpoint slides ... my new policy is to do without them where possible.)

Ophelia's update on CFI

Over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson updates us on the murky situation at the Center for Inquiry. The situation is, well, murky.

But CFI still deserves our support, perhaps more than ever. It's undergoing a transition, and I'd like to see what comes out of it. I'd certainly like the new management to have a fair chance to make their vision of it work.

I have a long comment on Ophelia's thread, which you can read for yourself.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Be careful what you tweet

Over at Jack of Kent's blog you can follow the latest outrage against freedom of speech in the UK, where Mr Paul Chambers was convicted under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. This provides, inter alia:

A person is guilty of an offence if he— .
(a)
sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
(b)
causes any such message or matter to be so sent.


This is a shockingly illiberal law, but the way it's been applied in this case is even more so. Chambers was convicted for sending a "menacing" message ... in the form of the following intemperate, ill-advised, but surely jocular tweet:

Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!

The trial judge held that

I am therefore satisfied, so that I am sure, that the defendant sent the message via “Twitter” and it was of a menacing nature in the context of the times in which we live. Furthermore I am satisfied the defendant was, at the very least, aware that this was of a menacing nature and I find him guilty of the offence.

The case is now being appealed. Hopefully this "disgraceful and illiberal judgment" (per Jack of Kent) will be overturned.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Abstracts for the forthcoming AAP conference

Some of these abstracts look very interesting. Have a look. My own paper keeps changing in my head from day to day. It will be quite a short paper in the end, but I have several thousand words floating around. I'll probably have to cut them all and largely start again. However, I'm sure it'll be a case of "just in time". By early July I want to know what I'm going to say so well that I can present it without even reading the paper. If that's not possible, I'll be aiming for a short paper that makes a really good script when read aloud (and then provokes debate). Either of those is a long way away at the moment.

Will posthumans be atheists?

A fascinating article on this subject by Philippe Verdoux over at IEET. Check it out!

Sample:

On the assumption that humans succeed in engendering a “species” of technologized posthumans, one might ask whether such advanced beings will be atheists or not. And furthermore, would it be a good thing for our technological progeny to be atheists?

In my view, there is good reason for thinking that posthumans will most likely, on the whole, be atheists. In addition, there is good reason for thinking that widespread apostasy would, on the whole, be desirable – that is, it would be beneficial for Earth-originating intelligent life, promoting overall post/human well-being.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

You might like to give the Center for Inquiry some help

See here for the CFI's current dire financial situation, with a major funder evidently pulling out. I'd hate to see this wonderful organisation go under or have to cut back until it ceases to be effective. Maybe consider joining (as I did recently) or giving a small donation (which I will do)?