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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mike Carey and Clay Mann rock - X-Men Legacy # 239

I've just read X-Men Legacy #239 and I've gotta say that Mike Carey and Clay Mann are still doing a wonderful job interpreting the universe of X-Men. Superhero comics can't be judged by the same criteria as novels and short stories: apart from anything else, there's a need to make the action move very quickly, even at the risk of overriding character for plot ... not to mention a kind of licensed recklessness about using coincidences, and of course the inherent implausibility of the whole set-up with all these superhuman beings running around. But there are standards for pace, skilled interpretation and development of long-running characters, and narrative risk-taking, as when Marvel took the unlikely but (to my mind) successful decision to hook up goody-goody Scott Summers (Cyclops ... who has become much darker) with decadent and cynical Emma Frost.

Carey's interpretation of the main characters in this arc - Rogue, Magneto, and three of the young students - is brilliant. We get a bit of fun in the opening pages as they quickly demolish a few gigantic Sentinel robots who are causing trouble in Mumbai, and it goes on from there with lots of twists and turns, some of them laugh-out-loud funny.

I'm enoying the tension between Rogue and the rejuvenated Magneto (he was rejuvenated to about 30, way back in the 1970s in real-world time ... and about 10 years have since passed within the diegesis). It's long been established that these two are attracted to each other, and they once stayed together for a time in one of Magneto's Antarctic bases ... but Mags managed to alienate Rogue before they could even start an actual love affair. He's continued to alienate her since, not least by his ongoing habit of killing people (usually bad guys, but still ...) right before her eyes - something he's promised to cut down on. Even now that he's sane and more-or-less one of the good guys, Magneto remains obsessed, overbearing, and ruthless, but Rogue can't help liking him for some reason, even though he also drives her nuts. She totally loses her cool with him in this issue when he tells her to use her powers to violate another person's mind to find out the truth about her. I love all this soap opera!

Please, oh corporate rulers at Marvel Comics, keep things more or less like this - developing the scenario rather than trashing it. It would be boring, and a let-down, if someone decided that it's time to make Magneto go psychotic again and turn back into an outright villain. Ho hum to that. He's much more interesting and fun in this anti-hero mode. Meanwhile, the current X-Men set-up is fascinating overall, with many of the heroes and quite a few former villains having united in the face of adversity on their island that they call Utopia, off the coast of San Francisco. Scott Summers is now in charge of a small nation of mutants and assorted misfits, and his field orders are (usually) accepted by the core X-Men ... but he's flanked by uber-powerful counsellors whom he needs for support as much as they need him for legitimacy. The future possibilities for intrigue, clashing visions, and political conflicts are endless.

For now, Carey has been building up suspense through the current Legacy arc by showing us from time to time what's going on with the Children of the Vault - a city of superhumans who consider the X-Men their bitter enemies. As issue # 239 draws to a close, Magneto, Rogue, and the kids are about to have a show-down with what looks like an angry and very powerful team sent by the Children of the Vault. Cool!

I'm a big fan of Clay Mann's artwork - he interprets the characters astutely, showing them as beautiful (of course, these are superheroes!) but not absurdly so. Even lizard-boy Anole looks like a rather handsome reptile, while Indra is a young hunk if you go for purple skin tones. Rogue and Loa look, respectively, like an attractive young woman of about 25 and a pretty-but-gawky teenage girl. They don't appear hypersexualised and anatomically improbable, but are much more like real women. Their movements are realistic, and all the characters are portrayed at times in the awkward positions of people being photographed in motion and unawares. Magneto is physically imposing, but he could still pass as a reasonably normal athletic man of about 40. I like the way they are all wearing street clothes throughout, on what was not intended to be a combat mission. More generally, Mann is technically superb, with imaginative angles on the characters and events.

All in all, I'm loving this creative team and this current arc. Keep it up, guys!

A blast from the past - Simon Brown's review of Dreaming Down-Under

I don't think I saw this at the time. Jenny came across it and drew it to my attention. Quote:

Russell Blackford's "The Soldier in the Machine" introduces us to Rhino: "Two metres tall in his scuffed leather Nikes, plus the gray horn implant arching up out of the top of his forehead, he's two-hundred kilos of beef and steroids …"

A real charmer, and bodyguard to Honey Fantasia, who performs in a "miracle band". They arrive in Bangkok at the bequest of the mysterious Colonel, a dealer in high-tech bioware who needs to deliver a package to a research lab in Adelaide. While in Bangkok, Rhino meets a couple of SACIDs, people modified to have "superinstantaneous cognition", basically the ability to "… evade before you shoot; … [correct] before you evade." They are almost superhuman in their ability to take on any opponent and win. The problem is, the Colonel's business rivals also have SACIDs to call upon, and Rhino is an essential part of the plan to get the package out of Bangkok and to its buyer.

As with Williams' story, we have a whole future world here that is dramatically different from our own. Many of the changes are only hinted at, but the impression is of a society dominated by global tech and communication companies, and under the sway of enhancing drugs and incredibly complex bioware. Blackford convinces the reader that this is the future we will have, with all its gritty, dark and forbidding particulars. A kind of cyberpunk on speed.

Blackford's universe, power of description, use of dialogue and sharply delineated characters, makes "The Soldier in the Machine" a great read.

Monday, August 30, 2010

CFI gets it wrong ... then gets it right

When I saw this statement, released by the Center for Inquiry a couple of days ago, I was horrified. Over the weekend, I've been mentally composing my detailed response. I'm still concerned that such a statement was ever issued and I hope that there will be wider consultation before the CFI ever again goes down such a path. I for one would have been opposing the statement loudly if anyone had asked my opinion.

Fortunately, the statement has been withdrawn and replaced by something that I fully agree with. All I need to say about the original statement is that I disagree vehemently with the idea that religious houses of worship should be banned from the vicinity of Ground Zero, the World Trade Center site. I don't see how else the statement can be interpreted, but I don't need to offer my full reasons for disagreeing with it, as I thought I'd have to do.

It seems that wiser heads at the CFI have prevailed, so congratulations to the organisation for getting this one right, even if an initial error was made. The swift retraction of the original statement restores my trust considerably. Hopefully, no illiberal statements of policy will issue from the CFI again.

Just briefly, my position on the Muslim centre being established a couple of city blocks from Ground Zero is that it should meet the same zoning regulations as a cinema, a shop, a secular cultural centre, a business's corporate headquarters, a Christian church, or whatever else might be put there. If it causes no more problems for the physical amenity of other people than those other things would, it should be able to go ahead on the same basis.

The CFI now agrees with me:

CFI maintains that an Islamic center, including a mosque, near Ground Zero, in and of itself, is no different than a church, temple, or synagogue. It is undeniable that the 9/11 terrorists were inspired by their understanding of Islam, and that currently there are far more Islamic terrorists in the world than terrorists of other faiths, but those facts are not relevant to the location of the Islamic center, absent evidence that terrorists are involved in this endeavor, and there is no such evidence.

The mere fact that some might find the idea of a mosque near Ground Zero offensive is not relevant. It's true that some kinds of extreme offence shade into harm and are cognisable by the law - e.g. if you nauseate me by defecating in front of me on a tram. But in a case like that there are also public health issues, so mere offence will not be the only consideration. In any event, the law should not generally be banning something solely because it causes offence to certain others, especially if it's not extreme in-your-face offence of the kind that produces nausea or disturbs the peace. It's most certainly not enough that the mere idea of something happening offends certain people. It would be nice if we could all keep the Millian harm principle in mind in these public policy debates.

In the end, there should be no impediment to the proposed Muslim centre merely because some people find the idea of such a thing in the vicinity of Ground Zero offensive. If the centre meets ordinary zoning provisions, that should be the end of the story as far as the law is concerned.

Of course, we can still investigate and criticise the beliefs and activities of the people involved with the centre. Christopher Hitchens has been doing that, and I applaud him for it, but he's made it clear that this is completely different from calling for the centre's prohibition. He's been able to combine tolerance, in the relevant sense, with criticism. That's the standard we should all be aiming at.

Edit: It seems that the original statement has now been removed from the site, which may be a good thing as it only creates confusion to leave it there while superseding it with something else.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Man-eating giant squid arise from the depths like Cthulhu!!

So it seems.

Millions of killer giant squid are not only devouring vast amounts of fish they have even started attacking humans.

Two Mexican fishermen were recently dragged from their boats and chewed so badly that their bodies could not be identified even by their own families.

Oh noes! I wonder whether they are also vampire squid.

Election for board of Humanity+

The transhumanist organisation Humanity+ has just held an election for three vacancies on its board. The successful candidates were Max More, Howard Bloom, and Thomas McCabe (whom I don't know either personally or by reputation - I assume it's not the Scottish politician of the same name).

