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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Also in the new issue of Free Inquiry: a review of Sentinels

The new issue of Free Inquiry, referred to in my previous post, also has a review of the Benford/Zebrowski collection, Sentinels (which contains my article, "Arthur C. Clarke and the Ultimate Future of Intelligence"). I'm pleased to be able to say that the review, by Tom Flynn, is highly favourable, though brief.

Even better, it's nice to see a sentence like this in a review: "Contributing authors include Isaac Asimov, Russell Blackford, James Gunn, Heinlein, Frederick Pohl, and Jack Williamson."

Currently reading - the new issue of Free Inquiry


The new (December 2011/January 2012) issue of Free Inquiry has turned up in my letterbox today, and I'm enjoying it. It features a set of articles on the prospects of human enhancement, and how these should be viewed by secular people. The positions range across the spectrum from enthusiastic to very resistant.

Among these pieces is my own article, "Enhancement Anxiety", which is also one of the contributions to this issue that you can read online. It summarises, in only about 3000 words, IIRC, quite a bit of my current thinking on this subject. You can also read Ron Lindsay's long intro to this part of the issue.

Author and IEET Executive Director James Hughes's contribution is not available online, but it also gives a solid idea of its author's current position.

Note that Free Inquiry only pays for itself by people actually subscribing to the printed magazine (or at least buying individual issues that interest them), so what it places online is merely meant to whet your appetites. Even if you can't afford a subscription, I'm sure that any support you can give to Free Inquiry on your own blogs, or via other social media that you use, will not go astray.

An apology (no, not from me) to Jerry Coyne

I was slow off the mark noticing this aspect of the debate, but I'm glad to see this apology from Jim P. Houston to Jerry Coyne. Let's avoid any anger or acrimony about it all here, if we can - I mainly just want to draw people's attention to it. It's obviously entirely up to Jerry how he responds to it, but FWIW I think it's a good outcome. It's a pity we don't see more apologies from people who have gone too far in their rhetoric.

High Court of Australia strikes down spousal privilege

Reported here in the Sydney Morning Herald.

I haven't read the judgment (there are three separate judgments from the sitting judges), but I'm happy with the result. Spousal privilege does seem like a quaint and anachronistic notion. For those who are not familiar with it, it's the legal principle that you can refuse to give evidence relating to criminal charges against your husband or wife. Generally speaking, modern jurisdictions abrogate any such privilege by statute, but it seems that this may not have been expressly done in the jurisdiction concerned - raising the issue of whether the privilege exists at common law.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ten greatest movie villains?

Try this list.

I don't think it's a bad list - it's an almost impossible job, and my top-of-my head choices for the first few positions would have been similar. But that may be because I also tend to fall, as I think this list does, into a bit of recentism.

Let's think about who is missing, and we may become more critical. The big one that leapt out at me was Ernst Blofeld, who should surely be in the top 5 ... and perhaps higher than anyone who actually gets mentioned. I have a great fondness for Fritz Lang's Metropolis, so I also quickly thought of Rotwang and the False Maria. But now many others are crowding into my mind. I notice that none of the bad guys from classic Westerns are there, for example. And none of the James Bond villains are listed - it's not just Blofeld who is missing.

Then there are lots of questions about what counts as a villain. Is Frankenstein's monster a villain, exactly? Perhaps Dracula has a better a claim. I note that they don't count the demon in The Exorcist, since they restrict themselves to flesh and blood characters, but you'd think Dracula might still count.

Anyway, how about you? I don't mean, "Do you count as a villain?" I mean, "Who do you think should be on the list?"

How to evade the issue of sexual abuse of children

The pope has stated "that 'all other institutions' in society should be held to the same 'exacting standards' as the Roman Catholic Church in preventing and reporting sex abuse."

Well, yay for him. Well ... except, actually, it's not a question of the same exacting standards being applied. It would have been nice if the Catholic Church had a good record in applying even rather basic standards for protecting children from sexual abuse. You've got to wonder whether the pope really gets it, if he thinks that what is being required of the Church is especially "exacting"; in fact, the hint that the Church has merely failed to meet high, difficult, challenging standards sounds awfully like someone trying to make excuses.

Yes, it would be very good if basic standards for protecting children from abuse were applied to all organisations whose employees and officers exercise authority over children. No doubt of that. But the Catholic Church is not excused if there are other organisations which also turn out to be morally obtuse, self-serving, and managerially incompetent when it comes to these issues.

If I murder a rival, for example, I am not less culpable merely because other people have sometimes done the same thing. This kind of behaviour is either tolerable or it isn't. If it's not, then I shouldn't be going around complaining that I am being held to some "exacting" standard, and trying to deflect the discussion to whether others are being held to the same standard. If I do so, I don't have much credibility.

There's a further aspect. The Catholic Church claims a special moral authority; it claims to have been guided, historically, by God (and founded by Jesus during the Son of God's incarnation on earth); and it claims, moreover, that its priests and bishops are spiritually transformed individuals.

If these claims entail that the Church and its hierarchs have some special moral wisdom and authority, then why have we seen so much egregious obtuseness, cruelty, incompetence, blame-shifting, etc.? If we are told, as a matter of theological analysis, that, notwithstanding the truth of its grandiose claims, the Church does not have any special moral wisdom and authority ... well let us be told that clearly. The Church can't have it both ways.

If it claims special moral wisdom and authority, that claim is pretty much unbelievable by now.

But if it does not claim that sort of authority, why should we bother listening to it? Why should politicians - and others who exert social and political power - be at all deferential to what the Church has to say?

The Catholic Church goes on trying to have things both ways. We need to keep calling it out.

Trolley cases

People love these, so check out this discussion.

American politician's amazing blunder

Here we have the absurd situation of the governor of Kansas - Sam Brownback - pressuring a school to discipline a student over a nasty tweet she made about him (though he is now blaming underlings for this foul-up). Even more absurdly, the first instinct of the school adminstrators was to comply, and try to get the student to write an apology letter!

What on earth were they thinking? Isn't this an obvious abuse of political power to try to control people's speech about a public figure?

In the end, it's the politician who has had to apologise for his intrusive and illiberal actions (or those of his staff, if you want to give him the benefit of the doubt on that aspect). And rightly so.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Of minds and machines

My editorial for the latest issue of The Journal of Evolution and Technology - which is now gradually appearing on ur intertubz.

Kazez on the power of "How?"

This one is worth reading if you're also reading this one (with its various links).

New post at Talking Philosophy - on the Canadian polygamy case

Y'all are invited over here to discuss this.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - shake up of the Marvel line

Over in the world of supervillainhero comics, we see Marvel cancelling many of its books, including some interesting looking limited series that will now not see the light of day. At the same time, it is moving to put out many of its core books twice monthly. That seems like a reasonably safe strategy as long as it's not losing readers who were mainly interested in the cancelled books.

