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

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review of X-Men Legacy #249

First, the short version
There's going to be a major spoiler in this review of X-Men Legacy #249, so go no further if you actually plan to read the issue and want to get its dramatic impact. The cover might give you a clue, but covers can be misleading. Notoriously so with comics.

A number of plot and character elements change dramatically from where we were in the previous issue - with elaborations, reversals, and one or two outright shocks. I do propose to discuss the significance of these, so this is not a spoiler-free review. Fortunately it's going to be a long one, so if you stop about now you should be safe.

In a nutshell, this issue and the previous one are must-reads for anybody who wants to follow the comic-book version of the X-Men mythos. Read together, they also provide a jumping-on point. You don't even need to know all the background that I'll be describing later. Mike Carey gives us brilliant, sophisticated writing; he can have all the stars he wants for this character-rich two-issue story.

That will do for a short review.
 
Now for the long version
Anyone who has a short attention span and subscribes to the philosophy of "too long; didn't read" can stop now. The following is a (much) longer version of my take on the things.

Taken together, X-Men Legacy #248 and #249 make up a story called "Aftermath" - specifically, it's the aftermath to the wonderful Age of X event that occupied the pages of X-Men Legacy and New Mutants for three months. The X-characters spent a week in another reality, where they and their relationships were all changed ... though their underlying personalities were similar, showing how they could act in altered circumstances. Having found their way back to what counts for them as normal, they now possess true memories of the week that actually happened, plus years of false memories of how they'd seemingly lived their previous lives within Age of X.

Many, perhaps most, of the characters choose to have their Age-of-X memories - both true and false - removed, though some keep selected highlights. Some, however, decide to retain the memories and come to terms with them. For those characters, what happened within Age of X will now influence their personalities and decisions going forward.

By the time we get to issue #249, the focus is on just a few characters who still have their Age-of-X memories for one reason or another. These are the ones whom author Mike Carey evidently wants to concentrate upon for the foreseeable future. As a result, the "Aftermath" story serves as a two-issue bridge from Age of X and what came before to what looks like a new status quo for the book.

Going back a few steps
I think that "Aftermath" is fairly self-explanatory for someone hitting it cold. It might be more confusing for someone who knows a bit about the X-mythos, but not the right parts of it. If you're in that situation, you might find the story contradicts some of what you thought you knew.

For those who want it, let's go into some background. It will help me say what I think is so good about the way the story is handled. If you don't want it, skip ahead a few paragraphs to the next section.

X-Men Legacy's storylines are centred on the mutant power-absorber Rogue. She has been portrayed for the past 20 years (representing maybe five years of time passing within the diegesis) in a romantic relationship with another mutant, Gambit - it's a relationship that has been unsatisfying all round, since they've been unable to touch each other for most of that time. Rogue's powers, which she learned to control only very recently, involve absorption of others' memories, their superpowers if any, and even their consciousness (characters with superpowers tend to be rendered unconscious for a period if she so much as touches them; the effects on ordinary human beings can be far more drastic). Some very powerful characters have been able to resist the effect of her touch to an extent, but they are rare (and resistance to her touch seems to require more than just a high power level, since some other very powerful characters have shown no ability to resist).

Rogue and Gambit have actually made love a very small number of times in the five or so in-world years concerned, since it was possible only if Rogue was depowered at the time. Your mileage may vary as to whether this enforced chastity seems romantic or merely counterproductive (both to the characters and to the plot going anywhere). Now that Rogue has control of her powers - she can choose just what memories or powers to take, she can duplicate them without harming the person she touches, she can make her touch of no effect, or horribly effective, and so on - you'd think that she and Gambit could live happily ever after, which is doubtless what many of their fans want. Alas, placing characters into happy ongoing relationships is often the last thing that the writers of serial soap opera (which is a large part of the essence of X-Men) want to do. Where's the drama in that? It can stultify characters.

Mike Carey gets my applause because he's taking Rogue's story forward. There's still the chance that one day she'll end up living happily ever after with Gambit; but if so, not here in this issue. Not yet.

Enter Magneto, perhaps Marvel's greatest supervillain, one of the most powerful and intimidating of the company's Earth-based characters, and the X-Men's major antagonist. Magneto is a Holocaust survivor who has been de-aged back to the prime of early middle age (according to the continuity he must be pushing 40, physically speaking, though he is usually drawn to look somewhat older than that, helped by his naturally silver hair). He controls the force of electromagnetism on a huge scale: he can devastate entire cities or singlehandedly fight the world's armed forces; he's been a competent opponent for the X-Men who actually wins as often as not; and now he has everybody glancing nervously as he wanders freely around the X-Men's island.

Magneto is not fully reformed by any means ... but he's calmed down enough to be allowed on the team - partly because he acknowledges that Scott Summers has proved to be a better leader of mutantkind than he ever was. He's now Scott's consigliere and biggest supporter. That itself creates an interesting political situation.

But more importantly, whatever Magneto's faults may be - he's pompous, arrogant, overbearing, utterly ruthless, and mentally unstable - he actually likes Rogue. And Rogue likes him. Given his personality faults, we might wonder what she sees in him, but he's a complex villain who is depicted as attractive, and even charismatic, in various ways. And Rogue is herself a reformed supervillain who is intrigued by him.

During the 1990s, Marvel put a lot of effort into creating a sexual overtone in this relationship between enemies, but the characters had not interacted for a long time until very recently.

Even before Rogue's romance with Gambit, Rogue and Magneto had a sort of tryst, and seemingly fell in love, in the Savage Land (a lost-world-style jungle in Antarctica). Since then, even when they've fought, we've seen them going easy on each other and trying to talk each other down rather than seriously hurting each other ... and Rogue has tried to defend some of his actions to the other X-Men. Now Magneto has turned up on the island and is on the same team as Rogue, so the question is: How will they relate to each other? He's done terrible things since their Savage Land interlude, and he ended that by murdering their mutual enemy, Zaladane, then flying off leaving Rogue in tears. His reason, which he never expressed to her, was that it was for her own good for him to leave her: people who hang around Magneto tend to end up getting killed one way or another.

Rogue has plenty of reason to be angry with him, to be bitter and resentful. But Magneto is trying to restore relationships with people he cares about, such as his children, Charles Xavier ... and of course, Rogue. So here's the opportunity for some drama.

Carey has grabbed the opportunity with both hands. For well over a year now, we've seen Magneto and Rogue interacting, with Magneto making overtures of friendship (but interestingly not suggesting anything more) and Rogue invariably responding by referring to their failed romantic relationship and telling him that it's all over between them. On one occasion, he basically replies that she's protesting too much, but otherwise he's soon dropped the subject. They constantly seem at cross-purposes, and Magneto himself seems uncertain about what he really wants from her.

Meanwhile, they have been portrayed as gradually getting back onto friendly terms if only through the process of fighting on the same side and helping each other in the thick of battle. And now, following Age of X, Rogue has just interacted with a distorted version of Magneto who was a rather grim leader of mutantkind, but with nothing like the real Magneto's track record of outright murder and mayhem.

What happens?
So with all that background behind what's going on, and all the questions as to how this situation is going to move from here, what about X-Men Legacy #249? In the previous issue we see Rogue dithering as she talks to Gambit, who eventually tells her to get out of his life until she's ready to commit to him whole-heartedly. As she wanders the island, disconsolate, Magneto turns up wanting to talk to her, which she eventually agrees to after expressing a few recriminations. What next?

X-Men Legacy #249 has a complex but tight structure. Pretty high literary values are involved here. It's divided into three stories or chapters: "Black", "Red", and "A Color that Tastes Like Screaming" - then we return briefly to "Black" in the two pages of "Black Revisited". "Black" itself contains a long story within the story, as Magneto tells Rogue something about his life as a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi death camp, and what happened afterwards.

As the issue begins, Magneto has whisked himself and Rogue from their base off the coast of San Francisco to the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles. It's evening, and he breaks in effortlessly while Rogue remarks, "You don't get this whole being-on-the-right-side-of-the-law thing, do you, Magneto?" He wants to show her the photo of a particular Nazi doctor (the real Nazi doctor August Hirt), whom he claims to have murdered after the war - coercing the man to hang himself. He explains why he did it, detailing his victim's racism and his atrocities.

Arms now folded across her body, Rogue is unimpressed - "Do you come pre-absolved?" she asks mockingly. But he replies that he meant the opposite. He wants her to understand the darkness inside of him; forget about whatever love she feels for him; and ... for her own good ... go back to Gambit, who loves her and is ennobled by her.