It's nice to see Max More there, in particular; that's a big step towards repairing some of the deep rifts within transhumanism. There's still the small matter that transhumanism covers such a wide range of positions, some of them more plausible than others ... but this is a pleasing outcome, and I wish all of the successful candidates well. There was an impressive talent pool among the other candidates, so good luck to them, too, in their future projects.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Currently reading: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

I'm reading The Windup Girl somewhat belatedly, as it's now much too late to vote for the Hugo Awards. Maybe I'll have a bit more to say about the book tomorrow, but meanwhile I'll just observe that I can see why it won the Nebula Award for best novel and must surely be a favourite for the Hugo Award.

The narrative seemed to start rather slowly, though perhaps that was just me being impatient until I got to know and care about the characters - Bacigalupi depicts events in almost excessive detail, and this was a bit hard to take in the early pages when I had no handle on the people these things were supposedly happening to. However, I've slowed down, I've given the book some close attention without too many other distractions, and I'm getting to know these desperate people and their struggles to survive in a bleak 22nd-century Bangkok that Paolo Bacigalupi portrays with colour and texture. The characters are often reduced by their almost Hobbesian circumstances to cunning, dishonesty, and treachery, but in many cases you can't really blame them, given what they are up against in various ways.

Have any of y'all read it?

Edit: Some last comments, now I've finished the book: first, I do think this would be a worthy Hugo Award winner. I continue to like the way we are led to sympathise with a cast of characters who are all very flawed people but whom we are led to understand, and to see why they act as they do in order to survive in a harsh environment. At one point, it looks as if the book will lead to a happy ending for the main characters, but then there are some (logical) plot turns, and nothing so simple takes place. Some survive, but not all. Life goes on, though with changes (and with hints of a sequel, of course).

I met Bacigalupi in Montreal last year, but did not know his work at the time. He's an impressive talent whose career will be worth following.

Friday, August 27, 2010

New issue of JET now complete

The new issue (volume 21, issue 1) of the Journal of Evolution and Technology, devoted to Nietzsche and European posthumanisms, is now complete. This issue takes off in response to an article on Nietzsche and transhumanism by Stefan Sorgner, published in March last year; it contains a mix of full articles and shorter responses by William Sims Bainbridge, Max More, and others. We are hoping to publish a further response by Stefan Sorgner in JET 21(2).

Meanwhile, have a look a the current issue, which contains some fascinating and sometimes contentious material. Amongst other items, I recommend More's reflections on Nietzsche (and the German philosopher's influence on More's own thinking) and Ilia Stambler's historical study of precursors to transhumanism in the fin-de-si├Ęcle and early twentieth century. Much of the discussion is potentially controversial, so we also welcome the submission of articles that seek to take up any of the issues raised by the contributors. It remains our goal to encourage high quality debate on such topics as emerging technologies, transhumanist ambitions, and the human future (the nearest thing to my personal editorial manifesto can be found here).

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Freedom of religion - Quinn O'Neill adds to the confusion

As I said in a comment over at Butterflies and Wheels, I am sick of the way current debates about freedom of religion and criticism of religion show the most elementary misunderstandings. Freedom of religion is all about - and has always been about - the state not persecuting people on the basis that they fail to adopt the state's preferred religion.

In essence, freedom of religion means that the state will not impose a preferred religion (which protects believers from other religions, as well as non-believers) and nor will it single out an especially dispreferred religion for persecution. In any event, if it does so it will need a secular reason (e.g. if an extreme religious cult is committing acts of violence and the circumstances are such that enforcing the ordinary law is inadequate and it's necessary to suppress the cult itself). This will almost never be the case.

By analogy, Soviet communism was a genuinely dangerous quasi-religion, but most of us now agree that there was not a good case for the attempts to suppress it that were carried out in the US and Australia, among other places. If I ever see the equivalent of the McCarthy trials applied to a religion and its followers, I'll protest loudly.

The concept is not all that difficult. Historically, it was necessary to stop the situation of religions jostling for the power of the state in order to impose themselves on others and to persecute rivals by means of fire and sword. O'Neill would do well to study the history of the religious wars and persecutions in Europe, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries but going way back to classical antiquity, to get an idea what the doctrine is really aimed at preventing.

A commitment to freedom of religion means a commitment to avoid the jostling of rival religious groups to obtain and employ the power of the state. It is not a commitment to refrain, as individuals, from criticising the intellectual credibility, moral authority, or social conduct of religious organisations, leaders, and communities. Indeed, widespread commitment to freedom of religion is much easier to achieve in a society where the freedom  to criticise religion - an important aspect of freedom of speech - is widely accepted and actually exercised. If we want to ensure that no religion can get its hands on state power, we should encourage an attitude that no religion is beyond criticism and satire. Religious freedom is likely to flourish in an environment where the various rival religions are not given any particular respect, where they are just as open to criticism as, say, rival political programs and ideologies.

It's a cause of endless frustration to me that this reasonably simple set of concepts - concepts that should not even be controversial in any liberal democracy - is so often misrepresented.

This long post at 3quarksdaily is the kind of thing that frustrates me. The author, Quinn O'Neill, says some things that I agree with. But when she talks about freedom of religion she has things totally backwards. Her view on this is not only fundamentally wrong - it's also very damaging. It contributes to the current confusion about a matter of very great importance. O'Neill promotes a false and dangerous idea: the idea that religious views should be given some sort of special respect by individuals who do not wield the power of the state. No. No. No. Really I'm sorry, but we can't jump hard enough on this sort of nonsense.

O'Neill concludes: Success will be most likely if atheists and religioius moderates unite for a common goal; not the eradication of religion, but a securely secular society that optimizes well-being and respects our most cherished freedoms. 

Yes, that's what we should aim at - a secular, free society. I agree. But O'Neill doesn't even understand what our cherished freedoms are. One of them is the freedom to criticise ideas that we disagree with, including religious ideas, and to criticise individuals and organisations that wield social power, including religious organisations and their leaders. She is actually asking us not to exercise that particular cherished freedom, but what's the point of having freedom of speech it if you don't exercise it? She doesn't understand that a securely secular society will be one that facilitates the very behaviour she is arguing against, i.e. robust criticism of ideas, organisations, and people who wield social power. That's what we should be uniting to support.

O'Neill puts on airs as if she is an expert on freedom of religion, but she is obviously ignorant about it. She claims:

Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom. If we value religious freedom, respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is in order (so long as the beliefs don’t infringe on the rights of others). Respecting freedom of religion means accepting the fact that not everyone will freely choose our worldview. If we encourage people to think for themselves, we must accept that others will come to different conclusions.

Ugh. This is all horribly confused. Where do I even start in clearing it up?

There is no in-principle conflict at all between supporting freedom of religion and making merely verbal attacks, even personal and vitriolic ones, on others. These two things are orthogonal  to each other. Making such attacks is not something I generally favour, but it has nothing to do with freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion is about the state not imposing its preferred worldview by force. It is about people having a political right against the state not to be persecuted or to have a religion inflicted on them coercively. It is not about individuals, operating below the state's protective umbrella, being civil to each other in discussion. The latter is often a good idea, of course, and I'm not a fan of some of the less civil comments that I see in blogosphere even from people who are on my side of an issue. But civility of discourse is an ideal that applies to all areas of debate and has nothing to do with freedom of religion in particular. Civility is nice, and I support it in most circumstances, but people can be uncivil in debate about religion without thereby being against freedom of religion.

They are only against freedom of religion if they argue that the might of the state should be brought to bear to persecute those with whom they disagree. Some people do say that, of course: I've seen random commenters on some websites say that religion, or certain religions, should be banned. But that's a very naive position. It's not what any of the serious contributors to the current debates are saying. If someone prominent like Christopher Hitchens says such a thing, and it's drawn to my attention, I'll be right here to denounce him or her, just as I'm denouncing O'Neill.

Frankly, Quinn O'Neill is tying herself up in knots. To the extent that it concerns freedom of religion, her post lacks intellectual merit. She has freedom of speech, so she gets to write whatever nonsense she wants without the power of the state being brought to bear to shut her up. But the rest of us likewise have freedom of speech, and we get to point out when she is writing nonsense.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ah haz some big newz (2)

As previously revealed, my next book has received a green light. I expect to be signing a contract quite soon - hopefully within a week or so. Some logistical, etc., details need to be worked through, but the book is largely written - yes, that's what I've been doing this year - and I'm hopeful of a publication date in 2011. A projected deadline and publication date still need to be sorted out, however, and I'll reveal more when I know more about such aspects.

For those who've been speculating about the topic, the book is about freedom of religion and the secular state. That's obviously a topic very dear to my heart, and it provides a recurrent set of issues for this blog. I'm very excited about doing a book on this subject, which has become so ubiquitous and important in recent years.

