About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Humean argument against objectivism

In Sentimental Rules (2004), Shaun Nichols does a good job of explicating the central Humean argument against moral objectivism.

As he summarises it, the argument broadly involves two steps:

1. Rational creatures who lack certain emotions would not make the moral judgments that we do.

2. There is no externally principled basis for maintaining that all rational creatures should have the emotions on which our moral judgments depend. (page 185)

We can imagine intelligent, rational, well-informed Martians who do not believe (for example) that it is wrong to torture puppies. They fail to condemn the practice of puppy-torture because they don't share the human emotional repertoire that leads us to revile it. At the same time, there is no independent basis for saying that our emotional repertoire is the "right" one and the Martian one is "wrong". Thus, our condemnation is not justified except relative to creatures with an emotional repertoire like ours. pp. 185-86) It cannot truly be said that the Martians are making an intellectual mistake, however much we may be appalled by them.

Nichols supports the first premise by referring to the range of empirical work that shows a link between affect and normative judgment (and, in his view, the cultural viability of moral norms). This makes it plausible that rational Martians with a different emotional repertoire would not have the same moral norms. The empirical evidence also tends to show that psychopaths, who do not have the normal emotional repertoire, make different moral judgments: for example, they do not distinguish between authority-contingent conventional norms and universal moral norms, and they give different explanations as to why harmful acts are wrong (for them, it as a matter of violating convention rather than of the welfare of the person harmed). (p. 186) As a further point, norms that are backed by emotions of disgust are more likely to be treated as akin to moral norms, which are backed by emotions of reactive distress and concern, than are norms that have no strong emotional backing, such as norms of etiquette on emotionally neutral matters such as table settings. (pp. 186-87)

The second premise can be filled out by saying that there is no principled, external reason why all rational creatures should have emotional responses such as the human responses of reactive distress and concern. It is not even clear how anyone could argue for such a claim (it is no use arguing in a circular fashion that Martians are morally obliged to have such responses, as determined by our moral norms and intuitions; this assumes what we set out to prove, that our moral judgments are objectively supported). It won't do to say that creatures without our emotional repertoire are in some way defective from an evolutionary viewpoint, since it is not necessarily the case that having such a repertoire would have been to their ancestors' evolutionary advantage. Even in the case of human beings, it is not clear that there is only one kind of emotional functioning that was evolutionarily adaptive. (pp. 187-88) It might be added that even if there were, this would not seem to settle the matter: why is it now objectively better to have an emotional repertoire that happened to confer a reproductive advantage in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness? Some further explanation seems needed.

Despite the long history of debate around this and similar arguments, I can see no way to avoid Nichols' conclusion - indeed, he has formulated a position very like the one that I find intuitively compelling. Nor can I see any way to avoid accepting the claim that this leads irresistibly to a conclusion that contradicts most commonsense and philosophical views of the nature of morality ("most", not necessarily "all").

None of this detracts from another set of facts - that most human beings do have similar emotional repertoires; that we readily end up embracing similar moral norms on a wide range of issues; and that we have reason to be glad of this, assuming everything else about our nature and situation is held fairly constant, and that we have certain widespread values such as preferring to live in a civilised society rather than a Hobbesian state of nature or something approaching it. There is a pragmatic viewpoint from which we can (almost) all consider our core moral norms justified, in that we want them to be retained even after we know all the facts, though we might question how far this extends beyond the core of morality to areas over which there is deep disagreement.

That last caveat raises important questions about how far a liberal society should enforce non-core moral norms that are often disputed, such as norms relating to sexual morality or reproductive practices. In one sense, these are no more non-objective than the core norms prohibiting cruelty and violence: i.e., none of them are objective in a hardline sense. However, those norms that plug strongly into the human emotional repertoire, and which forbid acts that cause pain or harm, are surely the most important to the survival of human societies and the least likely to cause resentment, opposition, and the infliction of suffering when they are imposed on the unwilling. To that extent, not all of our moral norms are equal. Legislators, please take note.

This could almost be true

Funny piece in The Onion.

Cosmos cleans up

Cosmos magazine, the popular science magazine for which Jenny and I both do freelance work, pretty much cleaned up in the annual Bell Awards, presented in Sydney last week. These awards are for the publishers of business-to-business, specialist, and niche consumer magazines. Cosmos won the award for magazine of the year, plus seven other awards - including the editor of the year award to Wilson de Silva, not to mention the award for best website.

Wrong for real?