As this article discusses, there are also issues about character diversity, as some lower-selling books focused on female and racial/ethnic minority characters go to the wall, and variety among the creators of the material - the workload will now fall even more on the writers who are scripting the main (higher selling) books.

It looks as if writers who might be interested in scripting work in the comics industry are not going to find a lot of opportunities at Marvel. Meanwhile, DC's huge shake-up this year still seems to be working well for it. It will be fascinating to see whether it can sustain this in 2012. The industry is going to look very different going into next year.

A petition I was able to sign

I felt able to endorse all the sentiments in this petition re secularism in the Midddle East and North Africa. Perhaps you will, too.

A useful post about reviewing on Amazon

Every writer should read this post by Anne R. Allen - I guess I already knew a lot of it, but not all of it. And it's good to have it all in one place, and to be able to spread the information to others.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Article in Politics and the Life Sciences

This piece, "Genetically engineered people: Autonomy and moral virtue", is actually a peer commentary on a longer one by Mark Walker.

Anyway, details of it here (it was evidently published some time ago, although the nominal date doesn't really tell you that it actually came out then ... and I don't seem to have been sent offprints).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

New post at Talking Philosophy - Julian Baggini on Science and Religion

As you may have noticed, there's quite a debate on the intertubes about science/religion issues, originally arising from a post by Julian Baggini. In this post, I link to a number of the relevant discussions that are out there, and I just try to get Julian's views as clear as I can (perhaps he'll correct me/clarify his views). That might be a good start towards getting the whole thing sorted out. But what am I saying? The issues will probably ramify and ramify, as so often happens.

Polish translation of 50 Voices of Disbelief


It's great to see this now published. Yay for us - for Udo and me, and the whole team!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Jenny's take on the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego

She's posted about it over here - complete with a photo that includes her apparently pretending to be Shauna Roberts (who is actually standing behind her). (And thanks, again, to Alison Goodman, who took the photo.)

Still currently editing - that Minds/Machines issue of JET ...

... however, it is finally (well, it's not technically behind schedule yet) starting to appear. Look out (on the Journal of Evolution and Technology site) for my editorial and the first few articles over the next day or two. Hopefully, the full issue will be published by Christmas. As I've said previously, I believe that we are publishing some pieces that will be classics, and the general standard will be very high.

Currently reading - William Gibson: A Literary Companion

Okay, I'm currently reading this book by Tom Henthorne, which I'll be reviewing for Science Fiction Studies. There's a lot to be said about it, but it is very up to date and seems quite comprehensive. For more, alas, you'll need to go to the journal.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - is Doctor Doom a villain?

By now, the character of Dr. Doom has been interpreted and reinterpreted in so many different ways that it may be very much open to argument whether he is a villain anymore ... or whether he has now progressed to some special kind of status as an anti-hero, or anti-villain, or who knows what...

Surely, though, we can be confident that Dr. Doom was a villain, plain and simple, in the early Fantastic Four stories that introduced the character. Indeed, it seems clear enough that he is a villain, plain and simple, in many other stories. Stories such as Thor # 182-183 don't leave us in much doubt - or, in fact, in any doubt at all - that Thor is the hero of the narrative and Dr. Doom is its villain. This is a rather simple story, and even a young child would not be in any doubt that Doom is its bad guy.

Okay, so fine. It seems to be a true statement that "Dr. Doom is a villain within the story told in Thor # 182-83."

Let me raise a philosophical question about this, having reached this far. Is it a fact that Dr. Doom is a villain within the story told in Thor # 182-183? If not, are there true statements that are not facts? Or do you not wish to maintain, after all, that it actually is true that Dr. Doom is a villain within the story told in Thor # 182-183?

Should we say that it is true only according to something like a set of values or a method of reading, and that someone with a different set of values and/or method of reading might not be wrong to apply that instead, and deny that Doom is a villain? After all, even some literary critics are fond of producing seemingly perverse readings of texts, in the process exposing and challenging various assumptions that we (whoever, exactly, "we" are) normally make when we read texts. These critics are not naive or stupid.

Nonetheless, even if we relativise it, we seem to have a true statement that we can make, something like, "Relative to the widely-accepted values and reading protocols of readers in about 1970, Dr. Doom is a villain in Thor # 182-83."

But isn't there something odd about this? It sounds like a kind of sociological fact, but surely we don't go out and study courses in sociology, or conduct surveys, or do other kinds of sociological research to see whether Dr. Doom is a villain in this particular narrative. If the narrative is available to us, perhaps by subscribing to the Marvel Digital database, we can just go and read it and see for ourselves.

When I assert that Dr. Doom is a villain in this simple story aimed at kids and teenagers (as comics were then far more than now), I don't really expect anyone to disagree with me. It seems to be just true, even if it's not objectively true (e.g. the truth of it might have some kind of component that relates to us, and which need not relate to all rational beings in the universe - maybe an intelligent but malevolent bug-eyed monster from Mars could perceive Doom as the hero without making an outright mistake).

I'm interested in this at the moment because I keep getting caught up in debates - currently with Jerry Coyne if you look over at Why Evolution Is True - about what a fact is. It's interesting anyway: what makes judgments about who is a hero or otherwise in a narrative true? How do these sorts of judgments relate to the judgments that we make in real life about whether people are morally good or bad? Are any of these judgments objectively correct? If so, in what sense of "objective" or "objectively"?

To me, a fact is just a true proposition. Some people seem to think that a fact is some sort of state of affairs that could be conveyed by a true proposition. They might think that some true propositions are not statements of fact (e.g. certain mathematical or logical ones). Either way, though, "Dr. Doom is a villain within the story told in Thor # 182-83" looks like a fact, or a statement of fact if you prefer (something about a state of affairs in the world, including the story's words and images makes the statement true).

Perhaps it's a funny sort of fact that Dr. Doom is a villain, etc., but I suggest that if you read the story you'll be as certain of this fact as you are of most. The story doesn't really leave room for people like us to draw other conclusions unless we are trying to be difficult or perverse.

As I said, it may not be an objective fact. It may not be a scientific fact. But does anyone, after reading the story, really want to deny that Doom is a villain in it? We need to have an understanding of facts, truth, inquiry, science, etc., that is capable of coping with this situation.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Another critique of The Moral Landscape

This one is by Brian Earp. The substantive criticisms aren't all that different from those you will have seen before, but they are made rather well and quite concisely.

The tone is a bit more hostile than necessary - Earp obviously found Harris and/or his book very irritating - but it's relatively mild for the internet (and compared with some of what we've seen in recent years, in some the debates I've been involved in, it's very mild indeed!).

Earp includes a link to a video where he questions Harris on what is original in his thesis. Contrary to the (again unnecessarily hostile) title of the video, Harris doesn't "evade" the question, which suggests some kind of dishonesty, but nor does he give an answer that I find especially satisfying.