Conference and convention organisers, please take note that I am very willing to speak on the topic of the book, or anything reasonably closely related. Outside of the metropolitan areas of Sydney/Newcastle, I'll need my expenses paid, but if you ensure that I'm not out of pocket I'll come to you. I'll be especially keen to speak about the book's themes as publication gets closer, but you don't have to wait until then.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

PZ's heart problems

I just caught up with this post from PZ Myers about his recalcitrant heart. There's not much that I can say, except to wish him well and to trust that he is surrounded by his loved ones, which is what matters most.

Hope all is well soon, Paul Zed!

Singularity Summit AU - program

Voila! The program for the Singularity Summit AU, which is now just two or three weeks away. The program is subject to fine-tuning but gives a good indication.

As you'll see, abstracts of papers have been provided, including my own:

“Survival Beyond the Flesh” – Mind uploading would involve the use of an artificial substrate – some kind of advanced computational system – to emulate the activities of a biological brain. Proponents of uploading typically imagine this as a way to achieve survival beyond the flesh (and perhaps other advantages, such as greatly enhanced speed of thought and/or the opportunity to extend cognitive capacities in multiple ways).

The main advantages proposed for mind uploading presuppose that the same individual somehow “occupies”, or is instantiated by, both the biological brain (or the entire biological organism) and the computational system. But this is problematic. The problem can be thought of in terms of personal identity: if I have been uploaded onto an artificial computational system, is the resulting intelligence really “me” or is it in some sense a mere duplicate? Even if the cybernetic intelligence is not strictly “me”, is there at least some sense in which I can be said to have survived the experience, though my biological brain may have been destroyed? We will explore whether uploading would really represent survival beyond the flesh, and whether this might depend in some way on the details and circumstances. What is needed for cybernetic survival?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Clarifying some points about the election

In response to Gordon Campbell's useful comment on the previous post, I should clarify some points.

I wasn't suggesting that large numbers of voters put the Coalition ahead of Labor directly because of the sort of issues I identified. I do believe that some voters did this, perhaps thinking they could make a protest or because a particular issue, such as internet censorship, was a deal-breaker for them. So yes, some votes were lost to the Coalition (again, mine wasn't one of them).

But that wasn't so much what I was getting at. I was more concerned about other effects, such as losing the electorate of Melbourne to the Greens when, as it turns out, every seat counts. Again, the Greens will have unprecedented power in the Senate when their members take their seats, which will make it difficult for either major party to govern in its own right. What's more, Labor would look a lot better placed for political negotiations, in the context of a hung parliament, if it looked dominant in the Senate.

Over the past few years, many people have become Greens voters when they are not naturals for the Greens (I am, as I said, a Hawke-Keating social democrat, and I've never been very impressed in the past by the Greens' economic credentials ... but of course the Greens are getting more sophisticated all the time, so Labor is less and less able to rely on this).

But the main effect I had in mind when I spoke of failing to capture imaginations, and so on, isn't that Labor had direct leakage of votes to other parties during the few weeks of the election period. It's that many natural Labor voters are now almost as hostile to Labor as they are to the Coalition. This started to happen quite some time ago, probably even in 2008.

As a result, much good will that Labor enjoyed back in 2007 (from people who were less cynical realistic than I was about Rudd) was gradually lost. The further result is that there was no real passion being expressed publicly for Labor except from the party faithful. There was just a feeling that Abbott might be worse. At least, that's all I was hearing.

Now, I fully understand that more progressive policies than Labor took to the election might have cost it votes in the Western suburbs of Sydney and other places where there seems to be a lot of cultural xenophobia. That explains the position on asylum seekers, but it doesn't explain why Labor would stick with an unpopular policy such as internet censorship. Why adopt a policy more conservative and less popular than the Coalition's?

As for asylum seekers, it's true that a compassionate approach might be unpopular in many key seats, but Labor had three years to explain itself to the electorate, starting with the fact that the overwhelming majority of the asylum seekers turn out to be genuine refugees with bleak prospects in the countries they fled from. There was a lot that could have been done to lead the electorate on this issue, rather than pandering to its worst side. With a surge of popular good will, such as Labor enjoyed three years ago, and the bully pulpit of government, you can do a lot.

And of course there's the issue of climate change. I agree that someone who cares passionately about this issue would not shift preferences to the Coalition. But someone who is more confused about it, but who was maybe prepared to accept this issue as being important in 2007, might not be prepared to do so in 2010 when Labor itself seemed to have lost all conviction. The mishandling of this issue could well have made many voters think that (i) it's not so important afterall (so why vote for Labor to the extent that the parties are differentiated on the issue?) and/or (ii) the Labor leadership is, in the worst sense, cynical (so why vote for them if they're just as bad in that respect as their opponents?). This seems to have done a lot of the electoral damage.

Of course it's difficult to be sure how all this panned out over the three years and then over the election period. But we have a case where cynical or anti-progressive policies did damage, contrary to the wisdom that you can never go wrong by appealing to conservative instincts. In the end, the Labor analysts will have to work out whether a style of government more friendly to Labor's natural allies would have been more effective in attracting supporters and votes on balance, all things considered, approaching a 2010 election. I acknowledge that.

But what this extraordinary election shows us is that selling out people like me - people who look for compassion and a respect for individual freedom - for cynical populist gains is not all positive in its consequences out in the electorate. There were negative effects that Labor strategists did not factor in, and if Julia Gillard and co. do manage to squeak back into office they should think about this very hard. If they don't squeak back, they have even more soul-searching to do, but it'll be too late in many ways.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Post-election thoughts in Australia

Well, that was a weird election, and a particularly weird election night. It looks like we'll have a new prime minister - Tony Abbott of all people - but we probably won't know for a week or more, since the outcome is too close to call, there'll almost certainly be a hung parliament, and there'll have to be recounts in some very close electorates.

I feel sorry for Julia Gillard, who probably could have been a good prime minister. She is likeable, talented, and gracious. I wish she'd been given a chance by the electorate, and of course there's still an outside chance that she'll survive in power. I hope so, but I'm not counting on it. I'm not as sorry for her as I could have been, however, since her whole approach has been to move to the right in order to fight this campaign.

Labor took secular, civil libertarian voters for granted in this campaign and throughout its term of government. There was nothing to excite us or even to attract our loyalty. No wonder the electorate of Melbourne fell to the Greens. That's a salutary reminder that the votes of people like me are not rusted on. In my own electorate, Charlton, there was no doubt that Greg Combet would be returned easily, and my own vote for the Green candidate flowed back to Labor as I put Combet second. But Labor is now on notice that it's possible to lose seats to the Greens even in the House of Representatives. The Greens will now have the balance of power in the Senate, and that's a very good thing in my opinion. As long as they don't start fielding left-wing social conservatives like Clive Hamilton, the Greens are going to be a progressive force in the parliament. Labor should stop complaining about competition from the Greens for left-wing voters and actually start adopting policies that appeal to its own core constituency.

In my case, I'm not an especially left-wing voter. I'm not a socialist, but more a Hawke-Keating social democrat. I want solid, fiscally responsible economic policy. I want wealth generation, though I also want to see some of the wealth redistributed into public infrastructure and a strong social safety net. I'm not an enemy of capitalism. I'm not out to dismantle the economic system. But I do want a government that is secular, that keeps out of people's bedrooms, that doesn't threaten to spy on our internet usage, that doesn't offer dangerous new censorship laws with endless capacity for scope creep. I'd also like to see a government that takes a compassionate response to refugees rather than treating them like foreign invaders. Labor doesn't have to move somewhere drastically to the left to get my first preference: it can continue in the tradition of Hawke and Keating with responsible economic managment and a consensus approach to policy. It doesn't have to be anti-business. But it certainly can't go on adopting social conservative policies such as beefed up internet censorship and an expanded chaplaincy program in public schools. It needs to be serious and consistent about climate change. It needs to abandon harsh and xenophobic attitudes to refugees. In this case, it had nearly three years to set a more compassionate tone and win over the electorate on the issue, but it thought better to pander to xenophobes and shock jocks. Well, it didn't seem to do much good in the end.

Memo, to Julia Gillard, or whoever is going to lead Labor for the next three years - most likely in opposition. If you want to win your natural voters back, if you want to get some passionate support from your traditional allies, if you are to have any chance of capturing the imagination of the Australian people, you need to change your tune. Pandering to conservatism and fear isn't going to cut it. You can't defeat the Coalition at that game. Labor once seemed like a party of freedom and reason, but it hasn't seemed much like that for a very long time. Rudd never appeared to stand for those values, and Julia Gillard rejected a great opportunity. Some people are asking whether Labor stands for anything anymore.