In his book Sentimental Rules, Shaun Nichols reports some fascinating research that suggests young children are hardline moral objectivists, who think that if something is morally wrong it is "wrong for real", and that this is a kind of "default setting" in the metaethics of common sense. If that suggestion is accepted, even some moderate theories of moral realism should actually be held as error theories, or as containing an element of moral scepticism, in so far as they maintain that moral truths are grounded in human nature and would not be true for alien beings with a different psychological makeup. This moderate kind of moral realism, for which I have a degree of sympathy, must hold hardline moral objectivism to be an error: if commonsense morality endorses hardline moral objectivism, then the moderately realist theories must hold commonsense morality to be mistaken.

This suggests to me that any moral theory that remains plausible on considered reflection is going to be, to some extent, an error theory. But why should that be surprising? The whole history of the advance of human knowledge shows common sense gradually being revealed as a poor indicator of the way the universe really works. It provides models that are pragmatically useful in the evolutionary and historical circumstances that shaped it - someone following these models in the past would have kept out of trouble. However, there is no reason to believe that commonsense models accurately track the larger reality of which our lives are a very small part. In fact, we have pretty good reason by now to assume that common sense is likely to be wrong whenever it strays beyond giving us the most pragmatic, everyday advice.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Welcome to G magazine

I've just had an initial glance at the first issue of G, an environmentally friendly - hence green, hence "G" - lifestyle magazine published by the same combination of people who do Cosmos. The first issue looks good, and it includes a whole batch of reviews by Jenny. Welcome to G, and may it have a long and successful run.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Libertarian free will

I've had some interesting correspondence about the concept of libertarian free will since I discussed this in the context of Lee M. Silver's Challenging Nature. I maintain that the idea has never been developed in a form that is intellectually coherent, and that there is no real prospect that it ever will be.

That raises two related groups of issues. First, if I am correct is it a tragedy? Putting it another way, how deeply are we committed to this idea as part of our ordinary concept of ourselves as agents? What have we lost if the idea needs to be jettisoned? In my view, it is not a tragedy at all, since compatibilist free will is the only kind of free will worth having, but I expect a lot of people will disagree with me. Since I was a child, I've never found the idea of libertarian free will even slightly plausible, but I am probably in the minority on that. Second, have we fully thought through the implications, not only for theology and philosophy of religion but also for many of our social practices, such as those of reward and punishment? It is at least possible that some of our important practices make metaphysical assumptions that cannot be supported by reason. If so, what then?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

East, West, Christian, post-Christian - what's the buzz?

A simplistic way of looking at Lee M. Silver's Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life is to see it as an exploration of contrasting Eastern and Western attitudes toward biotechnology, and contrasting (yet strangely similar) attitudes toward it within the West, where a further distinction can be made between the largely Christian US and the largely post-Christian nations of Europe.

There is more to the book than this, but the critical point seems to be that Western culture is haunted by monotheism, even in nations where few people believe in the orthodoxly conceived God of the Abrahamic tradition. For many who have been influenced by New Age or environmentalist beliefs, Nature is now seen as a kind of god with a will that we must not defy - a sort of matriarchal successor to the traditional deity. As Silver perceives the situation, even individuals who claim to be entirely secular in their approach are frequently influenced by pervasive forms of Western spirituality.

By contrast, Silver argues, Eastern belief systems and forms of spirituality do not emphasise the will of any single god, and they have no concept that nature in its current form must not be violated.

This thesis is intended to explain why European nations have been especially hostile to the genetic engineering of food, which is seen as contrary to a certain conception of the natural order, while the US has been relatively relaxed about allowing GM crops, despite widespread and fiercely expressed opposition to anything that could be seen as tinkering with human souls. On the other hand, industrialised nations in Asia, such as Japan, Singapore, and Korea, show little inclination to reject biotechnology.

I am, of course, simplifying the argument and the book's broader scope. However, even this simplified version of Silver's thinking is worth discussion. There is some evidence that gives it support, since biotechnology has encountered a much lower level of emotional resistance in Eastern countries, raising the possibility that those countries may (continue to) be less willing to prohibit or regulate research of kinds that are considered morally problematic in the West. If that is the case, they are likely to take the lead in the development of many aspects of twenty-first-century biotech.

Silver's new book

I've been in a reading frenzy over the past few weeks, partly to make up for lost time - for a combination of reasons, I've been getting little reading done this year, at least by my standards.

Currently, I'm reading Lee M. Silver's new book, Challenging Nature, a defence of biomedical science, and biotechnology more generally, against more or less irrational attacks from both the right and left of politics. It's a goldmine of information, and Silver's thinking is sometimes more sophisticated than that of many philosophers and bioethicists who have considered the same issues. But he does sometimes overreach.

For example, early in the book, he attacks the belief in free will, as if such a belief must be unscientific. He doesn't seem to realise that most philosophers (though, to be fair, perhaps not most philosophers who have been publishing about the problem of free will in recent years) are compatibilists. I.e., we see free will and physical determinism as compatible.