Yes, I support defending Aliaa Magda Elmahdy unconditionally

See Maryam Namazie on this here.
And note some of the negative responses, which at least show what we're up against. Horrifyingly, even some supposed "liberals" are attacking Aliaa Elmahdy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

New blog post at Talking Philosophy

Here I dissect what is wrong with one accommodationist argument - the argument about how "science is limited".

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Marriage and money

Mike LaBossiere has an interesting thread going on over at Talking Philosophy - and I just made a longish comment. This argument can be a sore point with many people, one way or the other, but see what you think.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Currently editing - the special Minds/Machines issue of JET

As advertised here, Linda MacDonald Glenn and I are editing a special issue of The Journal of Evolution and Technology relating to mind/machine mergers and similar topics.

According to the (very ambitious) timetable that we set ourselves earlier this year, the issue is due for publication this month. It's proving to be a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, and we have a small number of pieces either still under review or awaiting revision and resubmission. Nonetheless, most of the articles to go in the issue have been selected and are at advanced stages of editing. I don't expect us to slip far from our timetable.

If everything comes together properly, this will be a bumper issue of JET, and the quality looks like being very high. Without publicly naming favourites before the issue is even published, I'll just say that the papers we're publishing include some that I think are destined to be considered classics in the field.

More news on this over the coming weeks.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Steve Leiva picks up my blog post ... with added pictures

I mean re this. Over here.

Thanks mate. I especially liked the pic of Menippus.

Maryam Namazie on the far right and Islamism

We may mean something fairly specific when we talk about the "far right" or "extreme right" - and I even have some discussion of what in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

At the same time, expressions such as "right wing" and "left wing" cover so many dimensions that they're not terribly useful in most contexts.

Still, on almost any plausible account, using ordinary parlance, Islamism just is an extreme right-wing ideology. Maryam Namazie shows this pretty conclusively as far as I'm concerned, not that I needed persuading.

Should we ban banning things?

Well, obviously not. We do need bans on some things - murder, rape, robbery, assault and battery, and on and on...

But it doesn't follow that it's either necessary or desirable to ban every damn thing that we might disapprove of (as individuals, or even with a broad consensus).

Anyway, David Allen Green has a good post on all this. I can't say that it's a good thread, though. The quality of the responses leaves a lot to be desired.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Belated Sunday supervillainy

Supervillainy seems a bit slow at my end this week, so I give you Steve Zara's review of X-Men First Class (he liked it).

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Currently reading - Traveling in Space

I've been reading Steven Paul Leiva's new novel, Traveling in Space - a book that I'm enjoying a lot. In form, it's a science fiction narrative, but not one that presents space-opera-style battles or one that aims at verisimilitude in the manner of hard sf.

Instead, we're given a satirical story in the tradition of books such as Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, with which it shares something of a common sensibility, or even Gulliver's Travels. Look for elements of Menippean satire, such as a fragmented narrative, philosophical debates, and pervasive mockery of both sacred and "commonsense" ideas.

Traveling in Space is sufficiently sprawling and complicated to require a list of dramatis personae to help sort out its characters: see here, on Steve Leiva's blog, where you can find out quite a bit more about the book and its author. It doesn't seem to be available on Amazon at this stage, so I don't know whether it has yet been formally published (I was sent an advance reading copy), but presumably it will be very soon.

The book's satirical force is generated by contact between two mutually-baffled intelligent species: a bunch of extraterrestrial aliens traveling in space far from their home world; and human beings here on Earth, whom they encounter and try to understand. This opens up all sorts of possibilities. The aliens are not bug-eyed monsters, but humanlike beings from a vastly older, technologically superior civilisation. They immediately strike Earth men and women as physically gorgeous and fascinating. For their own part, they find us equally fascinating ... though physically repulsive.

Many of the aliens' encounters with human beings are downright funny. They see the idiocy of many of our institutions and practices, whether it be religion, war, or prudishness about the body. As the narrative continues, however, and they are confronted by the facts of race hate and genocide, the satire takes on a different tone. The aliens still struggle to understand what they're seeing, but the denunciation grows more bitter (even when the horrors are filtered through the perceptions of the aliens, who examine human conduct in a rather clinical way).

All of this is familiar, of course - many authors have used contact with earthly or extraterrestrial aliens to satirise the ways of human beings - but Traveling in Space takes on an extra layer of complexity as the aliens themselves change, in one way or another, in response to their interactions with us ... and as some aspects of their civilisation are also shown to be corrupt, unjust, and unsavoury. If, as readers, we started out thinking that the aliens were a noble, uncorrupted people who make humans seem like yahoos by comparison, we soon learn that the situation is not at all so simple.

Both species have something to learn from contact with each other, as it turns out, and the most important learning takes place on the aliens' side. Complications such as these give us much to think about, and I'm sure that Traveling in Space will play on my mind for some time to come.

Friday, November 11, 2011

New post at Talking Philosophy

This one is on whether religion makes factual claims. I'm quite happy to accept that it (often) does.

I need to write a follow-up post, though. This current one sets the stage for whether Keith Ward has a good understanding of the relationship between the sciences and the humanities, and the relationship of both to religion. I don't think so. Jerry Coyne agrees with me on this, but I think our reasons will turn out to be slightly different.

Edit: You might want to contribute to the discussion over there - in fact I encourage you to. Be warned, though, Talking Philosophy is pretty strict about civility, assuming good faith, etc.

Currently reading - Warriors of the Tao

Warriors of the Tao: The Best of Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature, edited by Damien Broderick and Van Ikin, contains (as you might expect) a selection of pieces from Ikin's long-running magazine/literary journal Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature. It is not necessarily the very best work that has ever appeared in the journal; indeed, the editors hold out the possibility of a follow-up volume. Still, it's a strong body of body of work.

I have a great deal of affection for the journal and its editor - this is where I had my first break, my first serious pieces accepted for publication when I was a young scholar still fresh from my initial undergraduate study at the University of Newcastle (where I am again now ... having come full circle in that sense, albeit playing a very different role).

The book takes its title from one of my pieces (first published in a 1984 issue of the journal), which reviews David Lake's The Gods of Xuma and discusses Lake's work more generally. This piece opens the book, following separate introductions by its editors. I have a couple of other relatively brief contributions (a short article on sex in science fiction, and a review of Greg Egan's Diaspora).

I am also represented as a participant in an email interview (or "colloquium") with Darko Suvin, which was published as (relatively) recently as 2001. The other qestioners are Van Ikin and Sylvia Kelso.

This interview with Suvin, possibly the world's leading science fiction scholar, is quite a coup. It may be the most important piece in the entire book, and it takes up 45 pages of the volume's 300 or so. Suvin most certainly reveals a great deal about his background and his thinking, though I must say, reading the interview again ten years later, that he shows a tendency to pontificate - and almost harangue - his interviewers/readers. His answers to questions are very long and sometimes incorporate large chunks of previous publications. There is little sense of explaining and reflecting, as opposed to laying down how it is. I can see this approach turning off some readers.