I feel sorry for Gillard, as I said, and hope that Labor still squeaks home. I don't want to see a deeply conservative man like Tony Abbott in charge of my country, and my preferences did not flow to him or the Coalition parties. The outcome we have at the moment is not something I wished for.

But Labor betrayed us too many times on too many issues that were too important. It reaped the whirlwind.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Off to vote - how exciting!


I've avoided blogging about the federal election taking place today, here in Australia. Frankly, I'm unexcited by the prospect. I feel, or felt, a lot of good will towards Julia Gillard, but she's managed to alienate me considerably as the process has gone on. She could have canned the internet censorship proposal once and for all, but didn't. She could have been positive about the prospects of recognising same-sex marriages, but took a hardline social conservative stance on the issue. She didn't have to expand the school chaplaincy program. She could have announced measures more welcoming of refugees - this whole question of who will best "stop the boats" is ugly, xenophobic, and a disgrace to the country.

I don't relish the prospect of Tony Abbott as prime minister, though he has sometimes sounded the more progressive of the two candidates. Be that as it may, deeply conservative candidates have a way of showing it once they obtain power. If it comes to a question of whether I think the country is in safer hands under Labor, with Gillard as prime minister, or under the Coalition, with Abbott as prime minister, then I'll go with the former. But not with any great enthusiasm.

This morning, I'm going to look closely at the policies of the Greens, the Sex Party, and the Secular Party. They all have something to offer. They deserve to be placed, in some order or other, above the major parties in the Senate vote, and their candidates for the House of Representatives deserve some support.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Jenny's story in Worlds Next Door

"Slugs and Snails", a gentle, funny, sly (not to mention slimy) story by Jenny Blackford, appears in a new anthology of fantasy and science fiction, Worlds Next Door, edited by Tehani Wessely.

I've just finished reading Worlds Next Door, which is consistently at a high level. The stories are by established Australian writers, including Paul Collins, Rowena Cory Daniels, and Dave Luckett. Aimed at younger readers (upper primary school, or maybe early high school), it nonetheless provides much to amuse adults. If you have a kid in your life aged, say, 9 to 12, s/he might well have fun with this book ... but dip into it yourself before you pass it on!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

My schedule at Aussiecon 4

Fri 1100 Rm 204: Playing in someone else’s sandpit: franchise writing;

Fri 1300 Rm 201: Signing;

Sat 1300 Rm 213: Clarke’s 2010 and other continuations;

Sat 1500 Rm 219: Cyberpunk and the city;

Sun 1500 Rm 207: Reading;

Mon 1100 Rm 214: (A) 2. Science fiction and technoscience: a love-hate relationship;

Mon 1200 Rm P3: The grandfather paradox;

Mon 1400 Rm 211: Utopia vs. dystopia.

These are mostly panel appearances. As you can see, I also have a reading and a book-signing. The item on Monday at 11.00 am is a short paper as part of the academic track.

See y'all there!!

Ah haz some big newz

Stay tuned for more.

X-Men: Legacy # 239 - why is Rogue so pissed off?

On another note, I'm intrigued by this scene from the forthcoming X-Men: Legacy #239. Rogue sure looks pissed off with Magneto about something. I wonder what (I can think of several good reasons she might have, given their past, but it'll probably turn out to be something else entirely). Magneto responds by looking ... what? Thoughtful? Contrite? Amused? Bemused? As opposed to, say, killing her, which has been his more usual response to opposition over the years. I'll have to pick up this issue, if only to find out what's actually going on here when the context and dialogue are provided.

Bear in mind that these characters are somewhat different from their equivalents in the movies. You can click on the image to expand it, of course. It's one of several online to illustrate an interview with Mike Carey about X-Men Legacy - over here.

Lineup of authors and topics for The Australian Book of Atheism (Scribe, 2010, ed. Warren Bonett)

Chrys Stevenson, Felons, Ratbags, Commies and Left-Wing Loonies

Max Wallace, The Constitution, Belief and the State

Alex Stewart, Religion, and the Law in Australia

Robyn Williams, A Part-time Atheist

Dr Colette Livermore, Atheism: an explanation for the believer

Tanya Levin, Above Rubies

Hon. Lee Rhiannon, Growing up Atheist

David Horton, Agnostics are Nowhere Men

Tim Minchin, Storm

Hugh Wilson, Public Education in Queensland

Peter Ellerton, Theology is Not Philosophy

Professor Graham Oppy, Evolution vs Creationism in Australian Schools

Graeme Lindenmayer, Intelligent Design as a Scientific Theory

Kylie Sturgess, Atheism 2.0:

Dr Martin Bridgstock, Religion, Fundamentalism & Science

Dr Philip Nitschke, Atheism & Euthanasia

Alex McCullie, Progressive Christianity: A Secular Response

Dr Leslie Cannold, Abortion in Australia

Jane Caro, Why Gods are Man-Made

Dr Karen Stollznow, Spiritualism & Pseudoscience

Rosslyn Ives Life, Dying & Death

Hon. Ian Hunter MLC, Prayers in Australian Parliament

Lyn Allison, Ever Wondered Why God is a Bloke?

Michael Bachelard, Politics and The Exclusive Brethren

Dr Russell Blackford, Free Speech

Dr John Wilkins, The Role of Secularism in Protecting Religion

Warren Bonett, Why a Book on Atheist Thought in Australia?

Dr Robin Craig, Good without God

Ian Robinson, Atheism as a Spiritual Path

Professor Peter Woolcock, Atheism & the Meaning of Life

Dr Tamas Pataki, Religion & Violence

Dr Adam Hamlin, The Neurobiology of Religious Experience

Dr Rosemary Lyndall Wemm, The Neurology of belief

That's a powerful lineup, and Scribe is a very respected publisher. You can already pre-order from Embiggen Books, and you can have a look at the publisher's site for the book. The Australian Book of Atheism will be available in time for Christmas and might make an ideal gift for someone you know.

Skiffy and Mimesis

Damien Broderick's new book, Skiffy and Mimesis, which takes its title from an essay of mine that's included, is now available - or about to be by the time of the Worldcon (now only two weeks away).

This book is a companion to Chained to the Alien. Between them, they reprint much of the best material in Australian Science Fiction Review, Second Series, the classic zine whose run went from 1986 to 1991 and managed to win a Ditmar Award towards the end. As one of the editors and most frequent contributors to the zine, I obviously have a vested interested in the two books that Damien has put together ... but please consider!

I still think that we had some exciting discussions back then, and that it's fascinating to read now, twenty-odd years later. Those were the days before the internet, before it was possible to be enbroiled in debate with an international cast every day. But the quality of discussion of Australian and international science fiction was, I believe, high, and the zine made some reputations.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Felix nominated for Best Fannish Cat

Felix Blackford (or, more correctly Mystical Prince Felix), is shortlisted for Best Fannish Cat, a special award of the Australian national sf convention. If you're a member of the convention, don't forget to vote.

Ah haz birthday!!

So I'll be back later. Had some birthday festivities yesterday, a day early, and will continue today.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Latest casting news on X-Men: First Class

For those interested, have a look over at Aint It Cool News.

Right now it's James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jason Flemyng, Jennifer Lawrence and, possibly, Rose Byrne.


J.P. Telotte is, for my money, a pretty good film critic (of the scholarly, academic kind). His work contains a lot of what seems like insight - e.g., I've long appreciated much of what he has to say about Forbidden Planet - but he also writes a lot of stuff that rings false for me, and seems like strained interpretation. Then again, how do we know when an interpretation is fresh and insightful as opposed to when it is strained and implausible?

Here's an example that I tend to put in the latter category. Writing about Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Telotte discusses the scene where Arnie and the T-800 choose their weaponry from Enrique's underground arms cache out in the desert. Telotte has had a fair bit to say about ideas of literal and emotional hardness, surfaces, depths (of various kinds), and so on. Then we get this passage in an endnote to the relevant chapter of his book, Replications:

We might read in this context of opening and penetration the scene in which Sarah uncovers the arsenal she has been hoarding in anticipation of the coming war with the machines. As John and the Terminator descend into the underground bunker and inspect the variety of weapons there, they discuss Sarah and the boy tries to explain - to the Terminator but more for himself - why she has all these things and why she is the way she is. It is a very literal depth analysis, a penetration beneath the hard desert surface, accompanied by an effort to penetrate the cold hard surface Sarah has cultivated.

Okaaaay. Maaaaybe... But this seems off to me: I don't think the movie is inviting us to view the descent into the bunker, or whatever it is properly called, as somehow analogous to a descent into the depths of Sarah's mind even though some discussion of her motives takes place (I must check the script to see exactly what is said, because the main thing I recall is the famous exchange, complete with Arnie's memorable grin, when the T-800 chooses a Vietnam-era mini-gun as its weapon). This seems to me like a strained reading; I want to say that Telotte is reading in something that's not there, in whatever sense "not there" has in the context of literary or cinematic interpretation. Yet, it's possible that other viewers find it plausible. It's even conceivable that the creators (James Cameron, etc.) thought of something like this. I doubt it, but I'm often surprised at the bizarre, tangential things creators say about their work, so I don't rule anything out. But even if, unlikely as it seems, Cameron had such an idea when he wrote the script, I just can't see that the scene works as Telotte describes.