[Note: since writing the above, I see that Silver does briefly describe compatibilism in an endnote, which shows the peril of commenting on a book halfway through reading it and the peril of not always checking the endnotes straightaway. That said, the popularity of compatibilism still provides one reason why it is unwise to criticise people for believing in free will unless their actual beliefs have been probed very carefully.]

On the compatibilist conception, free will is not the freedom to act in a way that somehow transcends physical nature, of which our brains and bodies are part. It simply means the freedom to act without being subject to certain kinds of coercion, manipulation, inner compulsion, etc.

I doubt that there is such a thing as free will in any absolute sense, i.e. we may sometimes know all the facts, with no additional fact of the matter in borderline cases that "this person is acting with free will" and "this person is not". It is just that there are various things we fear, which we see as impediments to acting as we would really like to: we fear people putting guns at our heads; we fear being overtaken by some psychiatric condition that drives us to act in ways that strike us as alien and would cause us trouble; we fear addiction to drugs, which could compel us to act in ways that, again, are against our current values; we fear being tricked into acting against our better judgment; we fear (not very seriously) the science-fictional prospect of a mad scientist taking over control of our personalities by wiring us to his damnable machine. On this conception of free will, I act freely whenever I act in accordance with my own values and beliefs, without being compelled by any of these feared things. It may be a matter of degree, as when economic circumstances may greatly limit my range of options - still, although we do fear poverty we don't usually interpret economic circumstances as taking away free will, exactly. This may be because they (usually) still leave a range of possible actions, rather than compelling one in particular. We can consider ourselves to be acting freely within the boundaries of having limited resources.

It seems to me that this is the only kind of free will worth having (as Daniel Dennett has argued, though Dennett might not agree with all my exposition above). The spooky contra-causal free will that metaphysical libertarians claim we possess does not even make sense to me, and Silver evidently feels the same way. However, I do think that we have free will in the worthwhile and meaningful sense ... at least most of the time, and at least to a large degree.

In short, people who - when asked - say that we possess free will are not necessarily claiming anything incoherent or mystical. If we want to find out how many have the spooky libertarian belief that Silver is deriding, we need to ask a different question. It is not enough just to ask people something like "Do you believe in free will?" I expect most people would answer yes, but would probably not have a metaphysically libertarian theory in mind, or even necessarily some version of compatibilism. They might mean little more than that they are not fatalists, who believe that human decisions are futile, or something of the sort.

Of course, if it turns out that the popular concept of free will is the spooky libertarian one, I am quite happy to be an error theorist about that concept. Unless things are different in the US - and, in fairness to Silver, maybe they are - I doubt that anything like this is meant by most of us when we use the expression in our ordinary lives. In fact, it looks to me like something dreamed up by theologians wanting to explain how there can be evil in the world when an all-powerful, perfect being is supposedly in charge - how could that being somehow not be responsible for evil? Answer: we act in ways that simply have no physical causes and cannot be traced back to the creative acts of God. Belief in free will does not entail commitment to anything as difficult and metaphysical (possibly even irrational) as that.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Gould on science and religion

With all the current controversy about Richard Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion, and the relationship between science and religion, I went back to my article on Stephen Jay Gould's book on the subject, Rocks of Ages, to remind myself what I said in the past.

Entitled "Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion", the article was first published in Quadrant magazine in 2000, and a copy of it now sits happily on my website (it has also been anthologised, and it can probably be found on Quadrant's site as well). I can't really improve on what I wrote then. I still think that Gould was wrong in his claim that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria" that can never properly contradict each other; I'm still convinced that the problem was that he wanted to impose a narrow view of the proper scope of religion, confining it to a sphere of values (though allowing it to eat up the entire field of ethics). This is not tenable. Religions have always made claims that are open to rational investigation by science. This is their prerogative - they are encyclopedic explanations of the world and the human situation - but also a potential weakness if they make claims that later seem untenable when empirical evidence is gathered.

Some religious thinkers may, indeed, retreat to making only claims that seem immune to any sort of empirical investigation, but this is not religion's essence. Such a retreat is a very recent and culturally confined phenomenon, and it leaves religious worldviews eviscerated.

Spider-Man 3

For something a bit lighter, I've just read in Jason Rosenhouse's Evolutionblog that Spider-Man 3 will feature Sandman as its supervillain.

As a kid, I rated this character (who is not to be confused with the totally different character created by Neil Gaiman) among my favourite villains. He can turn his body to sand, or to solid rock, or a mixture, can take any shape, packs a helluva punch in his rocky form, and cannot be hurt by any amount of force (enough force can break rock, but he can just turn to sand and reform). There's scope here for some great special effects if it's done right.

I'm not such a huge fan of the Spider-Man movies - can pretty much take them or leave them - but this one might be a lot of fun.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

What we eat

I'm currently reading The Ethics of What We Eat (published under a different title in the US) by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. I'll be reviewing this elsewhere, so I won't comment at length here.