"Red" tells the story of the supervillainess Frenzy, who actually was ennobled by her time in the Age of X and now wants to be a heroine, as she tells Gambit back on the X-Men's island.

"A Color that Tastes Like Screaming" focuses on Legion, Professor X's son, who has many, many personalities, each with its own superpower set. Legion is potentially almost all-powerful, but has little control of his powers and sub-personalities. Now he's working with his father and others to get them under a degree of control. At the end to this chapter, we learn that several of Legion's sub-personalities have rebelled against him and taken on corporeal forms of their own.

Then we return to "Black" - to "Black Revisited" - and here's the shock. Some time later, perhaps hours after we left the characters - who knows, exactly? - Rogue comes to Magneto's room to make love to him. She tells him she has many reasons to hate him; he replies that he'd rather she stay away out of fear. Her narration tells us that she's realised that all the reasons for and against loving someone eventually have to fall away. This time, it seems, Rogue is not going to be dumped by Magneto for her own good. She's decided she loves and wants him and will act on it, at least this once, irrespective of her fears and whether or not it's wise.

Not looking entirely happy with her own decision, she tells him she promises nothing beyond one night - she puts her fingers to his lips to hush him, and then they kiss passionately. The end.

The verdict
I loved this issue. Carey could so easily have had Rogue returning, chastened, to Gambit, but had the courage to follow through with something much more powerful. I wanted to see the issue of Rogue/Magneto dealt with, but not necessarily like this. Something had to be done with their underlying friendship and mutual fascination. Now it's happened, I think anything else would have been a cop-out, leaving the characters pretty much where they were. Now the facts on the ground have changed for them, and new possibilities open up for story-telling.

The shock Rogneto ending has already, within a few days, become one of the most controversial conclusions to a comic book since Marvel retrospectively wiped out Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane Watson. A lot of fans are expressing horror at Rogue screwing an unrepentant supervillain, while a similar number are applauding. I'm applauding. Whatever happens next - whether it really is only one night, or whether this relationship continues indefinitely, or perhaps until the next action by Magneto that is too ruthless for Rogue to stomach - this issue moves all the characters forward.

I'm also cheering for the fine character work that has finally brought us to this point over the last year to eighteen months. It would be out of character for Magneto to apologise for any of the things he's done, or for him to use words as simple as, "I love you." Rogue has been shown to have the old relationship on her mind, to be still attracted, but also as being hurt and angry. Both characters have been made to talk in riddles, especially in this latest issue. At times, it is difficult to sort out what they mean, but that is in character as they struggle to express themselves - Magneto in hints and parables, and Rogue in impenetrable tangles of down-home similes and metaphors.

These people are supposed to be incredibly powerful superhumans - she can steal memories, or even kill, with just a touch; he can sink warships with a gesture, or hurl vast buildings across the sky like spears - but what we see when they interact are two highly intelligent, proud, hurt people trying to sort out and express how they feel about each other. Anything simpler than what we've been given in X-Men Legacy since early last year would have been a different kind of cop-out.

This had to be made damn hard for the characters, and it was - and there's no guarantee that what they have will last another issue of X-Men Legacy. I hope so - but far be it from me to lobby for what I want, wearing my fanboy hat. By now, I trust Carey to handle these characters, to tell us stories about them, in ways that are richer and more rewarding than anything I could imagine for myself.

 Like I said, Mike Carey can have all the stars he wants.

"Greatness"

Who is the greater filmmaker - Martin Scorcese or Woody Allen?

Discuss. You should describe any philosophical difficulties that you see with the words "greater", "greatness", and their cognates.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The "right" to wear the burqa

A story on whether tertiary students should have a "right" to wear the burqa.

This is always a tricky one. I don't support the ban on face-obscuring clothing, which includes and is obviously aimed at the burqa, recently introduced in France. I don't generally think that governments should have the power to tell us what we can and cannot wear in ordinary public places. In that limited sense, yes, I do support the right to wear a burqa.

But should educational institutions be in the same position as the government? I don't think so. I think that it should be open to educational institutions at least to set some basic standards for dress in class - standards that I would not want governments to set for the public streets.

E.g., some students turn up in rather skimpy clothing on hot days in the summer, and I've never had a problem with it as a teacher, but surely common sense tells us that there is some limit before a class is disrupted. It's going to very difficult conducting a class if, let's say, someone turns up completely naked. It's fair enough for a teacher or an institution not to accept it ... not on any puritanical grounds but simply for the practical reason that it will, in the real world, be disruptive.

Turning up in a burqa may not be quite so disruptive, but it's going to be difficult holding a conversation with someone whose face is totally covered, making communication through her facial expressions impossible. We do this with telephone calls, of course (unless we use Skype), so it's not totally impossible to talk to someone whose face is covered. But nor is it totally impossible talking to someone who happens to be naked. Not totally impossible, but not optimal in the context of, say, a tutorial on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

It seems to me that institutions get to make discretionary judgments about what, under current circumstances, is going to cause undue difficulties in the classroom. Perhaps they should err on the side of being inclusive, if they can ... allowing, say, dental floss bikinis, Nazi uniforms, motorbike helmets, and burqas.

Perhaps. But not necessarily.

It's their decision to make. It's not a matter of political rights.

Another strong review for X-Men: First Class

The good reviews keep coming, and here's another one - it seems that the critics love this movie. How far should I get my hopes up, I wonder. We'll see later this week; I'll get along to see it asap, and will definitely review it here.

Ah haz a copy of Eona

Looks nice, too.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Onion advises on acceptable things to masturbate to

This looks very useful.

D'Souza on callousness and compassion, atheism and morality

Dinesh D’Souza goes badly wrong when he describes bioethical views such as Peter Singer's (and, for relevant purposes, mine) as lacking in compassion. Nothing could be further from the truth. He writes: "It may seem strange to see all this callousness toward human life in a society whose primary social value in compassion." Then he goes on to claim that we need to be pretend to be virtuous in public because we are so "awful in our private lives" (What’s So Great About Christianity, 271).

But he has all this backwards. At this point of the discussion, his primary example is abortion, but it is nonsense to suggest that compassion, of all things could lead to an anti-abortion stand. It is most certainly possible to feel compassion for a woman - perhaps a frightened teenage girl - who needs an abortion for any of a vast range of reasons. It is not possible to feel compassion for an entity that may have developed the beginnings of a human morphology but cannot experience fear, psychological suffering, or in most cases even physical pain. If you imagine that what you feel here is genuine compassion you are deluding yourself - your compassion is for an imaginary being with properties that the entity you're supposed to be thinking about simply does not possess.

If we are going to balance our impulse to feel compassion, we will side in almost any conceivable case with a woman who needs an abortion and we will certainly not support laws that attempt to prevent women having abortions. It is, in fact, the anti-abortion position that lacks compassion. This is, indeed, why many of us reject what D’Souza and other Christian conservatives hold out as Christian morality: it is arbitrary, irrational, and cruel.

The same can be said about another of his examples, euthanasia, by which he seems to have in mind physician-assisted suicide. But how can this be described as callous? Euthanasia in the relevant sense usually relates to the suffering of patients who face inevitable death in the near future ... brought to them from horrible diseases such as cancer. If a contemporary discussion of euthanasia extends at all beyond that context, it is only to include other situations of patients whose situations are so miserable that they prefer death, or whose situations have caught them in a state of permanent unconsciousness, with no prospect of ever again leading an ordinary human life.

Many people find themselves experiencing what has become a living hell, yet are too debilitated by the same disease that makes it so to be able to end their own lives. Is it "compassionate" to require them to live on against their own wishes, knowing the ongoing suffering that they must endure, and no matter what legislative safeguards might be put in place to deter abuses and obviate fears? To many atheists - and others who support regulated access to euthanasia, since atheists don't have a monopoly on compassion or good sense - it is the policies of the churches that appear cruel. The latter are driven more by supernaturalist concepts that human lives are in the hands of an inscrutable God than by concern for the welfare of fellow human beings in awful situations.

From that point of view, D'Souza’s complaints about callousness and compassion seem like a sick joke. The religious morality that he espouses detects a kind of misplaced holiness in suffering, helplessness, and misery.