Part of the trouble is the way Telotte's endnote builds interpretation on interpretation - seeing Sarah as maintaining a hard, cold surface, which is certainly one way to describe her, and then comparing her emotional and physical "hardness" with the hardness of the desert surface (something that has not been emphasised at all in the narrative or the images). So he sees Sarah's/Linda Hamilton's toned, ripped body together with her emotionally harsh treatment of John, interprets these in terms of "hardness and coldness", then sees the desert which he imagines in terms of "hardness" (somewhat oddly, I think) and then compares these two things with each other. The two characters in the scene do penetrate beneath the surface of the desert, but the film doesn't mention penetrating beneath the surface of Sarah's mind (though again, it is not far-fetched to describe some of the arc that way, as she is driven by events to show her true emotions for John). I see some of Telotte's point but the actual comparison is just too tenuous, too many steps removed from what the film presents, from its images and soundtrack.

By contrast, I totally agree with the claim that has often been made, including by Telotte - and even appears in the script as a guide to the dramatic intentions - that Sarah turns into something like a Terminator herself during this part of the movie ... and to some extent even earlier. This is never stated in an explicit way on-screen (e.g., I don't recall John ever saying something like, "Please, Mom - you're starting to act like one of them!"). But the narrative and images compel that comparison, or at least justify it if someone else points it out to us.

What do you think? Not just about the particular example but about how we can discuss such an issue rationally.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Singularity Summit AU

I'm not sure how much of this conference I'll be able to get to, but I'm speaking at it and will attend as much as I reasonably can (I'll be in Melbourne that week for other reasons and will have some conflicting engagements).

The speaker list is interesting. These are not all hard-core Singularitarians - quite the opposite in some cases. Rob Sparrow, for example, is hostile to transhumanism or anything related, and Hugo de Garis has an extremely pessimistic view about the human future. There will certainly be plenty of debate, not just a love fest.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Nerds and the trouble with high school

Some of this long piece by Paul Graham, on the misery suffered by nerds in high school, is US-specific, and some of it seems exaggerated. Mostly, though it rings true. For many of us, the early years of high school were made miserable by a mixture of the system, the attitudes of adults ... and, above all, the attitudes of other students. Perhaps our own unwillingness or inability to conform to arbitrary requirements for popularity also played a role.

The article makes the important point that it's not just a matter of adolescent hormones - indeed, smart teenagers can be, well, quite smart and sensible if they are treated more or less like junior adults. Sure, we were all inexperienced at that age, and we may have had a simplistic picture of the world, but that wasn't entirely our fault. Partly it was the fact that we were presented with a simplistic picture of the world. Nor was the problem that the world as a whole is as bad as the artificial setting of junior high school: by and large, that's not so, as Graham spells out. Much of the problem is that contemporary Western society, whatever its many virtues (and it certainly has these!), does a poor job of handling the adolescent maturity gap. By their teenage years, many kids are ready to take on some responsibility, to have active sex lives, and to hang out to an extent with the grown-ups, but the social system as a whole works against this.

There are good reasons for the current set-up, mainly that there is now just so much to learn to have even a minimal understanding of the natural and social worlds, and that training for any decent career requires a specialised base of knowledge and skills that takes years to acquire. As a society, we need to offer lengthy education to adolescents and young adults, but we also need to work out strategies to avoid the damaging adolescent maturity gap.

Have a look at Graham's piece and let me know whether it's true to your experience of high school. As I say, some of it seems US-specific - the jock culture over there may not be much worse than the Australian jock culture, but it sounds more relentless. It also takes a rather different form from what I experienced growing up in the beach-oriented ambience of coastal NSW, where such things as prowess in the surf and a good suntan were (even) more important than belonging to sports teams. Still, the picture is close enough to my own experience to be recognisable.

Here's a sample of Graham's thinking that contains a lot of wisdom, and reflects my own conclusions on all this:

Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren't left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they'll do as adults.

And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years' training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop.

Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend.

What happened? We're up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in pre-industrial times started working at about 14 at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don't start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30.

Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they'd be a net loss. But they're also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.

If you stop there, what you're describing is literally a prison, albeit a part-time one. The problem is, many schools practically do stop there. The stated purpose of schools is to educate the kids. But there is no external pressure to do this well. And so most schools do such a bad job of teaching that the kids don't really take it seriously-- not even the smart kids. Much of the time we were all, students and teachers both, just going through the motions.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Shallow, smug, arrogant; pot, kettle, black

Sometimes you have to answer back

The anti-atheist diatribe recently published by Suzanne Fields in The Washington Times is of such poor quality that it scarcely merits a response. Unfortunately, I can't allow every such meretricious piece to go unrebutted: there are so many of them that there's a significant cumulative impact if we let too many through without comment. At least now and then, it's worth taking the time to pick apart such a piece in some detail, if only to demonstrate just how intellectually empty it is.

Since Fields has mentioned my (and Udo Schuklenk's) edited anthology, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, her article has been drawn to my attention, so she gets to be my target this time round. Fields' article is not merely intellectually empty, though it certainly is that: again and again it demonstrates the very arrogance that she accuses her opponents of.

Fields' article is bereft of even one worthwhile point, though it does offer up a few useless, platitudinous truths. Unfortunately, there's obviously a market for such pieces as long as they attack an easily-demonised group such as outspoken atheists.

The sub-editor strikes, and strikes again!

Let's start with the article's title: "The new dance on a pinhead." I'm going to give Fields a pass with this one. While it's a poor choice of title, having little to do with the article itself, it was probably the creation of a sub-editor. It implies that Fields is about to discuss a group of people who fundamentally agree with each other but waste their time in bizarre and arcane debates, remote from the issues that really matter. Nothing in the article actually accuses anyone of doing that, exactly, or argues that any such debate is currently going on. So the title is completely inappropriate, but I'll blame that on the sub-editor.

In all this, we can leave aside the fact that the medieval thought experiments about how many angels can dance on a pinhead (an actual infinity of angels or merely however large a number God wants?) were meant to illustrate matters of deep philosophical significance. The sub-editor is not alert to this, but not many people are. It's worth noting, but not worth getting fussed about.

What about the sub-heading? This says: "Arguments for atheism are the best endorsements for faith." Well, the article goes nowhere near establishing such a thing or even saying anything at all cogent that could be interpreted that way. It's a misleading sub-heading, but again I blame the sub-editor rather than Fields herself.

First para: what is Fields talking about?

But we must blame Fields for the first paragraph. This is so all-of-over the place that it's difficult even to see what she is getting at. You look at each of the sentences in the para and they simply don't follow from each other in a logical sequence. This is poor writing.

Somewhere there, however, she seems to be saying that atheism has become a fashionable topic in political circles or perhaps simply in the city, Washington, D.C., where the article is being published. Either way, that is doubtful - how many Washington dinner parties, I wonder, really turn to discussions of Richard Dawkins and the "New Atheism". In any event, Fields tells us that this fashion has appeared on the scene because of efforts by atheist intellectuals who are interested in taking on the long-dead medieval monks who engaged in esoteric theological debates.

But that is just wrong. Sure, some atheists may make fun of medieval monks - even in some of the essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief you'll probably find some of this. But it's wildly misleading to suggest that contemporary outspoken atheism is about taking on obscurantist theologians, past or present. If anything, it is about taking on creationists, violent fanatics (more of this later), and narrow-minded moralists and evangelists whose notion of "sin" includes such things as abortion, stem-cell research, and homosexual conduct. By and large, outspoken atheists are interested in reducing the social footprint of religion, and especially a certain kind of conservative, politicised religion. Some outspoken atheists think that even liberal religion is playing a negative role, but others are happy to ally with genuinely liberal religious people. And there's quite a spectrum of atheist opinion on this. None of us are greatly concerned about medieval monks. We have fresher fish to fry.

The Bible outsells Richard Dawkins. So?

So far, as of the end of the first para, Fields has not said anything that has any merit. What about the second para? This actually says something true: the Bible massively outsells books like 50 Voices of Disbelief or even Dawkins' The God Delusion. Of course, no one on my side of the argument has ever disputed this, and nothing interesting is made of this well-known fact, at least not in paragraph two. So I'll give the benefit to Fields of having stated something that is true but so obvious as to have no intellectual merit in itself. Will she build on this platitude in her third paragraph? Let's investigate ...