The book brings home why I admire Singer so much - enormous effort must have gone into the research, and the whole thing is written in a way that is very understanding to people who don't meet the authors' view of what, morally speaking, might be the best food choices in all the circumstances. Ethical omnivores need not feel shrilly lectured to by the vegan authors, who are not going to demand total change in anybody's life, and less-ethical-than-we'd-like-to-be omnivores are allowed to ... well, simply wriggle in our seats, while also worrying about the cumulative picture building up to suggest we need to make some changes. And build up it does. This is advocacy of a very powerful kind, partly because of its relative gentleness.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Fukuyama on human dignity

As I re-read and ponder Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future, I'm struck once more at how the workings of a powerful intellect end up producing lame conclusions on matters of policy.

Fukuyama's quest is to defend the idea that we all possess human dignity: some unique property that entitles each of us, equally, to a special moral respect that does not apply to the rest of creation. What, however, could such a mysterious property actually be? It could come from God, perhaps, if we share in some supernatural divine spark with our Creator, but that answer will not cut much ice in secular societies like Australia, or among secular people in a largely religious, but still pluralist, society like the US. No, Fukuyama needs a secular foundation for human dignity, but this is hard to find.

Indeed, the quest seems to be hopeless; I claim that there simply is no such thing as human dignity.

However, let's see what Fukuyama does with the problem. He thinks that what gives us our special moral worth is the fact that we are complex wholes with a range of capacities that exceed anything found among non-human animals - capacities relating to rationality, moral choice, sociability, sentience, consciousness, language, and so on. This is a richer range of elements than we see in the notion of Lockean personhood, with its emphasis on reason and self-consciousness, including a consciousness of ourselves as existing in time.

For myself, I want to argue that Lockean personhood is important, not because it grounds some mysterious quality of human dignity but because it is a necessary condition for anything to be vulnerable to certain kinds of harms to their interests. That vulnerability provides one basis for giving moral consideration to beings that possess it. Accordingly, if some non-human animals possess Lockean personhood they are at least good candidates for greater consideration than other animals that are sentient but not persons. What sort of consideration we feel we should give something will not depend merely on whether or not it gets over the threshold of Lockean personhood - it will depend on many other things, including the full range of its actual properties and vulnerabilities. But Lockean personhood is going to be a very important concept within any plausible moral system.

I'm not opposed to Fukuyama providing a richer range of elements - some of these may be important, though not for the reasons that he appears to think. One good reason is that they may create new vulnerabilities. For example, a person with a moral sense may be vulnerable to being torn apart psychologically in ways that may not apply to all Lockean persons. That may influence how we should treat such a person - for example, we can think of horribly cruel choices that people can be confronted with in which they are coerced or manipulated to act against their deepest moral beliefs. That is a vulnerability that a human being might have but which might not apply (though I don't totally rule it out) to any non-human animals that we know of, even if they are Lockean persons.

As far as I can see, Fukuyama does not make this point - or anything like it. Instead, he seems to see some objective moral value in the complex range of human capacities, without needing to invoke the vulnerabilities that these capabilities lead to. In particular, he places a great deal of emphasis on the value of the full range of human emotions - he will be suspicious of any technology that reduces that emotional range.

This way of looking at things creates all sorts of problems. The most obvious, as Fukuyama realises, is that it is not a theory of equal human dignity, since these capacities are present in human beings to varying degrees and of course some of them are deficient (or altogether missing) in some human beings - e.g. very young children and people suffering intellectual disability or dementia. It is no good saying, as Fukuyama wants to do, that it is impractical to make discriminations because it is actually all too easy to make them with some degree of accuracy, at least in respect of such things as reasoning ability, linguistic skills, and moral virtue. We doubtless do value all these things that Fukuyama refers to, but they don't confer a mysterious human dignity (indeed, we would value them in some new species that might turn up) and they certainly cannot underwrite equal human dignity.

It gets worse. Such criteria are no more able than criteria to do with sentience, or to do with Lockean personhood, to explain why any moral worth should attach to an early embryo, or why, as Fukuyama argues, we should heavily regulate embryo research. Fukuyama realises this, of course, and he has to fall back on notions of potentiality to develop into a being with the necessary attributes for human dignity. But this immediately raises all the same problems that accompany the claim that an embyro is a (merely) potential Lockean person. Potential to be morally considerable at some later time does not give any basis for moral considerability now.

Furthermore, the theory has no bite if it is meant to be used to oppose human reproductive cloning, as no one proposes that we use cloning to create children with less than the normal human capacities and complexity. The theory might be helpful in ruling out some kinds of genetic engineering, but again no one much wants to engineer children who are less capable and complex than normal children. The aim is more likely to be to produce greater than normal complexity and capacities of the kinds that Fukuyama values so much.