 I could go into a whole raft of issues with a view to working out which standards and which social policies are more compassionate or more callous. This applies to gay rights, divorce law, the treatment of anencephalic and other severely deformed infants, or whatever else D'Souza wants to talk about. I acknowledged that atheists don't have a monopoly on compassion but it's very plain that conservative Christianity does not have such a monopoly. In fact, it has a lousy claim to exemplify compassion at all.

D'Souza appears to be led by his own sense of righteousness to a thoroughgoing misunderstanding of the relationship between the moral standards advocated by many atheist thinkers and the widely-accepted value of compassion.
         
He sees atheism as a rebellion against Christian morality, especially Christian sexual morality. That is wrong, since atheism is usually a sincere intellectual position backed by arguments. But does his analysis contain no grain of truth at all? 

Perhaps there is some truth in the vicinity, but again D'Souza gets it exactly wrong. Far from people trying to fool themselves that God does not exist so that they can reject certain strictures of traditional morality, they are more likely to begin with a strong intuition that those strictures are irrational, arbitrary, and cruel. Thinking about it rationally is likely to confirm the intuition.

This is not a direct reason for them to believe that God doesn't exist: we could consistently postulate that God exists while also holding that there is nothing wrong with such things as contraception, abortion, and homosexual conduct. After all, much contemporary theology rejects conservative Christian views of these things.

But the problem is likely to be more indirect - as long as churches and sects issue moral edicts that appear largely irrational, judged by secular standards, their credibility is undermined. For many of us these do not look like the edicts of a superlatively wise and benevolent being, but like relics from a less enlightened era. At best, some of them may be excused as standards of behaviour that made sense in earlier social circumstances, but make little or no sense now. Once we reach that point, holy books, traditional teachings, and official pronouncements from religious organisations appear unlikely to be divinely inspired. They look very much "man-made", very much like merely human constructions.

That, in turn casts doubt on the churches' and sects' authority in other matters such as claims about the existence and nature of character of supernatural beings. It's not conclusive by itself, but it converges with other considerations to make religious views of the world less likely to be true. The most powerful arguments come from elsewhere - among them, of course, is the Problem of Evil - but the cruel, arbitrary, irrational moral norms found in religious traditions do nothing to bolster the intellectual authority of religion. In fact, quite the opposite.

Sunday supervillainy - In which Doom is not amused


This is more from FF #4 ... follow this link for more about the story. I found the image online over at Scans Daily, where it was also pointed out that Dr. Doom's faceplate doesn't work like that (it's just a, well, an inflexible metal plate with some holes in it). The sequence is kind of funny though - enough, I think, for the artist to take liberties.

I do love Diablo's smartarse expression to go with his banter. But hey, Doom has owned him in the past ... and I'm sure he will again. Let him have his little moment.

Edit: Here's the dialogue if you're struggling to read it.

Guy from A.I.M. (in yellow): Humor me, Doctor Richards, while I lay this out... You're saying these men are just as intelligent as you, but lack the soft nature and general weakness that you possess? That they have the ambition to rule worlds and decide the fate of others as they see fit?

Dr. Doom: I do believe I like these Reeds.

Reed Richards: You wouldn't... One of the things they do is turn any Victor von Doom they encounter on any world into vegetables. They consider you too dangerous to just let wander around.

Diablo: Well then... I do believe I like these Reeds.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jason Powell on a classic X-Men story

I think, folks, that this will have to be an X-Men-oriented week, what with the new X-Men: First Class movie being released in just a few days. Away from the blog, I'm wrestling with the work of Dinesh D'Souza, Alister McGrath, and so on. Here, at the Hellfire Club, I intend to have a little bit of fun. Who's with me?

=======================

As a treat to X-Men fans everywhere, here are two splendid posts from last year by Jason Powell (with good threads following on from them) discussing the classic Magneto/Rogue Savage Land story - i.e. Uncanny X-Men #274 and #275 - that pretty much finished off Chris Claremont's original run with the X-characters. By this time, Claremont was unhappy with how things were going, and though I am not privy to any details it's well known that there was friction between him and his UXM artist/co-plotter, Jim Lee. But that friction wasn't necessarily a bad thing for the quality of the stories: however exactly they got that way, the stories themselves ended up being complex, suggestive, open to many interpretations. They are better than the sum of the intentions behind them.

There was a little bit more in the tank for Claremont after that. His run concluded a few months later with the first three issues of the then-new X-Men v. 2 ... which played on the events of UXM #274/75. But the Savage Land story can be seen as in many ways the end of the era:

This is, ultimately, a perfect ending for Claremont’s Magneto: Neither standing among the heroes whose naivety (i.e., sparing the lives of irredeemable villains) he does not share, nor to be ghettoized amongst the two-dimensional villains who comprise the rest of the X-Men's "rogues gallery" (fitting then that he abandons a "Rogue" as well at the end of this arc [at this point, I, i.e. Russell, interpolate that I find this comment about Rogue's name a bit like over-reading, but it's the only thing in Powell's two posts that give me that reaction]). [Magneto's] psychology is simply too vast, his morality too ambiguous for a four-color world. Note how much of his dialogue in the present issue twists around moral questions like a snake, impossible to nail down. Before murdering the Russian soldier Semyanov, whose son he killed years earlier, Magneto offers condolences. "I am sorry for your son, Colonel," he says. "Which is more than I ever heard … for the slaughter of those I loved." "Your … daughter, you mean?" Semyanov replies. "And that absolves you of any crime?" Magneto’s equivocal reply: "I never said it did. For what we are, and what we have done, Comrade Colonel … we are both of us condemned." Much like Miller's Batman in "Dark Knight," Claremont’s Magneto is simply "too big." Beyond judgment by any but the power that he sees himself "condemned" by. This is the only possible endpoint that Magneto's trajectory (begun a decade earlier) could have taken him, and it feels utterly right.

And yet the story and its tropes continued to echo through the franchise ever afterwards. It is still being referenced today ... in fact very much so in the last few days. Does Magneto come, as it were, "pre-absolved" for his crimes because of what he first suffered during the Nazi Holocaust and then later when his first daughter was murdered?

That question is still being asked: in fact, Rogue asks Magneto exactly that, and in much the same tone, in X-Men Legacy #249. "Does that absolve you, then? Do you come pre-absolved?" This is after he tells her the story of yet another of his murder victims - a monstrous Nazi doctor whom he forced to commit suicide (and who did, indeed, commit suicide in our actual world after WWII). He gives her a similar answer. "No," he says, as Mike Carey's beat for the character reflects Chris Claremont's from twenty years ago, "quite the opposite." Clearly, Magneto still sees himself as condemned.

So he tells her not to love him for her own good: he's the product of a nightmarish era, and he's full of darkness and nightmares.

I'm going to have occasion to refer back to this post, and possibly to what Powell says, a bit later in week, and, hey, it's not just because of the movie: X-Men Legacy #249 also marks the end of an era, or maybe just the beginning of a new one, and it deserves a separate review. So, that's still to come ... and if you're interested at all in this stuff do have a look at what Powell has to say. His writing is exemplary critical discussion of popular culture.

MaryAnn Johanson on X-Men: First Class

MaryAnn Johanson gives X-Men: First Class a rave review over on her Flick Filosopher site. All the early reviews that I've seen have been very positive, so here's hoping for a totally cool X-Men movie. Sample:

The heart of the movie is the push and pull between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy [Gnomeo & Juliet, Wanted], excellent as always), who can read minds and control the thoughts of others, and Erik Lehnsherr (the riveting Michael Fassbender [Jonah Hex, Inglourious Basterds], who will be a huge star after this), who can make metal do his bidding. We saw, in the first X-Men movie, the endpoint of their relationship, at which they are bitter enemies on either side of a hard line, divided over how best to interact with unmutated humans (Lehnsherr sees violent conflict as the only option; Xavier wants to work peacefully together). Here, we witness their meeting and the beginning of what is almost instantly a powerful friendship and complementary working partnership, though they are in contention instantly as well. Where is the boundary between freedom and slavery? Does torture work, and should we be above it even if it does? These questions are explored through their arguments with comic-book-scaled subtlety: one scene in which the two men need to get information about Shaw out of Frost is shocking from a number of angles. The brilliant thing about it all is that both Xavier and Lehnsherr are at least partly correct in their perspectives, and that though we’ve seen their flip sides before, and know where they will end up, the film somehow manages to avoid the feeling of inevitability that comes with prequels and preordained endings.