Conformity and Lucretius

Alas, no. The third paragraph changes the subject completely and sneers at atheists for imagining they are non-conformists even though atheism has (supposedly) been around for a long time. Fields quotes some anti-religious words from Lucretius, the great Epicurean poet and philosopher of ancient Rome, to make her point. But paragraph three is wrong at so many levels thats it's hard to know where to start in dismantling it. Note, fellow atheists, that it's an attack on our character, not our arguments. We think of ourselves as non-conformists, Fields says, "but" we can't be because there is a long history of disbelief going back to Lucretius. So instead of addressing our arguments against religions of various kinds, Fields sees fit to attack us as people: as people who falsely imagine we are non-conformists, as people who fool ourselves. But that's hardly playing fair. That's an unfair, arrogant, sneering style of debate.

So much for issues of tone, but what of substance? I think there's merit in discussing the tone of the article, especially as she makes so much of it herself, but might she have something of substance to say, visible through all the sneering? No.

The trouble is that even if we were motivated by a sense of ourselves as non-conformists - which might show some element of vanity, I suppose - her argument that we actually are not what we imagine ourselves to be clearly fails. Even if atheism had a long history, it would not follow that it is currently popular. Conformity is about going along with the majority view that you see around you, not about going along with a view that happens to have a long historical pedigree. So even if Lucretius had been an atheist, this would not make the required point. It would show that there were atheists in classical antiquity, but it would not show that atheism is (or ever has been) popular. The article is not only poorly written; it's poorly argued. It's flagrantly illogical.

The fact is that atheism is a minority view right now in the English-speaking countries, taken overall, and especially in the United States where Fields' article is published. Probably even in Washington. So what the hell is she talking about? Let's be clear about this before moving on: even if Lucretius had been an atheist, it would prove nothing of any relevance - it would remain the fact that atheism really is a minority, or non-conforming, view in the US, where Fields has her primary audience.

And if it comes to that, Lucretius was probably not even an atheist! He was anti-religious, but that is not the same thing. If we take their writings at face value, the Epicureans did actually believe in the gods, who were portrayed as powerful, tranquil beings with no care for humanity. Again, even if the Epicureans such as Lucretrius can be interpreted as "really" atheists, merely giving some kind of lip-service to the existence of the gods for the sake of propriety, that is very much a matter of textual and historical exegesis, not something plain on the face of the Epicurean writings from which Fields quotes.

Note that the point made by Fields back in para 2 actually goes against her here: sales of the Bible dwarf sales of De Rerum Natura or any other Epicurean text, or any other text in the broadly Epicurean tradition.

So to take stock, Field managed to say something true in the second paragraph, but has then done nothing useful with it. By the end of paragraph three, the article is still intellectually empty. It's also showing an early touch of arrogance.

Those awful atheist intellectuals

I turn to paragraph four. Again note the sneering tone: Fields starts to say something about "atheist intellectuals" but can't resist adding "and those who only imagine they're intellectuals"; again, isn't Fields supposed to be on the side of the nice people? But again, this is nastyness we're seeing from her, this is arrogance, this contributes nothing to the debate. Notice that I'm not alleging that she has been arrogant somewhere else: her arrogance is right damn well there, plain on the face of the text.

And before anyone tells me that someone else has said worse while sounding off on a blog, let me remind you that this is not a blog post that we're looking at: it's an op.ed. piece in a reputable newspaper. It should aspire to a certain dignity. Apparently Fields thinks it's okay to write like this about your opponents in such a place. This is not charity, my friends. This is not fairness. It's mean-spirited. It's poisoning the well.

Is there anything of substance in the fourth paragraph? Some of it is about atheists mocking believers. Well, do they? I suppose some do. On the other hand, most of us are actually quite careful not to engage in empty mockery. Most of the mockery you'll see from atheists has a point. It's legitimate, for example, to highlight how a particular idea leads to absurdity or to show that a particular claim is ridiculous on its face. Mockery and ridicule have their place in our cultural and intellectual debates, and if Fields wanted to mock some particular statement by an atheist that was clearly ridiculous I couldn't complain. However that's exactly what she doesn't do - she never provides a single example of anything like that. I dare say there are examples Out There, but Fields doesn't provide them: she simply sneers at what atheists are supposedly like, as described by her.

Where atheists do the same to Christians, I'm not especially impressed, but it's important to point out that is not the typical approach in books by Dawkins, Dennett, and other high-profile atheists, or in the essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief. You wouldn't know it, reading Fields, but that is simply not what the high-profile "New Atheist" books are like. Fields attacks atheists for doing what she does herself - thereby providing us with examples of her own resort to empty, nasty mockery - but she never provides an example of her opponents doing such a thing. Again, I'm not saying it never happens, but it's astonishing to see how this plays out in the article.

Religious people do good things (well, some of them do)

The rest of paragraph four is, again, all over the place. Fields says that some religious people do good things. But hang on a minute: it doesn't follow either that religion is true or that religion brings about good results on balance. Plenty of evil has been inspired by religion. And yes, I know that plenty of evil has been inspired by other things, such as greed, desperation, political ideology, but that's not the point. No one says that religion is the source of all evil in the world. What we do say is that it's not beyond criticism and satire. Nothing in paragraph four amounts even to the beginning of a case against that proposition. Alas, some religious believers really are rubes, rascals, or rednecks, and it's worth pointing this out. Think of creationists, the surfeit of rascally televangelists, and the very large number of unpleasant homophobes who can be found in Fields' country. No amount of out-of-context quotation from Milton or Shakespeare can detract from the truth about that.

The bottom line is that some religionist deserve all the mockery they get - I'm happy to mock the likes of Jimmy Swaggart or Ted Haggard - and some do not (you'll never see me mocking Shelby Spong, for example). Many religious ideas, such as contrived theodicies also deserve mockery. Some religious ideas may not. The fact that some religious people perform good works is neither here nor there. Oh, and some individual atheists may deserve mockery, or the kind of sneering that Fields indulges in, but Fields gives no examples, let alone any convincing ones. She evidently feels that she can just sneer away regardless of the evidence.

Shallow, smug, arrogant

After all this, it's remarkable that she claims to find nothing but "smug, shallow and arrogant assertions" in all the atheist books she's read. This is, of course, nonsense. If she's read, for example, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, she'll know that it's actually full of facts and careful arguments. As for the essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief, since she mentions it, some are light and humorous, but I can't think of any that can fairly be described as containing nothing but "smug, shallow and arrogant assertions". I suggest strongly that Fields is factually wrong here, and that she writes absolutely nothing to back up her implausible generalisation about atheist writing. It also hasn't escaped me that the claim is itself smug, shallow, and rather arrogant. Fields seeks to smear and belittle her opponents, rather than to engage them.

She does go on, in paragraph five, to quote some smug, shallow, arrogant, breathtakingly condescending assertions from David B. Hart, but she does nothing to support them. She simply repeats them and, in effect, adopts them as her own. Even if you think Hart did a good hatchet job in the piece concerned, and had something in the way of an argument to support his extraordinary claims - I can't agree, but we'll set that aside - Fields offers precisely nothing in support. There's nothing of any intellectual value in paragraph five, and as I reach the end of this paragraph, arguably the key paragraph in the whole article, I can only wonder why such an empty piece was published. Well, let's go on.

"Atheists believe in nothing"

Actually, not quite yet. Paragraph five also contains one breathtaking claim, stuck gratuitously in the middle of nowhere. Fields writes: "Atheists by definition believe in nothing, and anyone would find it hard to make something of nothing." That is a nice smug bit of rhetoric, but what in the world does it actually mean? It is simply not the case that atheists "believe in nothing". We don't believe that any of the gods identified in human religions actually exist, but so what? If believing in nothing is meant to mean that atheists have no beliefs at all, that is just false. Like everyone else, any atheist comes with plenty of beliefs. For example, I believe that this planet is approximately 4.5 billion years old, that my species is descended from apelike creatures through a path of biological evolution, that I am currently sitting at my desk in front of my computer, that there will be a general election in Australia on 21 August 2010, that the pantry in my kitchen contains walnuts, and many, many other things. Of course atheists have beliefs. How else could it be?

But aha! Might it be said that we don't believe in anything, perhaps in the sense that we have no ideals or values? But that's also ludicrous. Obviously I am as well-stocked with ideals and values as anyone else. My values include such things as freedom and amelioration of suffering - and many other things that sound less high-falutin'. How dare Fields say we have no ideals or values, if that's what she means? That would be a false and extraordinarily arrogant claim.

But might she mean that our ideals and values are not entailed by our bare lack of belief in the existence of any gods? Now that claim might be true, but so what? No one has ever claimed that atheism itself, taken as a bare lack of belief in any gods, provides a complete philosophy. Neither, of course, does the bare belief in the existence of, say, Yahweh, or Zeus, or Astarte, or Vishnu, or Ra, or Sif, or any other deity. All of these beliefs are tied up in far more complex belief systems.