In short, the theory has shortcomings as a theory of (equal) human dignity. Worse, even if it could otherwise be made to work it would not take Fukuyama to the sorts of policy positions that he finds attractive.

There is much to admire in Fukuyama's writings. He is often clear-headed, and he certainly writes with considerable surface lucidity (any confusion and unclarity is largely hidden below the easily-readable prose). But he appears to be committed to moral beliefs and policy prescriptions that simply don't follow from his philosophical arguments, with the result that Our Posthuman Future often seems to be one giant non sequitur. It is worth reading for its clear-headed discussion of why it makes sense to believe in something like "human nature", and why it is difficult to move from there to belief in "human dignity". The conclusions, however, are a squib. Fukuyama should have concluded that there is no property of human dignity, whatever has been thought in the past, and that our moral and legal norms must be justified (to the extent that they can be at all) on some radically different basis.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Human enhancement and the religious worldview

Though he does not take the stance of a religious believer, Francis Fukuyama is deferential to religion and its interests. In Our Posthuman Future, surely one of the most influential of the many post-Dolly bioconservative tracts, Fukuyama discusses why religious believers in the Abrahamic tradition might oppose a whole raft of technologies, including but not limited to postulated forms of genetic enhancement. Broadly, the use of these technologies is inconsistent with a certain worldview in which God acts through nature to produce human beings with certain characteristics such as morality, free will, and faith. Within this picture, "natural norms" such as sexual reproduction and the family (as understood in some traditional way) are products of God's will.

I'm not convinced that religious believers of any kind must reach such a strong conclusion and thus reject the technologies in question as contrary to their concepts of God's will and human dignity. Certainly Fukuyama does not present a tight argument to that effect, and it may well be possible to reinterpret the religious tradition in ways that are much more sympathetic to supposedly "unnatural" technologies ranging from birth control to genetic enhancement. Indeed, the widespread discomfort with these technologies - among religious believers and others - may result more from a discomfort with changing what seem to be essential "givens" in the background of our lives, e.g. the connection between sex and reproduction. This is, in a nutshell, the theory of background conditions, which I have referred to frequently in this blog.

Still, it may be that there is a religious worldview, or at least a religious sensibility, according to which human enhancement and so on are almost inevitably objects for moral repugnance. Someone with this worldview or sensibility may reject many practices in contemporary society, including contraception (for example), even if it places her and those who depend upon her at a disadvantage in many ways. I'll refer in this entry to "the religious worldview", but with the warning that there may well be other religious worldviews available and that, in any event, religious doctrine is always open to reinterpretation.

Fukuyama does not necessarily share the religious worldview, although he seems keen to defend a secular equivalent. But even if the religious worldview is incorrect and no secular justification can be given for anything similar, he provides the materials for a policy argument something like the following:

1. If we allow human enhancement, it will be widely practised. (This seems to be assumed and to be plausible.)
2. If human enhancement is widely practised, those who do not practise it will place their children at a relative disadvantage. (Again, this seems to be assumed and to be plausible.)
3. If human enhancement is widely practised, people who have the religious worldview will (nonetheless) not practise it. (This follows from Fukuyama's discussion of the religious worldview.)
4. If human enhancement is widely practised, people who have the religious worldview will place their children at a disadvantage. (From 2. and 3.)
5. If we allow human enhancement, people who have the religious worldview will place their children at a disadvantage. (From 1. and 4.)
6. If people who have the religious worldview place their children at a disadvantage they will come under social pressure to act in ways that are contrary to their worldview. (Assumed. I think this is plausible.)
7. We should not act so as to create a situation where people who have the religious worldview come under social pressure to act in ways that are contrary to their worldview. (Assumed.)
8. (Therefore) We should not allow human enhancement.

I think that this argument is valid. Accordingly, it is a sound argument if its assumptions are true. It does seem to me that all the assumptions made are near enough to being true that we should accept them - I don't think that any quibbling will undermine the argument, as opposed to requiring it to be phrased more carefully. The one important exception is line 7.

It is one thing to be opposed to the persecution of people with religious beliefs, or even to wish that people with certain religious beliefs be exempted from some laws that would intrude oppressively on their practices - practices that may be of overwhelming subjective importance to them and may do no great harm. But how far must we go to prohibit and "nip in the bud" new practices that may end up putting people with the religious worldview under social pressure to act in ways that are contrary to their worldview?