Still currently reading D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity

I've been ploughing through this for a few days now and have nearly finished. Once again, D'Souza can write, so the book is relatively easy going in terms of having a very transparent style even when it's discussing difficult issues. But it gets worse and worse as it goes on - overreaching to depict what the author imagines to be the evils of atheism. As with McGrath, D'Souza can't let go the connection that he sees between atheism and totalitarian dictatorships.

Now, I can understand him trying to argue that many of the horrors perpetrated in the name of religion were either not on the scale that is often imagined or were really cases where ordinary greed, territorialism, and so on were the main driving motivations. There are going to be examples where that strategy will be stretched, but there's a case to be made. But as soon as you go down that path, as D'Souza does, it becomes pretty obvious that folks like Hitler and Stalin were also driven largely by these ordinary motivations, and in any event that whatever ideological motivation informed their actions had relatively little to do with atheism. (This is leaving aside the fact that Hitler was probably not an atheist at all.)

I do understand that the same accusation of overreaching might be made against Sam Harris, for example, and we could have an interesting discussion about whether the accusation can be made to stick. By and large I'd argue that it doesn't, but there may be particular passages where Harris also overreaches in, say, The End of Faith. Even if that's so, you'd hope that these Christian folks could rise above it and not do the same thing (far more blatantly in my perception).

A pity. In the early part of the book D'Souza puts some of the traditional arguments for God as vividly and comprehensibly as anyone can expect. He's not philosophically unsophisticated, and he's definitely, well, bright (though not a "bright"). He could have written a much better book if he'd maintained the quality of the opening chapters - but, alas, he didn't.

Michael Shermer, whom I have a lot of time for, gives What's So Great About Christianity a really good blurb. I'm afraid that, contrary to what he says, D'Souza's book does not end up taking the debate "to a new level." Don't bother reading it, folks. Or read it solely for an accessible and fairly comprehensive formulation of a kind of conservative Christian position that would, I suppose, be regarded by accommodationists as "moderate". Of course, it is nothing of the sort.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rapture takes effect in the UK

According to the Daily Mash, last week's Rapture and accompanying apocalyptic events left much of the United Kingdom largely unchanged:
... the resulting lakes of fire, jet-black skies and plagues of demonic entities have gone largely unnoticed in the hundreds of already depressing towns spread around the UK.
I gather that there has been a similar outcome in many other countries.

H/T Jenny.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dawkins and Dennett did NOT invent the term "bright"

I'm sure most of my regular readers already know this, but Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett did not invent the term "bright" - used as a noun to mean "person with a naturalistic worldview". I'm sick of seeing this claim, made explicitly or insinuated by other wording that links them to the term. The fact of the matter is that, yes, they gave the term some support in articles that they published in 2003 (in The Guardian and Wired magazine in Dawkins' case and in The New York Times (available along with Dawkins' Guardian piece at the Edge) in Dennett's case). But they did not coin it.

The term "bright" was first employed by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell when they launched the “Brights movement” early in 2003. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, it was actually thought up by Geisert the previous year. Be that as it may, the idea was to find a positive-sounding word for people who have a naturalistic worldview, analogous to the word “gay” for homosexuals. It is supposed to be a word with uplifting connotations, as with cheerfulness and bright colors ... and thus much like "gay". 

Hence the word is supposed to be a positive label for a class of people whom Geisert and Myngell saw as despised. Geisert and Futrell have maintained that the main basis for selecting the word is its association of philosophical naturalism with the Enlightenment.

This coinage may or may not have been the, um, brightest idea, considering how it has been used ever since as a stick to beat atheists and philosophical naturalists. But it was not coined by the high-profile atheists it's so often associated with. And a fair reading shows that they gave it some support not as an arrogant boast of intellectual superiority - something that they explicitly address and disclaim in the articles I've linked to - but in the hope that the word would operate much like the word "gay" if it got a bit of a help along.

That may or may not have been a misjudgment on their part. Maybe coining this new noun accomplished some good. But anyway I'm sick of reading inaccurate - and I suspect often downright dishonest - claims about it.

As for whether philosophical naturalists really are more intelligent, on average, than the general population, there's some circumstantial basis to think they are, at least in populations where the opposite view is held by default (and usually arrived at through indoctrination/socialisation). In any such population, there's more chance that a person with a naturalistic worldview will have arrived at her position through intellectual inquiry rather than some non-rational process. But this is, as I said,  circumstantial, and in any event it does not suggest that theists and others with supernatural beliefs are stupid or that none of them arrived at their positions by intellectual inquiry. Doubtless some did.

In some populations, the situation may even be reversed for various reasons (it certainly seemed that way when I was at high school, where most of the smartest kids happened to be Christians, partly because of socialisation but partly because it was the most readily available set of answers for inquiring minds in a social milieu that was godless, and even anti-religious, by default).

But the take home message here, regardless of whether philosophical naturalists are, on average, smarter than the general population, is that that was not the primary meaning of the coinage "bright" - and the coinage came from Geisert and Futrell. Give the credit or the blame where it's due.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The dreaded alpacalypse

It seems that the end of the world last weekend has got lots of people searching for the word "alpacalypse" - judging by the number of folks who've recently found this post ... and yes, by searching on that word.

Is the word a popular meme right now, what with us having just had the Rapture and all? I assume that must be the case. I hate to think of the obvious alternative: that it's simply that a lot of people Out There on teh intertubez don't know how to spell "apocalypse".

Currently reading: What's So Great About Christianity by Dinesh D'Souza

In my current quest to catch up on a whole lot of recent works of Christian apologetics, I've finally broached D'Souza's book. I'm about a quarter or a third through it, so it's fairly early days, but I've got to say in all honesty that the book is much better than I expected it to be (judged, for example, on D'Souza's style in oral debates).

The thing about D'Souza is that he can actually write - he presents his case in clear, crisp prose, and he seems to have a good grasp of the philosophical arguments (much better than I expected from his debates with Hitchens, where he is histrionic and rather shallow ... and then there's the fact that he does not have a background as a professional philosopher). So, credit where it's due.

That said, he makes claims that are, in their content, far more outrageous than anything you'll find in, say, Haught or Reitan. Unlike them, D'Souza is not a liberal in any sense: theologically, politically, or probably in any other way. He tends to see conspiracies by evil atheists. So far, however, he's doing a better job than others of saying these things without sounding angry, pathetically hurt, or uncivil. Maybe that will change - as Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism seemed to lose the plot halfway through - but at this stage, D'Souza is, at the very least, a good exemplar of style. It'd be worth your while to have a look at how he does it. He manages to take some pretty cheap shots without obviously appearing to, and that is quite a rhetorical accomplishment.

Anyway, I have a long way to go. I'll report more when I'm further advanced.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Can't post, head spinning (Danger - apologetics!)

Well, since I'm posting this at all ... the title of the post can't be correct can it? All the same, most of my reading for the past couple of weeks has been various works of what amount to Christian apologetics of one kind or another. This will continue for a bit. It's actually quite interesting reading this stuff - interesting from several points of view. I'm interested in what people think, so I like finding out just what bothers individuals like Alister McGrath, John Haught, and Eric Reitan about atheism, not to mention where they stand more generally.

But after a while it reaches the point where I feel saturated with this material. It doesn't help that I'm taking notes as I go ... but what I'm reading is often so murky, and often seems so wrong-headed, that it's difficult nailing down what the argument actually is, let alone knowing where to start in assessing and criticizing it. As to the latter, I could write pages and pages dissecting some pages of these books, and would still perhaps not nail down the problems properly. I must resist that temptation. Please note that I'm not just reading this stuff to find ways of demolishing it; if there are grains of truth there I want to be able to locate and identify them.

The task involves quite a lot of pressing on regardless, rather than getting bogged down to the extent that could easily happen.

Another interesting thing is observing how gnasty these people can get, even though they seem completely oblivious to it. "Nice" moderate Christians like McGrath, Haught, and Reitan can be just as unfair, personal, dismissive, insulting, and angry as any New Atheist, but I suppose they don't realise that that is how their work comes across. Perhaps they are so sure of their own righteousness that they can't believe this of themselves. Or maybe they think it's justified for the sake of their cause.

Not that I'd necessarily want them to write in a different way. By all means, let people write with passion! What I would like is merely for them to understand that the elements of gnastiness that they see in Richard Dawkins (for example) is what happens when people write about something they feel passionate about, and try to put their points persuasively. When McGrath and company do this, they can also end up sounding pretty "strident" to people who don't see things the same way.