Atheists, of course, also have more complex belief systems, sometimes good ones that appear to contain much truth and to provide much that is socially beneficial - and sometimes not. The issue is not whether bare lack of belief in the existence of gods is sufficient for a full belief system - clearly it isn't. The real questions are about which belief systems are likely to be close to the truth, which systems might be socially beneficial, whether theism as we've known it historically, in the Abrahamic religions, is likely to be true, whether or not it has been beneficial, whether it is beneficial right now, and so on. All of these questions are worth debate, and atheists are as well-equipped to debate them as theists. You can't argue that atheists' contributions to such debates are worthless merely by sneering knowingly that "Atheists believe in nothing." Again, Fields' approach is not charitable, fair, intellectually reputable, or even civil.

Hitchens and Hitchens

All right, paragraph six at last. Here, Fields outdoes herself. She stoops to an even more despicable level, trying to make a point from Christopher Hitchens' current very serious illness - he is suffering from throat cancer that is likely to kill him. Once again, she doesn't seem to care much about the truth of what she's discussing. It's true, of course, that Hitchens has cancer, but not true at all that he's softened on religion as a result: see this interview, for example, and Jerry Coyne's transcription of some of it. And if that's not her point, what, exactly, is her point?

This brings me close to the end, where Fields has a bit to say about Peter Hitchens. I openly admit that I haven't read the book by Peter Hitchens that she refers to, so I'm prepared to assume that the factual claims she makes about it are true. But she offers nothing independent to support the banal and dubious points that Peter Hitchens apparently makes. The first is that there was something wrong with the social revolution of the 1960s. Secondly, Hitchens apparently thinks that outspoken atheists are hypocritical in being hard on Christianity and soft on Islam. Thirdly, we are told that "The concepts of sin, of conscience, of eternal life and divine justice under an unalterable law" are bulwarks against relativism and consequentialism, which produce great evil.

Note that Fields herself puts no argument whatsoever for any of these three controversial claims. She makes these claims as if they are self-evident and/or the authority of Peter Hitchens is enough. Well, Hitchens may put arguments for them, but no such argument appears in Fields' article - coming from her, these three claims are merely asserted in a rather smug, arrogant, shallow manner. But the claims are far from being self-evident, and the onus is on her to put evidence and argument as to why we should think any of them are true. She offers ... nothing.

In fact, though I don't accept any onus and can't put the full argument here, all three claims lack merit. The social revolution of the sixties had been building for decades, was long overdue, and was, on balance, beneficial. It doubtless caused problems, as all large-scale social change does, but it gave us new freedoms and ushered in a more compassionate society. By and large, we are now more tolerant of diversity than we were prior to the 1960s and we're less tolerant of suffering. None of us should want to go back to what existed before. The 1960s provided an important and largely valuable watershed in history.

The point made about Islam is uncharitable, largely false and entirely unfair. Of course those Western atheists who think religion should be criticised are likely to concentrate on the religion that exerts the most social influence around them and which they understand best, i.e. Christianity. There is nothing surprising or sinister about this. It doesn't show hypocrisy and or a double standard, merely a sense of local priorities and a rational division of labour. For exactly the same reason, it is perfectly understandable, and there's nothing sinister about it, when Turkish atheists concentrate more on Islam. In any event, as Islam gains in influence in the West more actually is being written about it by Western atheists. The violent fanaticism associated with various strains of political Islam constantly comes under attack from Western atheists (among others). There are numerous examples of this every day, e.g. over at Butterflies and Wheels, and again that is a natural step.

Fields doesn't even try to define what she means by relativism - this is an important and difficult issue in meta-ethics, but she shows no sign of even the slightest understanding. If she means the cruder kinds of moral relativism that say, for example, "Female genital mutilation is acceptable if it's practised in a culture where it's accepted", then fine. I don't approve of that kind of vulgar moral relativism. But there are far more sophisticated relativist theories than that.

Besides, when "relativism" is referred to in this way it is usually code for a utilitarian morality, or for something similar that measures the morality of conduct by its consequences, rather than against inflexible moral rules handed down over time. By and large, the acceptance of consequentialist moral ideas has been beneficial. I'm not suggesting that utilitarianism, or any other consequentialist system, provides the last word in normative ethics, but I do suggest that it's a step forward to stop asking, "Will action X breach a moral rule that we've inherited" and to start asking such things as "Will action X cause suffering?" "Might action X even ameliorate suffering to some extent?" Whatever the faults of current Western society, we have advanced insofar as we actually care about the suffering in the world rather than about archaic concepts such as "sin" or an immutable, supposedly God-given moral law.


I apologise if I've wasted your time by writing such a long blog post on such an undeserving topic. However, as I said at the beginning, sometimes it's necessary to respond at length in order to show in detail just how bad some of these anti-atheist articles are.

The piece by Fields is badly written and poorly argued; it is as smug, shallow, and arrogant as anything ever written by any so-called "New Atheist" known to humankind. All in all this piece is a worthless contribution to current debates about God and religion. I'd like to ignore it, but we do have to grapple with these sorts of pieces from time to time.

A placeholder

I'm going to get back to this Washington Times article by Suzanne Fields, but meanwhile see for yourself. I do like the idea of placing copies of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists in hotel rooms, but I don't otherwise see a lot of merit in the article. But I'll discuss it more deeply when I'm less pressed for time - maybe this evening. I think an article like this provides a teachable moment.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Douthat's pathetic attempt to oppose same-sex marriage

Pop over to the New York Times site for a pathetic attempt by Ross Douthat to oppose same-sex marriage as a legal option. It's not "pathetic" as in unintelligent or ill-informed: on the contrary, Douthat is obviously a smart enough guy, and he makes some sensible concessions. It's pathetic in the sense of a last-ditch effort doomed to failure. It shows how even the most rational repackaging of the arguments against same-sex marriage relies on assumptions that are now simply untenable.

To his credit, Douthat concedes the weakness of many of the common arguments put by his side. First, it is incorrect, he admits, that lifelong heterosexual monogamy is universal or "natural" (I take it that the relevant sense of "natural" is something like "deeply-embedded in human nature" rather than something like "consistent with physical laws"). Leave aside what would follow even if it were universal or natural - Douthat is quite correct that the premise simply can't be sustained. If anything, the default family arrangement for our species is polygamous and the default mode of child-rearing communal. That doesn't entail that we should adopt arrangements that involve polgamy and communal child-rearing, but it certainly exposes the danger of the common arguments that Douthat rightly rejects. If such arguments from "is" to "ought", relying on what has been anthropologically universal or what is "natural" to us, were valid, then defenders of traditional same-sex marriage might be shocked at the implications. In any event, there is nothing universal or "natural" (in the requisite sense) about traditional or Christian marriage.

Showing a bit of wisdom that his political allies might learn, Douthat points out the following:

So what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending, if not some universal, biologically inevitable institution? It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.

He elaborates this "sexual ideal" as follows:

[It] holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.

The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.

Again, this is not how many cultures approach marriage. It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.

This is important, because Douthat is going to go on and argue, in effect, that the power of the state should be used to shore up this particular sexual ideal. The state should give special recognition to relationships that meet this ideal, possibly with tangible legal rights attached. It should do that by recognising as marriages only those arrangements that meet the ideal - or at least don't blatantly depart from it, as with same-sex marriages. But one immediate problem with this is that the sexual ideal which Douthat advocates no longer has unchallenged acceptance, even within the culture of the West. As he acknowledges, it has largely been superseded, even in the popular understanding of marriage:

Lately, it has come to co-exist with a less idealistic, more accommodating approach, defined by no-fault divorce, frequent out-of-wedlock births, and serial monogamy.

In this landscape, gay-marriage critics who fret about a slippery slope to polygamy miss the point. Americans already have a kind of postmodern polygamy available to them. It’s just spread over the course of a lifetime, rather than concentrated in a “Big Love”-style menage.

This is exactly right. While marriage means different things to different people, and there are many ideals of sexual love, the more pragmatic, accommodating, "postmodern" approach to marriage that he describes does co-exist with the old Christian/traditional concept. Indeed, the "postmodern" approach has largely displaced the "Christian" approach in the popular imagination. It seems to me, what's more, that this is a good thing, a social advance. Why on earth should people be trapped in loveless marriages that no longer suit them? Reason has gradually been prevailing in this area.

And of course there might be still other sexual ideals that can find expression in personal styles of marriage. Two people may see their marriage as essentially about companionship. Another two might see themselves allied in a great life-adventure that they face together, which will involve them both gaining diverse sexual experience with other people. There are many possible ideals on offer.