This strikes me as an enormously important question, in a world where more and more practices are likely to be rejected by people with the religious worldview - often to the detriment of those people themselves, or those close to them such as their children. People with the religious worldview may have cause to fear, but can the rest of us allow ourselves to let them have a kind of veto over our practices and technologies? I suggest not - being required to relinquish practices and technologies that we find valuable, based on this sort of solicitude to people with the religious worldview, is something that we have every reason to fear, even if we have some other reason for disliking a particular practice. Freedom of religion does not extend to ensuring that adherence to the religious worldview will never have a downside in new social circumstances or that its adherents will never come under pressure to act against it or reinterpret it.

The kind of argument that I have analysed above should not make us feel inclined to defer to the wishes of religious believers, and it should have no influence on the formulation of public policy.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Two million before Christmas?

As I write, Second Life is reaching 1.5 million registered accounts - 50 per cent growth from just over a month a go. SL has its problems, but in a few years we may reach a point where almost everyone in the more privileged social strata of the more privileged countries has an account with SL or whatever competitors come along, whether or not they use it much, just as we all have e-mail and chat accounts.

I see this technology becoming more and more convenient and immersive, whatever the current performance problems for SL itself. I can't imagine it not becoming an increasing part of our lives in future years.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

SFS roundtable on science fiction criticism

The current issue of Science Fiction Studies has an interesting "roundtable" on the current state and possible future of science fiction criticism, with contributions by many of the journal's editorial consultants.

My own contribution slips in a complaint that some science fiction criticism makes the mistake of treating science fiction as just another field of popular culture, more or less interchangeable with others.

However, that is not the main thrust of my argument. I argue that science fiction has been made possible by the widespread (though by no means universal) acceptance of two theses:

First, we inhabit an incomprehensibly vast universe whose origins lie deep in time. Our beginnings as a species are temporally remote and our final destiny unknown.

Second, all known social and cultural forms, including those we have experienced in our own lifetimes, are mutable.

Not all science fiction fully embraces these theses - some sf displays a degree of resistance to them, whether intentional or merely incidental and perhaps unconscious, as when people in future societies seem to show concerns and psychological characteristics that resemble those of current Westerners. Still, the genre could not exist without the development of these great ideas over the last few centuries - especially with the nineteenth century's double-whammy encounter with Darwinian evolutionary theory plus the process of rapid industrialisation and accompanying social change.

Another contributor, Nicholas Ruddick, makes a similar point: "I understand sf as an unprecedented literature emerging from the Darwinian revolution, and expect the good stuff to grapple with the predicament of the human species in a scientifically conceived universe." He suggests that the best science fiction of the Golden Age (the late 1930s to late 1940s when science fiction developed as a self-conscious genre under the editorial guidance of John W. Campbell) showed this kind of awareness.

Finally, I identify a third thesis about the human situation that is addressed (but sometimes resisted, rather than embraced) in much current science fiction:

Third, we, as individuals or a species, are technologically alterable, and may even be superseded by our posthuman mind-children.

I suggest that science fiction critics need to grapple seriously with this last claim on something like its own terms. Critics need not, of course, have personal opinions one way or another about the truth of the third thesis - which is highly controversial. In that sense, it is not like first two theses, which I think any educated person must now accept. However, scholarly critics of the genre should be aware of it, and be able to explicate how it appears, is endorsed, resisted, qualified, or complexified (or some or all the above) in science fiction texts.

Engagement with the three theses I've identified would give science fiction criticism a heart of its own, rather than being just the application of critical practice to one more area. Without this kind of focus, there is a risk that, as still another contributor (Brooks Landon) puts it, we may lose sight of the possibility that "science fiction might truly be a different way of constructing and interrogating our lives."

Friday, November 17, 2006

Website update.

My website has been pretty stable for a long time now, partly because nothing much has changed in my life of late to the extent of requiring much change to the way it is represented on the site.

It's been nice to have enough news this month to justify some small tweaks, which I made recently, though there's still no need for any major overhaul.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Why do bad ideas persist?

In my current article in JME, some of which has previously appeared on the Betterhumans website, I examine the theory of background conditions - the idea that all human cultures assume the existence of basic conditions in the background of human life that are beyond our choice, though they form the context for our choices.

According to the theory, these background conditions to choice are perceived to be timeless truths. Some of them, in fact, are clearly not true (such as the assumption of male superiority), while some others are true only to a limited extent (the relationship between sex and repoduction), or may not be true in the future if it sees the emergence of a radically different technological context (for example, it may no longer be true that human beings are mortal in the same sense as we always have been, or that work is necessary in the same sense as we've experienced historically). When the background conditions, as understood in a culture, are threatened, whether by practices such as gay sex or by new technologies such as IVF or human cloning, at least some people will feel that what is happening is "unnatural", and will themselves feel threatened.

I'm about 90 per cent convinced that this theory is onto something, though it would be nice to devise some ways that it could be empirically tested. Ordinary social observation certainly provides a lot of data that it can make sense of, but it would be good to have more precise data.