A softer approach might have been more persuasive to those who don't already share Suvin's brands of literary theory and Marxist political philosophy. To be fair, though, you really have to appreciate Suvin for the amount of unpaid time that he must have put into this "colloquium". It would have been many, many hours' work.

For me, the highlights of the book are actually Terry Dowling's insightful discussion of Samuel R. Delany's Driftglass and his lengthy analysis of the work of Cordwainer Smith, Bruce Gillespie's thorough discussion of Philip K. Dick's non-sf novels, and a fascinating discussion of Gerald Murnane's The Plains by Yvonne Rousseau. Also notable is Sean McMullen's well-researched article on mid-twentieth-century Australian science fiction, though much of this is also available in reworked form (with input from McMullen's co-authors) in Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction.

(Then again, even the Kindle edition of Strange Constellations is very expensive, whereas you can pick up a Kindle version of Warriors of the Tao for just a few dollars.)

In all, a strong selection of work covering nearly three decades (the earliest piece was published in 1982, and the most recent in 2008). Van Ikin should be proud of his legacy over that time, and I do hope that he and Broderick are able to produce that second volume.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Biotech battle

A short article in the student newspaper The Manitoban. I get a mention for my piece at Talking Philosophy.

Currently reading - Exploring Science Fiction

I've been reading Exploring Science Fiction: Text and Pedagogy, edited by Geetha B. (this kind of abbreviation of names is commonplace in India) and Amit Sarwal. The book is published in New Delhi, by SSS Publications, but it could just as easily have appeared in New York, or London, or Sydney, or anywhere else in the English-speaking world. There is nothing about it that is of narrow and peculiar interest to readers based in India.

The essays are of high quality, though to be honest the book could have done with one more pass by a pair of trained eyes - such as those of a professional copyeditor. Just too many glitches have found themselves into print. One of the worst is that a note from me to the editors (placed in square brackets, and discussing a tiny stylistic point) has simply been printed as is within my own essay, rather than being acted upon in some way and then deleted! That may be one of the worst examples, but there are small problems in every essay.

Sometimes it's a couple of words in the reverse order that didn't get picked up in copyediting, sometimes it's simply a very clumsy sentence. For example, the very first sentence of one essay reads: "Delhi University was perhaps the first major university in India to introduce an honours course in popular fiction in 1999." One immediately wonders whether Delhi University did so in, say, early January of that year, while the others waited until February or March! (Surely the sentence should read: "In 1999, Delhi University became perhaps the first major university in India to introduce an honours course in popular fiction.")

Too much of this sort of thing becomes distracting, and I hope that the editors might have a chance to polish the book one more time before any editions are published in other countries - or any further editions appear in India.

With that bit of dissatisfaction out of the way, I can report that Exploring Science Fiction could be used pretty much anywhere as a textbook or a teachers' handbook. The primary audience is Indian teachers and academics, and it makes the assumption that a basic text is needed in a country where the teaching of science fiction is not well established. Several of the essays are about pedagogical techniques for teaching science fiction courses and texts (some of these techniques could be adapted to classes in other subjects). However, the book also provides a solid account of the genre that would be useful to teachers in, say, the US or UK or Australia; and the pedagogical advice is by no means restricted, in its plausibility and likely usefulness, to schools and universities on the sub-continent.

Though some of the content is at an elementary level, just about every essay pushes beyond the obvious to make some points that would be of interest even to experienced professionals and scholars in the field. At the same time, the theoretical and historical accounts tend to converge on a common picture: no one is offering a highly controversial "take" on the nature of the genre or its historical origins and development. There is something of a consensus here, and it reflects the more popular ideas among literary critics and scholars. History, formal characteristics, and themes are explored in ways that would, I think, be familiar to most of us doing scholarly work in "science-fiction studies", yet with individual touches and usually a certain amount of flair.

The book would be useful to any scholar who would like to read a solid, orthodox account which nonetheless offers personal insights (in some cases from very high-profile sf scholars, such as James Gunn, who has provided a foreword, and Andy Sawyer). In particular, it would be of value to anyone trying to get an overview of the history and character of the field. There are other ways of construing these, no doubt, but Exploring Science Fiction provides a solid and readable (and relatively brief) introduction to science fiction that conforms pretty closely to how most sf scholars seem to view things. More creative or heterodox views could be consulted at a later date.

All in all, I do recommended the book for what it is ... and what it is is no mean thing. For some of my readers, in fact, this may be just the book you need.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Some sense in Mississippi

A fortunate outcome here.

(H/T Jerry Coyne)

Podcast re 50 Voices of Disbelief

You can find the podcast of my radio interview, focused mainly on 50 Voices of Disbelief (let's link to the Kindle edition for a change), with Minnesota Atheists here.

Thanks to all involved, including Stephanie Zvan, Carl Hancock, and Rachel Reiva. Once again, it was an enjoyable interview for me - hope y'all enjoy it as well.

From the site:
50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists presents a unique and thought-provoking collection of original essays that address personal disbelief in a higher power. Drawn from an international cast of professionals in the fields of academia, science, literature, media and politics, contributors offer carefully considered statements of why they reject the idea of a deity governing the universe and human affairs. Several essays also address such issues as the social role of religion and its alternatives. The responses feature a stunning diversity of viewpoints and tone, ranging from rigorous philosophical arguments to highly personal — at times even whimsical — accounts of how each of these notable thinkers have come to reject religion in their lives. Whether you're a believer or not, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists offers an intellectually stimulating journey into the possibilities for rational and reasonable people everywhere to live without the crutch of religion.

Join editor Russell Blackford as we discuss the book and why is was needed.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Reviews of 50 Voices of Disbelief

(H/T Jenny)

The reviews quoted on the Amazon site have mounted up over time, and there are a few I didn't know about (in particular, the one in the Times Higher Education Supplement had slipped past me). We really did have some critical success with this book. So let me brag a little, just this once:
"For students in comparative religion this volume offers ample material and powerful reasons to make them subject most if not all religious claims to a highly critical appraisal, preparing for a constructive and public debate." (Acta Comparanda, 2011)

"50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists brings together many scholars and intellectuals from a variety of academic fields who explain the reasons why they do not believe in God. Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk's unique collection of original essays not only consists of short, digestible essays which are full of introductory presentations of both positive and negative arguments in support of atheism, but also in its candid testimonials which are more personally oriented." (Reviews in Religion, 2011)

"The international cast of contributors includes many well-known names, from a diversity of fields-notably philosophy (about a third of the writers are philosophers) science, journalism, politics and science fiction. By no means do they agree on everything, but the unifying themes of rejection of conventional religions and acceptance of secular humanism shine through brightly. A descriptive list of contributors and an excellent index complement the essays, many of which are accompanied by useful endnotes and references." (Quadrant, September 2010)