Next up is a book by Dinesh D'Souza, who is not a cozy liberal Christian like these guys that I've mentioned. For better or worse, I don't expect any gniceness from him at all.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sunday supervillainy actually on Sunday - why supervillains lose

So, okay, in FF #4 Reed Richards is faced by his greatest possible enemy - a group of more-or-less evil versions of himself from other timelines.

What do you do in those circumstances? Well, one approach is to call a council of some of the smartest supervillains in the world ... just to see what advice they can offer. Or, rather, get Dr. Doom to convene it on your behalf. He'll be glad to oblige, right? After all, if there's one thing Doom hates more than you it's a whole batch of you.

So how about getting the perspective of some evil super-geniuses for a change?

On this page, we witness the thought processes of Diablo; a couple of boffins from the evil organisation A.I.M.; the Mad Thinker; and the Wizard. Muahahahaha!

If these guys are supposed to be smart supervillains, it's no wonder that supervillains (usually) stuff up.

(Apart from anything else, Diablo and the others should know by now that going after women and babies is never a good idea in the Marvel Universe, where they are likely to be a lot more powerful than you can handle.)

These are preview pages - go here for the page and the pages leading up to it, all in a larger format - so I don't know what happens next. I do hope that Dr. Doom is a bit more competent than this when he responds.

Where did our Rapture go?

Just wondering. Everyone still seems to be around.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What's really going on with the Rapture

All explained over here.

H/T Jenny.

Aurealis Awards

The Aurealis Awards ceremony is being held in Sydney tonight, so I'll be popping down the road for it. Better still, this gives me a chance to catch up with a lot of friends whom I don't get to see often enough. Yay!

Friday, May 20, 2011

A nice Einsteinian aphorism

"Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions."

I'm currently reading Einstein's Ideas and Opinions. Unfortunately, I don't have time to read the whole thing, just whatever seems relevant to his general worldview (especially his views on religion and ethics). I've gotta say that I love the beauty and clarity of his English prose. It's a model for anyone to follow if they're so capable. He does love his metaphorical invocations of God or the gods, though. He's very easy to quote-mine to suggest that he believed certain things when he actually believed pretty much the opposite.

Ah haz a copy of On What Matters

I lashed out and bought a copy of the two huge volumes of Derek Parfit's new book On What Matters. If it lives up to the hype, this is the most important philosophical work in the English language for decades.

Okay, so my two volumes have just turned up in mail; they're very handsome indeed, but I have no idea when I'm going to find the time to read them. On What Matters doesn't strike me as the sort of book you can read by working through a hundred pages a day while doing and thinking about other things. It looks more like the sort of book where you need to set aside two weeks of your life to concentrate on the arguments, and do nothing much else except occasionally eat and sleep.

Oh well, I live in hope of being able to do that some time.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

More on that cunning (Michael) Ruse ... and that First Amendment issue

Michael Ruse has a post over on the Huffington Post site in which he says, pretty much in so many words, that current evolutionary theory and current Roman Catholic theology are directly inconsistent with each other. He suggests a means by which the latter can change to bring itself into line with science, but that's not going to be my point here. I'm not even going to comment on the question of whether the inconsistency he identifies is a genuine one: I'm inclined to think that it is, but the point I want to get to will stand whether that's correct or not, so let's not get bogged down with it.

My point is, first, that Ruse is claiming that there is an inconsistency between current science and a widely-maintained religious position. Even if the official Catholic doctrine changed, the kind of human exceptionalism under discussion would still be held by some people on religious grounds. Given that is so, why is it not a breach of the First Amendment if current evolutionary theory is taught in US schools? I mean, I don't think it is. But why doesn't Ruse think it is, given his views on the First Amendment that I got stuck into over here. I'm really, truly puzzled by this. It's less clear to me than ever how Ruse's theory of the First Amendment is supposed to work.

Sunday supervillainy - a few days early - why doesn't Rogue suggest a threesome and be done with it?

This image, from a few months down the track does raise the obvious question. If Rogue is really having so much trouble deciding between her father figure and her toy boy ...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In praise of Baron D'Holbach

As some people discovered or already knew, the quotation in the previous post came from one of the first atheist manifestoes - at least within Western modernity - Baron D'Holbach's Le Bon Sens (Good Sense) (1772). I removed some distracting capitalisation from the version linked to in this post, but that aside, the thoughts are very modern. It's also worth noting that D'Holbach pulled no punches - if you dig into it, you'll find that he was scathing about the church and doctrines of the time.

When we say that there's nothing very new in the so-called "New Atheism", we're serious. There was, indeed, a publishing phenomenon, and it continues to some extent, but many of the actual arguments can be found right there in D'Holbach, as can the forthright attitude. In fact - no offence to anybody among the current New Atheists, but purely as a compliment to D'Holbach - D'Holbach's formulations of some of the points are as good as anything in the current literature. In any event, his work is an important part of our rationalist heritage and at minimum I thought it worth drawing attention to it.

As I think is clear,  the passage I quoted does not provide a single knock-out reason that somehow makes moral rules rationally binding on us all, irrespective of whatever desires we might have. But he does offer powerful considerations that will move most of us most of the time to treat each other decently, and give us an incentive to create laws to cover the most important points where we cannot tolerate some people opting out.

Many thinkers, including some atheists, seem to want a more transcendent source for our moral codes, and for morality to be inescapably binding in reason. But I argue that we don't need anything so grandiose. The basic naturalistic basis has been available to reflective thinkers in all ages of human civilization. There's room for disagreement around the edges and for refinement as we discover more about ourselves, but similar rationales were offered by, say, the Epicureans in Hellenistic times and the Carvakas in India. Not surprisingly, David Hume said similar things to D'Holbach (so I'm not surprised that I've had suggestions that the passage might be from Hume).

It's when we look for more than these ordinary worldly reasons, which include our own responsiveness to each other, that we go wrong.

The naturalistic basis of morality and conscience (no googling - guess who wrote this)

It is asked, what motives an atheist can have to do good? The motive to please himself and his fellow-creatures; to live happily and peaceably; to gain the affection and esteem of men. "Can he, who fears not the gods, fear any thing?" He can fear men; he can fear contempt, dishonour, the punishment of the laws; in short, he can fear himself, and the remorse felt by all those who are conscious of having incurred or merited the hatred of their fellow-creatures.

Conscience is the internal testimony, which we bear to ourselves, of having acted so as to merit the
esteem or blame of the beings, with whom we live; and it is founded upon the clear knowledge we have of men, and of the sentiments which our actions must produce in them. The conscience of the religious man consists in imagining that he has pleased or displeased his God, of whom he has no idea, and whose obscure and doubtful intentions are explained to him only by men of doubtful veracity, who, like him, are utterly unacquainted with the essence of the deity, and are little agreed upon what can please or displease him. In a word, the conscience of the credulous is directed by men, who have themselves an erroneous conscience, or whose interest stifles knowledge.

"Can an atheist have a conscience? What are his motives to abstain from hidden vices and secret crimes of which other men are ignorant, and which are beyond the reach of laws?" He may be assured by constant experience, that there is no vice, which, by the nature of things, does not punish itself. Would he preserve this life? he will avoid every excess, that may impair his health; he will not wish to lead a languishing life, which would render him a burden to himself and others. As for secret crimes, he will abstain from them, for fear he shall be forced to blush at himself, from whom he cannot flee. If he has any reason, he will know the value of the esteem which an honest man ought to have for himself. He will see, that unforeseen circumstances may unveil the conduct, which he feels interested in concealing from others. The other world furnishes no motives for doing good, to him, who finds none on earth.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

New book by Patricia Churchland

H/T Ophelia Benson.

This new book by Patricia Churchland sounds very interesting.

Ah haz finished reading The Twilight of Atheism

I actually liked the first half of this book quite a bit, but Alister McGrath lost me in the second half. The biggest problem is that McGrath closely identifies atheism with communism and particularly with Stalinism. For many of us, that makes most of the critique irrelevant - communism of the Marxist-Leninist varieties is formally atheistic, but to some of us it is basically just another religion. It's exactly the sort of apocalyptic, totalizing system that we see ourselves as fighting against.

It's interesting that McGrath went from one such system to another.

Still, The Twilight of Atheism provides some good historical discussion in the first half, and it does provide examples of some of the most popular misconceptions about atheism.

Tom Clark reviews Haught

I haven't yet read Haught's Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science, but it's on my list of books that I must read soon. Meanwhile, here's a review of it by Tom Clark. Doubtless, I'll have some comments of my own when I manage to get to it.