If the theory is true, it might show why there is so much essentially irrational resistance to harmless, or even beneficial, practices and technologies that are stigmatised as somehow "against nature". I certainly don't think it provides a basis for legislatures to ban those practices and technologies, or for rational people to give their support to feelings of disapproval. If we come to the conclusion that the theory of background conditions is true, it can (in part?) explain the "yuck factor", and perhaps the persistence of bad ideas about sex and reproduction, but it should not be interpreted as a justification for what it explains.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bring back the Enlightenment

In the process of reading The God Delusion, I became aware of Richard Dawkins' new initiative, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason. I went to the Foundation's site and was suitably impressed by both the Foundation's mission and the quality of the site itself.

Dawkins says on the site, "The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science, especially in the schools of America." This is absolutely correct. Indeed, one of the things that concerns me about the field of political philosophy - where I claim a degree of expertise - is its retreat from the values of the Enlightenment. Communitarians seek to preserve traditional mores and beliefs that surely deserve corrosive sceptical scrutiny. Even philosophical liberals, such as the late John Rawls, go out of their way to assure us that they do not espouse Enlightenment liberalism.

Well, why not? The world needs more Enlightenment liberalism.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Gutsy performance from Dawkins

I've just finished reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins - a much more robust critique of religious faith than Daniel Dennett's mild-mannered Breaking the Spell, though both are must-read books and I'm glad I took some time out from other things this week to wolf them down.

I'll be reviewing the Dawkins book for Cosmos magazine, so I'll say nothing more about it here, except that it is one helluva gutsy performance. Dawkins says all the things that most critics of religion dare not say.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Therapeutic cloning legislation - Hansard to the rescue

The Hansard transcript of last Tuesday's debate in the Australian Senate makes fascinating reading. The Senate ended up passing a bill to liberalise Australian law on therapeutic cloning, making research involving therapeutic cloning legally possible within strict limits. To be enacted as law, the legislation must now be passed by the House of Representatives, but most observers expect this to be easier.

What concerns me most is that the Senate passed amendments that were unnecessary (except for the practical political purpose of sweetening the package and getting votes). The amendment that I blogged about on the following morning does, indeed, as I guessed, prohibit research that involves the insertion of human nuclear DNA into animal eggs. Senator Bartlett, who moved this amendment, himself noted that it was not necessary in order to prevent part-cow/part-human, or part-rabbit/part-human creatures bouncing around the neighbourhood streets. The argument was that the amendment clarifies this and should alleviate fears, but in fact it only seems to muddy the waters. Since that outcome was not possible anyway, why amend the legislation in a manner that suggests it might have been?

To be honest, I might have voted to support this amendment if I had actually been a Senator, since people in such positions must sometimes make pragmatic judgments about what is politically realistic. Accordingly, my point is not so much to condemn the individuals involved as to bemoan the situation where public policy is being driven by irrational fears.

There is no prospect that the legislation in its unamended form would have allowed the gestation and birth of centaurs, minotaurs, or man-rabbits; no scientist in Australia is interested in creating such beings; no such research would attract funding even if it were legal; the scientific problems involved are insuperable, at least for the foreseeable future (think of the polygenic nature of most interesting phenotypical traits and the pleiotropic effects of individual genes ... then multiply this far beyond anything involving only human DNA); and even the strongest proponents of scientific freedom do not believe that the creation of such beings should be pursued in current circumstances or in any realistically foreseeable circumstances. Well, some of my transhumanist friends might actually disagree with the last point, but even they would have to concede the immense difficulties that would confront curvaceous Cow-Girl or the mighty-thewed Man-Rabbit if they came into existence here and now, with no accompanying drastic changes in social attitudes.

In all, the amendment was unnecessary except from the most pragmatic viewpoint of getting the legislation through parliament. Furthermore, it might do some actual harm in cutting off useful areas for scientific investigation.

The other development that is surely a matter for at least some concern is that the penalties under the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act have been made even more draconian - they are now all penalties of up to 15 years' imprisonment.

In a sense, this makes the legislation more logical: it was never clear why such a massive prison sentence should apply to human cloning while lesser sentences, such as "only" 10 years behind bars, applied to other acts involving genetic engineering that would arguably have a greater potential downside for society. However, the idea has been reinforced that all these dubious kinds of offences should be treated as on a par with very serious crimes that cause actual harm to real victims. It also tends to reinforce the mad scientist mytheme, the idea that scientists in their laboratories are Dr Frankensteins whom society should be viewing with fear and suspicion.

No principled argument was put by any Senator for this action of upping penalties. Clearly, the idea was simply to create an impression that the liberalising of Australia's legislation in one area (therapeutic cloning) would be balanced by getting even tougher on those actions still considered to be beyond the pale of political acceptance.