"It was mostly fascinating reading, in particular, those articles that abstained from using dull polemics and cynicism. Some of the articles-most notably from Nicholas Everitt, Thomas W. Clark, Michael Shermer, Peter Tatchell, Michael Tooley, and Udo Schüklenk-can indeed be used in undergraduate courses concerned with the existence of God in philosophy, ethics, and theology. I recommend this volume especially for all those who need to grasp a general and easy introduction into atheistic reasoning." (Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2010)

"I recommend this volume especially for all those who need to grasp a general and easy introduction into atheistic reasoning." (Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2010)

“The essays in this book reveal a great concern for our human plight, a concern that is the equal of religious impulses; they raise a richness of issues that are too often ignored, including the ultimate fear of the theists that perhaps in time it may well be possible to settle the question of God’s existence. The fifty voices in this book have spoken out with more than a small amount of courage. What emerges from thinking about these essays is a realization of what human reason is up against, within ourselves.” (Free Inquiry, August/September 2010)

"Good writing and clear thinking don't always go hand in hand. It's a pleasure, then, to find both in a recent book about going it alone -- no deus ex machina for us, please -- titled 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. In one volume, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk, you'll find idiosyncratic essays by a range of atheists from science fiction authors and philosophers to scientists and activists." (Psychology Today, Creating in Flow Blog, May 2010)

"Many of the pieces in this book are full of superior contempt for the intellectual inadequacy of theism. Tatchell is forthright in his criticism of religion, but he never sneers. The essays in this book are all clearly argued, and will reassure the already faithful that they are neither daft nor deluded." (Church Times, April 2010)

"The contemporary relevance,and timeliness of this book is unsurpassed. It is ... an account of various well known non-believers [and] personal viewpoints, directed at a popular audience. Very approachable at all levels, containing a wide range of stories, anecdotes and personal statements about why each of the authors considers themselves to be a non believer. Overall, this book is well suited for a mainstream audience, interested in questioning the power that religion holds over our lives. It [also] has good references ... which will also serve to guide the reader if further information is wanted. Thus, I recommend this book to anyone (regardless of their views concerning religion) interested in understanding why different people hold certain views concerning religion." (Metapsychology, April 2010)

"By turns witty, serious, engaging and information, it is always human and deeply honest, and immensely rewarding to read." (Times Higher Education Supplement, December 2009)

"Carefully considered statements … .Contributions range from rigorous philosophical arguments to highly personal, even whimsical, accounts of how each of these notable thinkers have come to reject religion in their lives. Likely to have broad appeal." (Australian Atheist, November 2009)

"I am strongly recommending it as a present for anyone who has an interest in atheism/theism from either side of the debate. It's just a great read, from great authors." (Stephen Law Blogspot, October 2009)

"It’s a very good book, and I recommend it for all of us godless ones — or those who are considering abjuring the divine. It’s far more than just a collection of stories about 'How I came to give up God.' Many of the writers describe the philosophical and empirical considerations that led them to atheism. Indeed, the book can be considered a kind of philosophical handbook for atheists." (Why Evolution is True Blog, October 2009)

"Wow! A book about atheism and it’s not written by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett or Harris! So this book is welcome partly because it helps break that knee-jerk reaction. But it’s also welcome because many of its contributors advance interesting ideas. There’s plenty to choose from. And one advantage of a collection like this is that you can dip into it wherever you want. There is something for everyone. And there is the opportunity to discover new ideas." (Open Parachute, October 2009)

"For many who have spent some time involved in any form of engagement in these matters, the names should appear familiar: from the great AC Grayling to the revolutionary Maryam Namazie. Finally, in one book we can hear their stories – if not about themselves, then about the aspects of religion or lack thereof they find most important. If all these contributors were speakers at a convention, it would be sold out many times over." (Butterflies and Wheels, October 2009)

"In their excellent collection of essays exploring and defending the philosophical stance of atheism, Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk had an inclusive vision. Contributors to the book range from those with science-fiction backgrounds to modern-day philosophy." (Kirkus Reviews, October 2009)

"In more than 50 brief statements organized by Blackford and philosopher Schüklenk ... contributors share views—their routes toward nonbelief and their feelings about the place of religion in the world ... including James (the Amazing) Randi, a well-known magician and debunker of spurious psychic phenomena. Considering the popularity of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great, and Sam Harris's The End of Faith, [these] memoirs and observations will be of interest to disbelievers." (Library Journal, October 2009)

Radio interview

I'm just about to do a live (and later podcast) interview with atheist talk radio KTNF 950 AM, in Minnesota. Will let y'all know how it goes.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - an interview with Mike Carey

This interview with Mike Carey is a few weeks old, now, but I thought it worthwhile linking to it.

As regular readers know, I'm a big fan of Mike's work on X-Men: Legacy, which he is leaving very soon (a couple of issues have yet to be released, but they were doubtless scripted long ago).

I've been especially impressed by his character work with a wide range of established and new characters (if you think that writing dialogue and action for previously established characters is straightforward, try writing even a couple of lines of plausible, yet distinctive, dialogue for an established character in literary narrative or popular culture, without lapsing into caricature; you'll find that it's fiendishly difficult getting the "voice" right).

At some point, I'd like to review Mike's entire run on the book, but in case that doesn't happen I'll take this opportunity to bid him farewell from it and wish every success in all his other activities - writing novels, TV scripts, and everything that he's apparently doing. His run has been up there among the great ones in the field, especially in recent decades.

Farewell, Mike! Continue the great work wherever you go.

The Coyne/Haught question time

Jerry Coyne has made available the video of the question time from the debate/symposium/whatever with Haught - discussed in the previous post.

I don't want to analyse this in depth, but just to make a few quick points. One is that the format allowed opportunities for Haught to respond to Jerry's arguments ... and indeed Haught did develop more of an argument for his position in his long answers to some of the questions than he did in his actual presentation. He can hardly, however, complain that Jerry's 25-minute presentation failed to refute an argument that he had not made in any proper way at that point.

Both speakers continue during the question time to stay within the bounds of civility, so there can be no complaint about this. If anyone starts to wander beyond civility and become personal in the whole discussion, it is actually Haught at 24:48 into the video. If anyone had cause for complaint about incivility it was actually Jerry Coyne - though to be fair I think that even this bit of snarkiness from Haught was well within the bounds. We mustn't adopt an overly precious attitude to public debate; I don't want to burden anyone with some ridiculous standard of gentility.

Finally, although I don't propose to analyse the merits of the actual arguments, if anyone engaged in reducing the other's position to a caricature, or to something not even recognisable, it seems to me that it was Haught. In particular, I don't see Jerry or anyone else denying that it is possible for, say, the boiling of water to be caused both by molecular motion and by my desire to have a cup of tea. The total causal story may well include both of those things and many others.

The idea that science and religion are incompatible is not at all based on an argument that it is logically inconsistent to claim, for example, that the presence of diverse life forms is caused by both a process of a biological evolution and by the creative actions of a powerful intelligence (who might have set the whole thing in motion for its own reasons). There is no logical inconsistency here, but I've never seen somebody who argues for the incompatibility of science and religion put an argument that there is.