One of my tasks at the moment is reading a lot of these recent anti-atheist books, if only for the purpose of clarifying just what myths are "out there" in this body of literature. It seems a bit masochistic, I suppose, but I do find it interesting, and I'm quite open to learning a thing or two if it turns out that way. On the other hand, I'm very familiar with the main argument (apparently) run in this book - it's hardly original to Haught - so I don't think he's about to reconvert me or anything like that.

Atheism and communism

The connection between atheism and communism in the public imagination, at least in the US, would be boring if it were not so common, and hence something that needs to be dealt with. At least some of the hostility towards atheists is based on hostility to communism (or to its specific Marxist-Leninist version, or to its manifestation under Stalin, or to the totalitarianism and militarism of the late, unlamented Soviet Union).

It's not only in the US that this connection gets made, and in all honesty we should acknowledge that some (perhaps many) people did adopt a commitment to communist politics and an atheistic view of the world all as part of a package deal. Alister McGrath seems to have been one of those people in his younger days, as he discusses in The Twilight of Atheism. He says (p. 176), "The principal cause of my atheism, was Marxism, a movement that I believed held the key to the future." On the following page he adds: "Let me stress this point: the appeal of atheism for me lay in its proposal to eradicate religion."

More generally, McGrath seems to think that to be a true atheist you have to swallow an entire atheistic worldview, including some sort of political anti-theism.

So, I don't doubt that there are people who once were, and others who still are, like that. But McGrath needs to understand that his experience is not typical or generalisable. The existence of people like the younger McGrath is a long way from establishing the myth that "Atheists are communists." Many of us have no great love for communism or any other comprehensive political ideology. As far as I'm concerned, once I freed myself from Christianity, after a considerable struggle that I talk about in 50 Voices of Disbelief, there was no damn way I was going to take up another religion (one of the versions of Marxism or communism on offer) in its place.

I grant that Marxist-Leninist communism might not technically be a religion in the sense of positing a supernatural or otherworldly order (whatever those words actually mean when you analyse them). But it apes Christianity in offering a totalising view of reality, holy books (The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital), prophetic leaders, deep psychological transformations of its so-called "true believers", extensive canons of conduct that people are expected to follow, and an apocalyptic vision of history. Indeed, it effectively portrays History as its God - participation in the movement involves having History on your side with the prophecy of a kind of earthly paradise at the end in the form of the communist state (which follows the earlier stage of a dictatorship of the proletariat). Having History on your side can legitimise atrocities much as can having God on your side.

While this may not technically be a religion, it apes religion so closely and comprehensively that it looks very much the same and plays much the same personal and social role. It is just as dangerous as any supernaturalist religion, and merits just as much criticism.

Many of us are atheists for reasons that are remote from any of this. And far from wanting to eradicate religion some of us were not especially inclined to speak up in public about these issues until relatively recently. Not that many years ago, I was writing media tie-in novels and doing most of my "serious" thinking and writing in the field of philosophical bioethics. I was actually pretty happy with that combination (though I freely admit that I've always maintained some interest in philosophy of religion).

In 50 Voices of Disbelief, several of us talk about our reasons for speaking up about religion at this point in history. In some cases, including mine, those reasons are, indeed, broadly political. But even when they are political, they need have nothing to do with another totalizing system such as some version or other of Marxist-Leninist communism.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Occam's razor -another thing that Haught doesn't get

At least as far as I can tell, Haught simply doesn't understand Occam's razor or how people use it in their thinking. I say "As far as I can tell", because his explanation and exposition are so odd that I'm having trouble even making sense of them.

He accuses Dawkins and Hitchens of not understanding the idea, but what he accuses them of is bizarre. As far as I know, Dawkins and Hitchens never use the concept of Occam's razor to claim that there is only one level of explanation and that one level of explanation must exclude others. That is not an argument that I have seen - or at least have understand was being put - in any book that I've ever read by these writers. But that's what Haught thinks they are doing.

An example would be, "How do we explain the existence of the book God and the New Atheism by John Haught?"

Depending on our purposes, it might be salient to reply, "Westminster John Knox Press was sufficiently interested to publish it." Or it might be salient to reply, "Printers with equipment located in the US printed off copies, thus turning the proofed pages into an actual published book." Or we might talk about how John Haught wrote it. We could even talk about how Haught was inspired to write it by reading books by Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, among others. All of these claims are true, none of them are inconsistent with each other, and all of them give us an idea of the total causal process that took place. Each of them is supported by evidence. They are not competing claims.

So, if somebody reasoned, "God and the New Atheism came into existence as a result of John Haught's thoughts about the New Atheism; therefore, the book was not printed on equipment located in the US" that would, in fact, be fallacious. One possibly salient set of facts that forms part of the causal story does not necessarily exclude another set of facts.

I'm sure that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens understand this perfectly well.

So, is there no principle that can be called "Occam's Razor" or the "Principle of Parsimony"? Of course there is. But it's nothing to do with this sort of case. It's simply about using parsimony in our explanations if we want them to be more likely to be true. The idea was originally about not multiplying entities without necessity - though we really shouldn't get too hung up about entities. We really should be more concerned not to employ gratuitous assumptions.

Here's an example. I come home one night after a drink at the pub, only to find that a window has been smashed, the place has been ransacked, and many valuable items are missing.

Given a whole lot of background information that I have about such events, I may, quite reasonably, think that this was the work of a burglar.
 
This does not, however, exclude the possibility, "A burglar did it accompanied by an evil spirit." That's not how such arguments work. But the evil spirit's is not required for accounting for the evidence, while the possibility that there was no evil spirit involved makes it more likely that "A burglar did it accompanied by an evil spirit" is false than that "A burglar did it" is false. I am more likely to be correct if my explanation does not make use of this additional entity.

Note, however, that I may sometimes be more likely to be correct if I leave open the possibility of additional entities. Thus, I'm more likely to be correct if I say, "One or more burglars did it," than if I say "Exactly one burglar did it" (or, if it comes to that, "Exactly two burglars did it"). There may be practical reasons to test the exactly-one-burglar hypothesis and the exactly-two-burglars hypothesis separately, but the "one or more" way of stating the explanation is more likely to be correct. In any event, I need a reason if I am going to propose a precise number of burglars.

But what if I said, "It was done by one or more burglars who own horses"? Well, the horses are not necessary for the explanation. Perhaps it will turn out that the burglary was done by exactly two burglars, both of whom own horses. When we simply say, "By one or more burglars," we are not excluding that possibility. However, while the evidence gives us a reason to believe that there was at least one burglar, it doesn't give us any reason to believe anything about any horses. That might change if new evidence becomes available, such as a trail of horse hooves leading up to the smashed window. But on the information so far, we should only be talking about burglars. I have reason to believe in the existence of at least one burglar, but no reason to believe in any horses (or any evil spirits if it comes to that).

If we can give an explanation of some phenomenon in terms of "Naturalistic process X caused it", and if it doesn't assist us to believe that Naturalistic process X was helped along by an evil spirit, then we should not postulate the presence of the evil spirit. Again, that does not exclude the possibility of the evil spirit (though background knowledge suggesting a lack of evil spirits in the world may do so). But it renders the evil spirit claim gratuitous. Without some further evidence that could be plausibly explained by the auxiliary hypothesis of an evil spirit, we should not believe that an evil spirit played any role. (Indeed, if evidence turns up that can't be explained simply in terms of burglars, we might want to go down a different path entirely, rather than saving the burglar hypothesis by adding in an evil spirit ... but that's another issue.)

The same reasoning applies to God, or gods, as to an evil spirit. If we seem to have good prospects of explaining all the salient phenomena without recourse to these things, it doesn't exclude the possibility that they exist. But it gives us good reason not to postulate them in our explanations of the phenomena. Unless we have some independent reason to think they exist (for example if it turned out that some version of the ontological argument is sound) we should not posit that they do. It's pretty simple, really.

Jumping on point?

Whew that was a long review of X-Men Legacy #248 I wrote yesterday for my now regular Sunday Supervillainy feature. Hey, it was a good distraction from wrestling with the theological views of Alister McGrath and John Haught (which I'm currently doing on a daily basis because it's all valuable research for the 50 Great Myths book).