In any event, marriage no longer acts as a means to regulate who can have sex with whom - while most people still frown upon adultery and polyamory, and some still frown on "fornication", all of these practices are perfectly legal in most Western jurisdictions. Whatever marriage now symbolises for this person or that person, it does not have any legal force that commits participants to monogamy, to exclusive heterosexuality, to lifelong union, or to procreation. While many people still want to get married, what it symbolises to them is now much more diverse and often rather inchoate. It is, as Douthat acknowledges, usually something to do with a celebration of romantic love, but it now has nothing directly to do with procreation or with state regulation of who is legally permitted to have sex with whom.

So Douthat is left with the bare argument that ...

lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.

... and that

if we ... accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.

But hang on. Douthat is entitled to honour his particular sexual ideal as much as he likes. Let him have a lifelong monogamous heterosexual marriage involving children. Fine. May his children grow up healthy and happy. Doubtless there are many other individuals who honour the same ideal, expressing it in their life plans and projects. Well, let them.

But nothing prevents that. On the other hand, the state now permits "fornication" and "adultery", and it recognises marriages that are deliberately childless, marriages that are open or involve other polyamorous arrangements (I could tell you plenty of stories just from the science fiction community in, say, the US), and doubtless all sorts of other things that I can't even begin to imagine. It also permits procreation outside of marriage, and has abolished old notions of "illegitimacy". Marriage takes many forms, in modern societies, and is used in many different ways by many people with many diverse ideals. I doubt that there is much sense continuing to have a state-recognised status called "marriage" anymore, but insofar as we go on doing this the status has become extremely malleable. And again, this is a good thing. We are not all cut from the same template; we are all different, as individuals, and we should, as far as possible, be free to live in accordance with our varied conceptions of the good.

If same-sex marriages obtain recognition from the state, that won't prevent anyone from living in accordance with the ideal that Douthat espouses. But it's not good enough for Douthat to say that this is an attractive ideal that "we" should honour. Whether "we", as individuals, want to honour it is up to "us" as individuals. If somebody wants to live in accordance with a sexual ideal of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual fecundity ... she should be free to do so. But she has no claim on the rest of us that her sexual ideal gets some special advantage from the state in competition with the many other the alternatives that are on offer. Yes, we as individuals can choose the ideal that Douthat loves so much. Douthat himself can, well, do whatever he likes, provided he doesn't harm others. (I'm not sure how his name is pronounced, but I'm tempted to say: Douthat can do that.)

But as for whether the state should give such a sexual ideal some special honour ... why? In a pluralist society it is not the role of the state to give special honour to one or the other of the many different ideals (sexual or otherwise) that are legitimately available to people, and which, in effect, compete for our adherence. The state should allow people as far as possible to live in accordance with their diverse views of the good; it should not honour one particular group's view of the good and, by implication, stigmatise another's.

Of course, Douthat is welcome to argue that there is some good secular reason not to provide for same-sex marriage because, for example, it will cause suffering, or because it will lead to social breakdown and civil chaos. But he hasn't even attempted to put an argument of that kind. His argument is, instead, the illiberal one that the state should give its backing to his particular, entirely optional, sexual ideal. But why the hell should it?

That's why it's a pathetic attempt to oppose same-sex marriage. When an intelligent conservative who opposes same-sex marriage looks at the issue squarely, he has to concede that the usual arguments relied on by his allies are rubbish. What's more, he clearly has no viable argument based on secular concerns, such as concerns about harms to worldly interests. Surely he'd put an argument like that if he had one: he knows that recognising same-sex marriages will not lead to suffering or chaos.

Douthat is left with a bare plea that the state should honour his favourite sexual ideal over others that compete with it. Sorry, sir, but that's pathetic.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Buy this book or your entire city will be destroyed by a monsoonal rain of giant frogs

I.e., this book.

A variety of prominent overseas authors have made significant contributions to the general public conversation on belief and religion, but Australians have been somewhat less heard.

The Australian Book of Atheism aims to change that, gathering together an impressive collection of essays from pre-eminent Australian atheist, rationalist, secular, humanist, and skeptic thinkers, many of whom participated in the 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne.

I'm delighted to have an essay in this book, edited by Warren Bonett and published by Scribe, and I'm confident that it'll be a great overall package. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy. The Australian Book of Atheism will make an excellent companion for your copy of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.

Edit: Embiggen Books would be one good place to preorder this.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Catching up with the X-Universe

I'll never get to write for the X-Men franchise, alas, though it may not have been out of the question just a few years ago when I was actively doing media tie-in work. I enjoyed my stint doing some work for the Terminator franchise and writing a sequel to the original King Kong movie, but this sort of work is probably not something I want to go on with, and I've not pursued possible opportunities for some time. The death in a car crash of my editor at ibooks, the great Byron Preiss, had a serious effect on my situation, and of course other priorities have come along, some of them unexpected (story of my life!).

Still, that stint with The Terminator was valuable in more ways than one; it certainly taught me new respect for people who make a living from media tie-in writing. It's difficult, skilled work, though also a lot of fun if you can play - officially! - with iconic, resonant characters and settings. It's something I'm very glad to have done.

If, by a miracle, I saw a reasonable prospect of doing some work for X-Men it's the one thing that would make me have another go. From varying distances, I've been following events in the X-Universe ever since primary school, and I think I have as good an in-the-bones sense as almost anyone of the dramatic structures and intentions underlying the whole franchise. So ... what with the world science fiction convention on its way, I've been taking a bit of trouble, just lately, to catch up. Alas, I'd fallen a fair way behind in recent years. It's not that I expect to be handed a run scripting Uncanny X-Men (though wouldn't that be cool!!) or the opportunity to do a trilogy of novels like the excellent ones that my pal and sometime editor Steve Roman published a few years ago. It just seems a pity to lose track of something that I've understood well.

Note here that I'm not talking about the movies or any other spin-off version: I mean the original "Earth-616" continuity.

When I was young and an avid reader of anything I could get my hands on - not least comics - there was, of course, no internet. It's always fascinating to see what controversy is generated on almost anything out there in internet-land. I see that there are a lot of people who really hate what is happening in the flagship Uncanny X-Men comics, currently being scripted by Matt Fraction, but there's also a lot of support out there for current directions. Well, controversy can be good.

By and large, I like what I'm currently seeing. Now of course we're talking here about superhero comics: don't expect the storylines to be scientifically plausible in the same way as a Gregory Benford novel. Expect plenty of deus ex machina endings, characters with sudden mood swings (suicidal one minute, euphoric the next), and other such flaws that would grate horribly in any other medium ... and do grate slightly even in comic-book narratives. Like everyone else in the world who's read it, I have my own theory about how the recent Second Coming cross-over could have been concluded with less of that good old deus-ex-machina feeling, but so what? I guess I really look for interesting extensions of the mega-text as we've received it - good, insightful work with the established characters that also leads to new directions. There has to be a respect for the core of the characters, but there has to be enough that's new to make the whole thing worthwhile continuing, which can even mean killing off some beloved characters like [Spoiler] and [Spoiler] in Second Coming (and making at least some of those deaths "stick").

For example, the decision some time ago now to pair off Cyclops and Emma Frost would have sounded crazy to anyone reading X-Men back in the 80s, but it's an innovation that actually works. These two unlikely lovers go well together in a bizarre way, and their blatantly lusty relationship adds a quirky element to X-Men, slightly amusing ... and just slightly sinister for fans with long memories of a more innocent Scott and a more villainous Emma. Strangely, but convincingly, Emma often seems like the more idealistic, naive one, as Scott has toughened up to do what he thinks has to be done.

I'm enjoying the line currently being taken with the rival visions of human/mutant relations espoused by Professor X and Magneto. That old theme is being respected, but also deepened and complexified. Good for Matt Fraction or whoever is driving this. And I'm especially liking the character work from Mike Carey on the X-Men: Legacy mag at the moment. He's doing very shrewd, deft work with established characters like Rogue (who is currently the central figure) and Magneto (who has rejoined the good guys in a big way, at least for now, and is being depicted very well). I'm going to watch the direction that Carey takes this. The artwork from Clay Mann in the current issue, #238, is beautiful in capturing these characters, with expressions and body language telling us much about them in addition to Carey's script.

With the modern trend to avoid thought balloons, artwork takes on a new meaning in suggesting the emotions and motives of characters. As one tiny example, I like the final page of X-Men: Legacy #238 for the way Rogue and Magneto fall into near-identical fighting stances as they suddenly face a common enemy. It makes a point, never explicit in the script, about these two hardened, effective warriors (both of them rather different from their cinematic equivalents).

If, like me, you have a long-standing love for the X-Men franchise, do have a look at what's been happening lately in the main continuity, or, hey, feel free to comment if you're more up to speed with it than I am.