Typically, what are put by "non-accomodationists" are more specific reasons why we should not glibly say that "science and religion are compatible", how they are, in some senses, "incompatible", and why all this is important. That's what Jerry did in the debate thingie at the University of Kentucky.

When I wrote the previous post, I was not aware that Haught had told Jerry (during question time) to "get out more". When I said that Haught needs to get out more, that was serendipitous.

But really, Haught needs to ... um, let's change metaphors ... wake up and smell the coffee. He is in a position where he has ample opportunities to put his viewpoint in books and speeches. From what I've read (again, I've read most of his books) and seen, he employs more nastiness - more insults and condescension - than his opponents do, at least the high-profile ones such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne (what happens within the blogosphere is a topic for another time).

Haught doesn't have much to complain about.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Coyne vs. Haught - advantage, Coyne

While I was flying from Los Angeles to Sydney earlier this week, something of a fracas arose between Jerry Coyne and John Haught over Haught's attempt to prevent publication of their debate/discussion/symposium/whatever it was last month at the University of Kentucky. I came into this much too late to do more than sign (along with hundreds of other people) a petition asking for the video to be made public.

In the event, the video has appeared, but it was made public on condition that Jerry Coyne publish an open letter to him from Haught explaining the latter's reasons for being reluctant. You can find this here along with Jerry's briefer response; in any event, here is the substantive part of Haught's letter where he sets out his motives:
Why then do I hesitate in this case? It has to do with you alone, Jerry, not anyone else, including myself. I have had wonderful conversations with many scientific skeptics over the years, but my meeting with you was exceptionally dismaying and unproductive. I mentioned to you personally already that in my view, the discussion in Kentucky seldom rose to the level of a truly academic encounter. I agree that it was probably entertaining to the audience who gave us a standing ovation at the end. Nevertheless, instead of being flattered by this I went away terribly discouraged at what had just taken place. I wish to emphasize that I do not exempt myself from criticism.

The event at the University of Kentucky did not take place in the way I had expected. My understanding was that each speaker was to provide a curt 25-minute presentation of how he understood the relationship between science and theology. I did just this, and I have no objection to having that presentation made public. People who attended the event, moreover, can testify that in my presentation I avoided talking about or criticizing you personally. Instead I was content to make some very general remarks about why I consider science completely compatible with theology as I understand it.

When Robert Rabel of the Gaines Center at the University of Kentucky, a true gentleman who remains far above reproach in all of this, contacted me last summer and invited me to participate in the event, he asked me for names of people who would differ from my own position. I recommended you as someone who would definitely have a different perspective, to say the least. Prof. Rabel informed me that you agreed to participate with the qualification that you did not want to debate me, but simply to lay out your own way of looking at science and religion. I took this to mean that you would do something parallel to what I did in my presentation.

Instead, you used the event primarily to launch a sneering and condescending ad hominem. Rather than using your 25 minutes as an opportunity to develop constructively your own belief that science and religion are always and inevitably in conflict, you were content simply to ridicule rather than refute several of my own ideas, as you interpreted them. On the other hand, my own presentation, as those who watch the video will see, was a dispassionate attempt to have the audience understand some of the reasons why the new scientific picture of the universe is so troubling to many traditionally religious people. I don’t believe that at any point in that presentation I resorted to ridicule, or that I focused on, much less misrepresented, anything you have written. Instead, I argued in a purely academic way that scientism is simply unreasonable. This was clearly my main point, and I was expecting you to respond to it in an academic manner as well.

Rather than answering my point that scientism is logically incoherent–which is really the main issue–and instead of addressing my argument that the encounter with religious truth requires personal transformation, or for that matter instead of responding to any of the other points I made, you were content to use most of your time to ridicule several isolated quotes from my books. I was absolutely astounded by your woeful lack of insight into, or willingness to grapple with, the real meaning of these passages. Sophisticated argument requires as an essential condition that you have the good manners to understand before you criticize. Your approach, on the other hand was simply one of “caricature and then crush.” Citation of a few isolated sentences or paragraphs, the meaning of which requires reading and understanding many chapters, is hardly useful criticism. You grossly distorted every quotation you used, and then you coated over your [mis]understanding of these statements with your own uncritical creationist and literalist set of assumptions about the Bible and theology. There was no room for real conversation, as impartial viewers will notice.

Instead of trying to convince the audience of the logical coherence and philosophical finality of your belief that science is the only reliable guide to truth, you began by arbitrarily announcing to the audience that John Haught is the chief representative of theology in the conversation of science with religion. You gave no evidence for that, and in fact it is by no means evidently true. I am but one of a great number of theologians involved in the discussion, and many others do not share my views. But your strategy was to show that if the principal figure is stupid, then you need not take his subordinates seriously either. This is a convenient method for shrinking the territory that needs to be covered, but it is hardly a fair way of dealing with all the other theological alternatives to your own belief system.

But let me come to the main reason why I have been reluctant to give permission to release the video. It is not for anything that I said during our encounter, but for a reason that I have never witnessed in public academic discussion before.

I’m still in shock at how your presentation ended up. I was so offended both personally and as an academic by the vulgarity of it all that I did not want other people to have to share what I witnessed that night in October. I still don’t.

I’m referring to the fact that your whole presentation ended up with a monstrous, not to mention tasteless, non sequitur, to give it the kindest possible characterization. You put on the screen a list of all the “evils” you associate with Catholicism: its stance regarding divorce, contraception, priest pedophilia, homosexuality–and I can’t remember what all–as though these have anything at all to do with the topic of the panel or with my own personal views on the relationship of science to theology. The whole focus of your presentation was on me, but when you came to your conclusion you never bothered to find out what my own position regarding your list of Catholic evils might be. I have never witnessed such a blatant smear or malicious attempt to impute guilt by association in all my years in university life.

Your list of Catholic evils, contrary to what you were suggesting, has absolutely nothing logically to contribute to your argument that science is opposed to religion. But even if it did, you never asked me whether I dissent from some or all the items on your list of “evils,” as many Catholics do, and whether such dissent might, in your twisted way of arguing, perhaps make my own position more credible. Your insinuation could only have been that somehow the priest sexual abuse crisis, for example, discredits my views on science and theology. You should be grateful that I have tried to protect the public from such a preposterous and logic-offending way of bringing your presentation to a close.

There is much more to be said, but this is all I will have to say to you or others on this matter. If you are willing to post this letter on your blog, go ahead and ask the Gaines Center to release the video as well. I have no objections now that I have had the opportunity to present my reservations to possible viewers.
Since reading this, I've watched the video.

Okay, before I go too far I'll admit a bias. Jerry Coyne is a personal friend of mine - but that doesn't mean we never have disagreements. Again, my views are much closer to his than to Haught's - though that doesn't mean we agree on all issues of substance. We don't, and we sometimes exchange jibes over points of disagreement (such as in our approaches to the problem of free will). I do agree with most of what Jerry says in the video, but I could probably find some points to quibble about. Be all that as it may, I have a bias and you might, by all means, try to discount for that.