I wasn't really thinking this at the time, but it strikes me that if anyone is interested in using it that way ... the XML #248 would provide a decent jumping on point. It explains - not too cryptically - what happened in the Age of X story and now has the characters returning to a somewhat altered status quo in their "ordinary" reality. It does actually stand as a point from which you could get your bearings. This is where the seeds for a whole lot of potential developments are all planted in one issue.

I'm just sayin' for whoever might be interested. No one's paying me for this. :)

On clarity

Haught has this nice endnote in which he chides Sam Harris for insufficient clarity when he talks about happiness (in The End of Faith):
Harris (205-207) attempts to explain what happiness is, but while his writing is mostly crisp and clear, his ideas on happiness are extremely obscure.
Now to be honest, I'm not totally out of sympathy with this, for reasons discussed on other occasions, but all the same ... isn't there a certain irony here? *smh* Or is it just me?

I hope this is perfectly clear - John Haught's definition of faith

"Faith, as theology uses the term, is neither an irrational leap nor 'belief without evidence.' It is an adventurous movement of trust that opens reason up to its appropriate living space, namely, the inexhaustibly deep dimension of Being, Meaning, Truth, and Goodness. Faith is not the enemy of reason but its cutting edge. Faith is what keeps reason from turning in on itself and suffocating in its own self-enclosure. Faith is what opens our minds to the infinite horizon in which alone reason can breathe freely and in which action can gain direction. Reason requires a world much larger than the one that mere rationalism or scientific naturalism is able to provide. Without the clearing made by faith, reason withers, and conduct has no calling. Faith is what gives reason a future, and morality a meaning." (God and the New Atheists, page 75)

Okay, now we've cleared that one up ...

Yes you do (on John Haught enjoying himself)

"... Dawkins' discussion of morality and the Bible is a remarkable display of ignorance and foolish sarcasm. I do not enjoy speaking in such a blunt manner about any writer, but not to do so here would be evasive."

I have to laugh at that claim on page 68 of Haught's God and the New Atheism. The whole book is written in a high-handed, humorless, aggressive way - it is far nastier in tone than Dawkins' The God Delusion, and it comes across pretty plainly that Haught is enjoying every minute of displaying his imagined intellectual superiority ... and just generally sinking the boot into his chosen opponents.

A lot of the verbal attacks fall flat, though, mainly because Haught spends most of the book effectively calling Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris ignoramuses and idiots for dealing with mainstream, orthodox, traditional theological positions rather than focusing on Haught's obscurantist one. Since I know very well that Haught's views, as well as being incoherent on their face, are those of a small minority of professing Christians in his own country, the United States, the manner that he affects makes him look rather foolish (as well as egotistical, and simply a nasty piece of work).

Why this guy gets so much praise from secular people is beyond me. It's pretty plain from reading this book that he's someone whose company I wouldn't be able to stand.

But again, such people can be as nasty in their approach as they like ... and they seldom get called on it. It's about time somebody pointed it out.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Currently reading: God and the New Atheism by John Haught

I'm not going to say a lot about this right now, as I have my sense of proportion right (see previous post for comparison).

But I've got to say that this is an annoying book. Many of the points are familiar and reasonably well expressed, I suppose, but the style is far more ranting and arrogantly self-congratulatory than anything ever written by any New Atheist known to humankind. It's a fact of life that never ceases to amaze me how people like this don't get called on it. Only atheists are ever ranty, arrogant, or strident - or so it seems.

Sunday supervillainy - review of the AoX aftermath (X-Men Legacy #248)

I've previously blogged about the X-Men mini-event Age of X, which concluded last month with the return of the X-Men to their "normal" reality and their current base on an island in the Pacific Ocean just west of San Francisco. Now for the aftermath...

We're shown it in X-Men Legacy #248, in which the characters try to make sense of what happened to them in the warped Age-of-X reality created by Professor X's crazy son, Legion. There, they lived for seven days, loving, fighting, and surviving, but they were all strangely changed (some more than others) and were given false memories extending back for their whole lifetimes. One character (the time-manipulator Tempo) genuinely died in the warped reality - since her death took place during the seven days that they actually spent there. All the others, heroes and villains alike, are in some way scarred by the experience.

As the mini-event's scriptwriter, Mike Carey, promised us at the beginning, it has brought ongoing consequences for the X-Men and their world. Now we'll see how it pans out in the pages of X-Men Legacy, the ongoing series in which Rogue usually provides the main viewpoint.

The resident telepaths on the island offer to help those characters who want to clear their minds of the false memories (and, indeed, of the true ones from those seven days when they were lost in Age-of-X-land). Most of the heroes take up the offer for one reason or another, but a small number of characters don't. Among the latter are Joanna Cargill - the mutant-supremacist supervillainess known as Frenzy - who still values the passionate, lusty relationship she found herself in with Cyclops, and is now angry (her usual frame of mind for one reason or another) that it's being ripped away from her.

Cyclops himself doesn't even contemplate a memory wipe, presumably (though this is not stated) because, as leader on the island, he needs to keep a handle on what went on.

Some characters have returned to the island in changed form, whether for better (Hellion) or worse (Chamber). Others need to grapple with how they felt about each other in the distorted world and what their feelings there meant - or now mean - about how they really feel.

Carey drops several bombshells in just this one issue. There are some explanations for events that still didn't make sense at the end of Age of X, and above all we see some adroitly handled interactions among the characters, especially the few who choose to keep their Age-of-X memories. As I've noted with Carey on previous occasions, he plainly loves the characters that he focuses on, and his work with them is something quite exceptional. In this case, I found important characters saying and doing things that I wouldn't necessarily have expected ... but which got me muttering, again and again, "That's right." I.e., it seemed, once shown, to be how that character actually would react to the stress of the circumstances. When that keeps happening, it generates a pleasing sense of solidity, a feeling that the characters are in safe hands.

Overall, I thought this was a wonderful issue on its own merits, and a fitting aftermath to what has been an intriguing story. It opens up tantalising possibilities and I see it's getting good to great reviews elsewhere on the internet. It fully deserves them.

My only gripe is about some of the artwork - notably why the physically imposing Frenzy, a huge, towering woman with superhuman strength, is made to appear rather petite, so that she has to look up to Cyclops rather than standing over him. This rather undermines some of the point of their interaction. Cyclops is supposed to be a very tall man, but not on the same scale as her. Perhaps it would have looked best to have them staring directly across at each other, but even that would have been a bit of a cop-out. In any event, some of the dramatic potential of the relevant scene is compromised.

Even on the cover, which I actually like and show above, Frenzy is rather dwarfed by Gambit and Magneto, whom she is framed between: they are supposed to be large men - and Magneto in particular is always shown as physically imposing in his own right - but she should be notably bigger than either.

There are other issues with the art, such as Magneto, the X-Men's sorta-semi-reformed arch-villain-in-residence, changing from rather ugly and off-putting to regally handsome (as he's usually portrayed) and back again ... even from panel to panel. This is in the middle of a highly emotional, and subtly written, debate that he has with Rogue. What's that all about? (And no, I assure you it's not done in a way that could be some sort of allegory ...)

This sort of thing doesn't exactly spoil the book, but it's an unneeded distraction.

Such gripes about the art aside, I'd be giving this a 5/5. What the heck, it's a tour de force of character work, set within an emotionally tricky situation that would be difficult to think through and write so adroitly, especially with only the limited dialogue of comic-book panels to work with. This is downright impressive work. We have long-awaited revelations about the little group of X-Men who've been missing in space, and we see Rogue trying at last to get a better grip on her feelings about the various men in her life.

Great stuff overall, and it can have that 5/5 anyway.

Alison Goodman rocks the bestseller lists

Here's a great article in The Age about Alison's (mind-boggling) success with her new book, Eona. Huge public congratulations to you, Al. With sales like that, you can shout the next drink.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong on telling it like it is...

From his essay in Louise M. Antony's book:

...most atheists see little to be gained by broadcasting their beliefs. Theists won't listen, and atheists don't need to listen. This defeatist attitude means that fundamentalists get away with spouting harmful nonsense. They gain confidence, and many undecided people with open minds hear only one side of this important issue. If atheists let themselves be cowed, our country's [he means the U.S.; I do wish people wouldn't talk this way in pieces that are being published internationally ...it sounds so frakking parochial] policies will continue to be distorted by ancient religious myths. More religious wars will arise. And there will be more suffering among people who need abortions or stem-cell treatments or just sexual freedom. Our best hope for progress is for atheists to speak out and (as politely as possible) tell any theists who will listen why religious beliefs are ridiculous.
Apart from my bit of carping about parochialism ... well frakking said!