On the other hand, you can watch the video for yourself and see how much it matches Haught's description. I submit that Haught did not put much in the way of an argument against what he calls "scientism". He said a fair bit about why we should take seriously the question of the compatibility or otherwise of religion and science, he said something about how they were reconciled historically, and he briefly sketched his own position about how they can be reconciled today. However, he developed no concerted argument as to why so-called "scientism" is intellectually untenable or "simply unreasonable".

In fairness to Haught, he had only about 25 minutes. That allows for only about 3000 words, so of course there was no way he could have developed the actual arguments in the way he does in his books (most of which I've read). I accept that there was little he could do in that time to dig deep into the arguments pro and con - though I'm sure that some of his speech, as delivered, could have been cut to make room for argumentative meat. There could have been less ingratiation with the audience, less provision of historical context, etc. The bottom line is that, while his approach and balance were reasonable ones to choose, the downside for him is that his speech did not contain a sustained argument for his position.

Reading the long quote from Haught above, you'd expect, prior to viewing it, to find that Jerry Coyne's presentation was uncivil or even abusive. In fact, it was not. There was a touch of aggression and certainly some satire, but it was all quite good-humoured and certainly well within the normal bounds of civility for a debate or even an academic disagreement falling well short of a formal debate. It was most certainly not an exercise in "sneering and condescending ad hominem" - that is a massive distortion of how Jerry went about developing his position.

Admittedly, Jerry's speech did not contain a blow-by-blow refutation of Haught's. That would have been inappropriate for a number of reasons. One is that there really wasn't that much in Haught's speech to refute. Once again, it contained little of the detailed argument that appears in his books, and did little more than contextualise and then sketch out a position. Second, Jerry had every right to concentrate on his own positive reasons for considering religion and science to be incompatible. He needed time to explain what he really means by that - he does not mean something crude or even straightforward, despite Haught's assertions to the contrary - and to say why he considers the issue to be important.

There may be a third reason. In public debates there is often a problem with the participants attempting to refute each other in detail, all the way down. Often they are developing their arguments from different underlying premises, and there is just no time to dig into what these may be, how the deep disagreements can be settled, etc. That can be done to some extent in books, where more words are available, but in oral argument it is often (not always, but often) most useful if the participants concentrate on stating their positive cases, making clear as they go along what sort of presumptions they are relying on. The audience can judge for itself which of these are most reasonable.

In developing his case, Jerry quoted from Haught's books, but he did so to illustrate points about theology and the sorts of claims that (according to Jerry) it makes about reality. While there could be a further debate as to whether the quotes demonstrated what he said they did, and as to whether the conclusions drawn about theology were correct, this tactic was fair and reasonable. There were no obvious cases of words being taken out of context to suggest that Haught holds views which he actually rejects. Nor were there obvious misrepresentations of their meaning. Even if errors were made (and if so they were not obvious to me ... someone who has read most of Haught's books and thought about them carefully), they were surely made in good faith. I should add that Haught is not the clearest writer; if his words are sometimes misunderstood, he should direct some of the blame at himself and perhaps modify his style.

Even the criticism of Catholic moral teachings was fair in context - it was clearly advanced to illustrate Jerry's point about how theological thinking can lead to (or tend to preserve) cruel teachings that have real-world consequences. Again, there could be further debate about whether that argument was made well, whether the conclusion is actually true, and so on. But it was neither a gratuitous attack on the Catholic Church nor an ad hominem attack on Haught himself. It played a legitimate role in Jerry's overall argument.

Haught says (once again):
Your insinuation could only have been that somehow the priest sexual abuse crisis, for example, discredits my views on science and theology. You should be grateful that I have tried to protect the public from such a preposterous and logic-offending way of bringing your presentation to a close.
But that is itself a preposterous thing to say. It was quite clear how Jerry's argument fitted together and what role this conclusion was playing, whether you agree with it or not. It is false - preposterously false - for Haught to say: "[the] insinuation could only have been that somehow the priest sexual abuse crisis, for example, discredits my views on science and theology."

I emphasise that you don't have to agree with any of Jerry's conclusions, even though I more or less do agree with them. I've said nothing in this post to defend them. Nor need you think that his arguments were cogent, even though I more or less do - I've said nothing here to reconstruct and support them. That isn't the point. The point is that Jerry's speech was absolutely fine. It was fine in the sense of taking a legitimate approach to the topic; in staying well within the normal bounds of civility for this kind of public discussion; and in avoiding ad hominem arguments and unfair tactics such as quote mining.

Again, watch the video for yourself. You'll see that Jerry's speech was actually rather mild, despite being painted by Haught as if it were extreme ("sneering", "monstrous", "vulgarity", "preposterous", "blatant smear or malicious attempt to impute guilt by association", etc.). I can only conclude that this is a case where an absurdly high standard of civility is being demanded of anyone who criticises religious or theological viewpoints. It is a standard required of no one else involved in public debate over issues of importance.

The comments directed at Haught were far more genteel than what we typically see from Christian debaters such as William Lane Craig. I've seen Craig far more openly mocking than that in the way he deals with his opponents. However, you might say that Haught did not use any mockery or even any direct criticism of Jerry's views as expressed elsewhere (such as in articles and posts at Why Evolution Is True). That's correct. Haught chose to concentrate on sketching his general worldview, putting it in historical perspective, and so on. Still, I've seen him, in his books, engage in forms of condescension, mockery, and outright abuse that go far beyond anything we can see Jerry Coyne doing in the video. Haught is not Mr Nice Guy, even if he played that role on the day. He can be as nasty as any nasty "New Atheist". Indeed, his open letter, with its continual use of emotive, angry language, is nastier (and far more obviously unfair) than anything in the speech that it denounces.

This incident reminds me of the earlier fracas over Jerry's New Republic review of a couple of books by, respectively, Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Though the review contained some strong criticisms of the books, it was well within the proper bounds of civility for a book review.

And yet, it led to claims (notably from Chris Mooney and apparently Barbara Forrest) that such books should not be reviewed in such a manner - that doing so is uncivil. Once again, the proposal seems to be that religion, or at least "nice" non-fundamentalist religion, should be treated with a special deference that would not be given to, say, economic theories or political ideologies. Anything less than a solicitous attitude to religion counts as incivility.

Finally, none of what I've written here is meant to support the idea that actual incivility and bullying are fine in public debate. Nor is to deny any claims that some atheists, some of the time, engage in actual incivility - some doubtless do, and indeed I have been known, myself to say things in anger that I've later regretted. That's an issue of some importance, no doubt, but tangential to what I'm on about here.

The point is that people like Jerry Coyne are likely to encounter over-the-top reactions even when they engage in thoughtful, and appropriately civil, critiques of theological or religious views. Perhaps some of the reaction to that, in turn, then becomes hurtful or unseemly (Haught claims to have received very abusive emails over the current fracas, for example), and I don't condone that. But let's be blunt: Haught needs to get out more if he thinks there was anything remotely inappropriate about the way Jerry conducted himself at the University of Kentucky. It is Haught's outraged and outrageous open letter that merits our condemnation.

A nice photo from the World Fantasy Convention

A group shot of some authors associated with Hadley Rille Books (including a photo being held up of publisher Eric Reynolds, who couldn't make the convention).

Jenny is second from the left in the front row (behind a sign claiming she is Shauna Roberts). I'm looming, or attempting to loom, at the back.

Exorcism as psychiatric therapy

This piece is written in such a way that it is difficult to ascertain the precise facts. Some of it has a vague "where there's smoke there's fire" quality, and I'd like to know more about the fire concerned.

Nonetheless, my hackles rise at the prospect of a government health service, such as the National Health Service in the UK, treating exorcism as a legitimate form of psychiatric therapy. British readers might want to look into this further, ask some questions, and try to establish what the hell (as it were) is going on here.

H/T Richard Ashcroft

Friday, November 04, 2011

The reading pile

My reading pile keeps growing. Some recent additions that I'm looking forward to broaching are:

Warriors of the Tao: The Best of Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature, edited by Damien Broderick and Van Ikin (Borgo Press). This contains a number of short pieces by me, mainly from the 1980s, as well as a lengthy email interview with major SF scholar and critic Darko Suvin, in which I took part about ten years ago.

Exploring Science Fiction: Text and Pedagogy, edited by Geetha B. and Amit Sarwal (published in India by SSS Publications). This contains new essays, mostly by high profile scholars in the field, among them James Gunn, Farah Mendlesohn, and Andy Sawyer. I'm not aware of the Indian contributors, but that is probably my oversight. I look forward to reading their takes on science fiction. The book contains a new essay by me of about 5000 words, "How Science Fiction Represents Technoscience". I'm quite proud of this piece - award juries, etc., please take note. If anyone is interested in a review copy, I can put you in touch with Amit Sarwal.

Traveling in Space, by Steven Paul Leiva. I've been sent an advance reading copy of this satirical novel for review ... and I promise Steve Leiva that I'll get to it soon. Looks like it will be fun.

Letter by Einstein sells for £170,000

The Guardian reports that a letter by Albert Einstein has sold at auction for £170,000.

The letter contains forthright views on religion. Contrary to Einstein's usual unwillingness to criticise religion harshly, it is quoted as saying:
The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.
Einstein, one of the best-known Jewish intellectuals of all time, is also dismissive of the idea of the Jews as the chosen people of God.

H/T Udo Schuklenk

On Brustle v. Greenpeace

I've written an analysis over here at Talking Philosophy. This can play the role of the more complete analysis that I promised some time ago now.

It also gave me a first opportunity to test out posting at Talking Philosophy. There's more to learn about this, but hopefully I haven't made too much of a mess of it!

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Russell Blackford joins Talking Philosophy (an announcement and some thoughts)

I'm pleased to announce that I have joined the team at Talking Philosophy, which means that I will now be posting there quite frequently, beginning ... well, soon. Maybe as soon as later today, if I find some moments to get the hang of things, or maybe tomorrow, but, in any event, soon.

This is an exciting move - Talking Philosophy is a high-profile, prestigious, and intellectually powerful site associated with The Philosophers' Magazine. I couldn't have found a better home. It will give my posts a considerably larger and somewhat more (ideologically, etc.) varied audience, and one that is generally more oriented to philosophy.

Please do follow me over to there ... and while you're visiting, why not check out the posts of other people on the team? As you'll see, it's a fascinating site with an eclectic and interesting group of contributors offering and debating opinions. There's no party line, and you may find that some members of the team inspire you while others infuriate you. That's all good for the life of the mind.

What about the future of Metamagician and the Hellfire Club? Well, it's now clear in my own mind that this place will continue, though the mix of posts may be a bit different and posting will be slightly less frequent than has been the case in the past.

I expect that my longer, more philosophically careful posts will find their way to Talking Philosophy (which will become more my philosophical sandbox, where I work on ideas that may one day find themselves being woven into books or articles).

Metamagician and the Hellfire Club will continue to be my personal web log, dealing with stuff that relates more to me as a person. That much seems fairly clear.

But there is also a whole range of categories of posts that fall somewhere in between, or which simply deal, albeit with some intellectual rigour, with topics that may not be appropriate to Talking Philosophy. I expect those will tend to belong here at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, but I'll be working out the balance as I go.

Nonetheless, I hope you'll continue to read this blog - it can continue to be an interesting place as long as it finds an audience for its particular mix of topics. I will, of course, point you in the direction of specific posts over at Talking Philosophy.

Bear with me over the next few months as I try to get the balance right. For now, transmission from Metamagician and the Hellfire Club will return to something more like normal after a busy few weeks, including a week and a half overseas just recently.

I do intend to post slightly less overall than has been the case at my peak. At that peak - in the first half of this year, say - I was posting at a rate that I find I cannot sustain, given the complexity of some of the posts and the fact that I need to devote energy to other projects such as writing and editing books (which is my main focus at this point in my life). Back in August I noted that my posting rate had fallen in that month, and that Metamagician and the Hellfire Club had become a bit quieter for a mix of reasons. That has continued, with some of the same reasons continuing to operate, but this place still has an important role from my point of view.

I doubt that the overall amount of posting will be much less than what you've seen from me in the past, but I needed to drop it at least a bit, while finding ways to enlarge my audience. When considering the future of Metamagician and the Hellfire Club in early August, I wrote:
But to be honest, there's also a question whether I should be blogging at all unless I can move to a situation where I: (1) receive some payment for it; and/or (2) at least reach a much bigger audience. Arguably, unless that happens I should be putting the time and energy into writing books or something.

I certainly want to maintain a presence on the internet, but there may be ways that are more time-efficient and more effective in reaching a wide audience. Over the coming months I want to explore/think about that.
The new arrangements, where my most "philosophical" posting will happen at Talking Philosophy, should help me accomplish those goals. No, there's no payment involved, but I can see myself reaching a wider audience in a more time-efficient way. That's important from where I sit, so I'll now be posting with renewed enthusiasm.

Talking Philosophy is going to be a great place to hang out. I'm looking forward to making a home there. Please consider bookmarking it, and, yes, do stay with me as my posting on the intertubes enters a brave and better new world.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Home!

I arrived home a couple of hours ago, and am now catching up with some phone calls and emails. Everything went very smoothly in getting from San Diego to Los Angeles to Sydney to Newcastle. I gather some Qantas flights are still being disrupted as a result of the fleet being grounded the other day ... but you wouldn't know it from any of my experiences in the last 24 hours or so.

All is well. Now for a mix of restoration of normal-ish service and some new announcements.