Testing, testing ...

Looks like Blogger is finally working again. I spoke too soon the other day. Okay, now I can start to restore normal transmission if all goes well.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Enforced blog break

I had an enforced blog break for a number of reasons ... but partly because for a while there Blogger wasn't working. People could comment but I couldn't post (apparently this was a problem affecting other folks on teh intertubez, not just me).

Now that it's working again, normal service from me will be resuming. I've spent the last few days working pretty hard on my current projects, not the least of it getting quite a bit of rough drafting done at my end for the 50 Great Myths About Atheism book. My head is spinning a bit because I'm tackling a lot of these myths at once, and have also been doing a lot of reading (partly to establish the provenance for as many myths as possible ... where possible, I'm looking for more reliable sources than relatively ephemeral ones on the Internet).

Over the last few days I've read Reasonable Atheism, by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse, which is interesting in that, to some extent, it fills the same niche as our book. I.e., it is aimed at disabusing people about atheism, rather than putting a full-blooded case for it. I think this book is very well written, but also rather weak in some ways. To be fair to the authors, that's partly because it's aimed at beginners in these debates. That will also affect 50 Great Myths: we can't assume an audience that is highly sophisticated in the sorts of debates that happen here on this blog, or over at Butterflies and Wheels or Why Evolution is true.

I'm currently reading an Alister McGrath book, The Twilight of Atheism, and finding it quite good for what it is. McGrath has an off-putting manner as a speaker, I think, but he's far from being an idiot. He writes well, and this book provides a useful source of some of the misconceptions, as I see them; I expect (at this early stage) that it's one that Udo and I will be referring to a fair bit. I need to read quite a few more books of this kind - not opportunistic ones of the "flea" sort, but more respected works of apologetics (on the other hand, I'm not necessarily talking about technical philosophical works; McGrath's book is at a good level for my purpose).

Nearly bed time here, but that's what I've been up to. Back soon.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - X-Men: First Class character trailers

Trailers for Beast, Havok, and Banshee ... and for Mystique!

All this supposedly happens 40 years before the three original X-Men movies, so don't ask how it is that Mystique ends up looking like Rebecca Romijn after she's depowered in X-3. I'm just going to enjoy this one for what it is and only worry too much about internal continuity with the other movies if more of these prequels get made. The The First Class movie is still looking good to me - enjoy the trailers.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Happy birthday, Jenny!!

Well, it's not until tomorrow - but we had a birthday lunch with my family (my father, sister, and brother-in-law) today, so here's the photo to prove it.

(Thanks to big sis for taking it with her trusty iPhone.)

Friday, May 06, 2011

Scribble, scribble, scribble

Posting here has been a bit sparse this week. It should pick up next week, but the last few days have been busy as I'm trying to knock one book-length manuscript into shape (more on that later if anything comes of it)...

... while also doing some intense work for another one. As to the latter, I previously reported somewhere on this blog that Udo Schuklenk and I are contracted to write (not edit, write) a book with the title 50 Great Myths About Atheism. We've done a fair bit of planning, and the way things have turned out May is a very good month for me to get down some draft material at my end. I'm going to be doing that with some intensity over the coming weeks, as indeed I have been over the last few days.

I'm hoping that during the next couple of months we'll get a much clearer idea of what the book will eventually look like. We're due to submit the manuscript toward the end of the year, so we have some solid months of writing, rewriting, identifying problems, replanning, rewriting, etc., ahead of us, but I think we're going to get a terrific book out of it in the end.

Occasionally someone asks us, or we ask ourselves or each other, are there really fifty worthwhile "myths" we can tackle? Well, depending on how you count them and what you consider a "myth" ... yes. Obviously there are various ways of grouping them, consolidating them, teasing them out, and so on, so we need to be sure as we go that fifty really is a sensible number for packaging them all up. At the moment, though, we have a working list that's somewhat longer than fifty, so I don't think that's going to be a problem.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Sean Carroll's Thor connection

H/T Sean Carroll for this. Apparently he was a scientific consultant to the moviemakers of Thor and got to read the script in advance (the bastard!), and is likewise involved in forthcoming Avengers movie. How cool is that?

Sean makes the point that some effort was put in to make Jane Foster sympathetic and believable as a working scientist, and, yes, now he mentions it I can see that. (Jane is a nurse in the comics, but she's an experimental physicist in the movie, and it makes sense the way the original continuity has been rejigged). One of the things that works well in the movie is that the scientist types (basically Jane and her supervisor, though they also have a research assistant who was actually trained in political science) are sympathetic characters.

Even though this is a world in which magic is real, there's no tendency to debunk scientists as arrogant and misguided know-alls ... which could so easily have happened once Hollywood became involved. Much is made of the fact that magic is really continuous with science within the diegesis - it's just that there are some rules about how things work that we're currently unaware of and can't readily comprehend. Sean says:
The thinking here is very much based on Arthur C. Clarke’s “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In the trailer above [i.e. embedded in Sean's post], Thor basically gives exactly this pitch to Jane Foster.
Kudos to the folks at Marvel Studios - especially, it seems, Kevin Feige - for taking these issues into account and bringing in science consultants, and to the consultants for helping to ensure that this was not (even inadvertently) an anti-science movie. As Sean observes, the magical world of Thor has to integrate with the high-tech world of the Iron Man movies, since Thor and Iron Man live in the same fictional universe and will be meeting in The Avengers. I'm now more sensitised to how the latter will treat the interface between magic and science when it's released next year.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Thor

Anyone else seen this yet? I went and had a look this afternoon through the 3D goggles conveniently provided with my ticket. I give it, um, about three out of five stars. It was a lot of fun, with some nice humorous moments, and it certainly looked good. Asgard was visually impressive; Loki was suitably badass as the main villain; the human characters (Jane Foster et al.); were likeable; and Anthony Hopkins made a convincing Odin. Most of the characters, especially the big three of Thor, Odin, and Loki, looked pretty much as I'd have imagined them. I was perfectly happy with Heimdall's skin colour - Asgardians seem to differ among themselves quite a bit in such characteristics, especially since we were given a clearly Asiatic Hogun the Grim. It's a pity that there's been some apparently racist backlash about Heimdall's portrayal by Idris Elba.

On the other hand, the character development was pretty thin and unconvincing even for a superhero movie: the idea that Thor learned to be less arrogant and headstrong so quickly was more told to us than really shown.

Oh, and the Destroyer proved to be a disappointingly incompetent secondary villain, despite appearing intimidating in the trailer. As all fans of the franchise know, the Destroyer should be more than Thor's match in raw power and weaponry - in the comics it once even destroyed Mjolnir with its disintegrator ray. When confronted by it, Thor should be forced to do something, y'know, heroic: something that takes him beyond himself or that requires real resourcefulness. In this version ... well, not so much.

Of course, see below, the movies can create their own continuity, but even without any background knowledge I think I would have found the Destroyer a tad disappointing, in my role as a general aficianado of supervillainry - especially after it gets a big build up.

If you do go and see Thor, remember to stay until the credits are over for a final scene that puts things in a somewhat new light.

Anyway, I also saw the X-Men: First Class trailer. I've watched this before, on YouTube, like most of the rest of the world, but I've gotta say that it looks even better on the big screen. I'm looking forward to seeing the whole thing in a few weeks' time. This movie absolutely plays hell with the continuity of the comics, but I don't really care about that: movies and movie series can have their own separate continuities as long as they do something interesting with the characters and mythos that they're based on. In that respect, an X-Men movie set back in the early 1960s - at the time when the team was actually created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby - should have a lot of possibilities. And I'm not the first to say it ... but it looks at the moment as if Michael Fassbender is going to steal the show.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Bob Carr slams funding for school chaplains

Former NSW premier Bob Carr has weighed in against government funding for school chaplains, saying that "The notion of the state funding religious activity is abhorrent."

Meanwhile, the High Court challenge to the school chaplaincy program goes ahead next week, in what will be a critical test of section 116 of the Australian Constitution (which provides for some separation of church and state at the federal level). We'll see whether section 116 has any real teeth - it hasn't seemed that way in the past, but perhaps this is a stronger case. I'm not especially optimistic that the funding scheme will be struck down, as section 116 has been interpreted in the past as doing no more than forbidding the creation of a European-style established church, which the chaplaincy scheme does not do. Nonetheless, the High Court has an opportunity to give close attention to what it might regard as the true purpose of the provision.