Once again, I don't especially blame individual Senators for acting as they did on the basis of sheer political realism; it is easy for me to be critical when the responsibility is on their shoulders, not mine. But I do regret the situation where such actions appear to be the necessary price for obtaining critical reforms to Australia's regulation of medical research.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Article in The Literary Encyclopedia

The Literary Encyclopedia has now published my article on science fiction, which I have just been proofreading to make sure that it's perfect as far as I can see.

I've tried to write something that won't be too controversial, but of course there is notorious - and seemingly intractable - controversy about the meaning of the term "science fiction" (how do we define the genre?), science fiction's relationship to fantasy and to the mainstream, the genre's origins and history, and its typical attitudes to science and technology. While my views on these issues are far from being "out there", they are not so conservative as to be beyond contestation. Indeed, there simply is no view on any of these issues that is totally anodyne or beyond contestation; the most that anyone can do is try to synthesise whatever is convincing in the various views on offer and try to show what the facts are that have given the different theoretical views their attraction. And - of course - trying to find a way to do that also involves taking some stances that won't be acceptable to everyone.

Still, it's as mainstream and solid an account as I could write, given that I doubtless have biases like everybody else. At nearly 4000 words, it is able to develop the main ideas - e.g. definitional, historical, and so on - at some length. I wasn't able to delve far beyond English-language SF, or deeply into SF in forms other than prose and film. I wouldn't be surprised if there are some small errors in an essay on such a broad topic with references to numerous texts, but I've done my very best to eliminate them and produce something that people can rely on. Overall, I think I've done a pretty good job with this gig. I'm feeling pleased with my work.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Breaking the Spell

My current reading is Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. It is pleasantly (and a little surprisingly) easy to read: clear, methodically structured, and elegantly argued.

Dennett's main point is to call for rigorous - and fearless - scientific research on all aspects of religious faith and experience, which does seem like a good place to start in assessing the role played by religion in today's world and what it's place may be in the future. There are few, if any, more important topics, and this is a book I recommend to everyone, whatever their particular beliefs.

Fringe cosmology

Over at Wikipedia there's an arbitration going on involving the editing of articles relating to cosmology and astrophysics, where some editors have seemingly sought to use the encyclopedia to promote minority or fringe theories (not necessarily pseudoscientific theories akin to creation science, but certainly views that are currently marginal within the scientific maintream).

Given Wikipedia's aspiration to be a trustworthy reference work, and given that it actually is the first port of call for many people seeking information, it is important that it strike the right balance here. These fringe theories should be treated fairly, but even more importantly the widely-accepted and well-tested findings of mainstream science should not be presented as more controversial than they actually are. The "neutral point of view" doctrine should not extend to giving marginal viewpoints in science a prominence and credibility that they lack in the real world.

Except for some dealings with the parties from the standpoint of a neutral administrator, I've had very little involvement in the dispute that led to this point. However, I think that a good outcome to this case is critical to Wikipedia's ongoing efforts to be credible: is it going to evolve into a reputable encyclopedia or not? Accordingly, I've been commenting on the issues in some detail, for whatever my comments may be worth to the arbitrators.

In this situation, a good outcome will have some balance; the fringe theories should be described in a factual, objective way in the articles devoted to them, without the need for a debunking tone. However, the encyclopedia's overall balance must lean towards presenting scientific orthodoxy wherever such a thing exists. In some cases, there may be genuine division of opinion within the scientific mainstream, but that is not the problem here.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A small victory for reason

Last night the Australian Senate passed a bill that will allow therapeutic cloning under strictly regulated conditions, and it is likely that the same bill will now pass through the House of Representatives and be enacted as law. The vote was very close, 34-32, and it required a last-minute compromise to amend the proposed legislation, but it does now look as if Australia will be joining the UK as a nation that allows the use of the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique to create stem cells for scientific research.

I am still trying to understand exactly what the effect of the last-minute amendment is. According to The Australian this morning, it seems to involve the mixing of "human cells" with animal eggs. This seems rather oddly worded, but perhaps the point is to prevent the insertion of human nuclear DNA into enucleated animal eggs. However the amendment is actually worded, media reports suggest that it was aimed at preventing the creation of human-animal hybrids, such as furry rabbit men or human beings with horns. A specific ban on this is quite unnecessary, since the legislation is not about allowing scientists to arrange for the gestation and birth of cloned humans - this whole reprise of the cloning debate in Australia has never been about reproductive cloning. We are talking, rather, about the creation of embyros that can be used for the separation of stem cells within the first 14 days - prior to gastrulation. Those cells can then be used for research that may one day lead to better medical therapies involving the use of stem cells to provide tissues or organs for the sick. There is no scope for the creation of rabbit-like monsters out of this - and anyway, no one is seriously looking to bring into the world miniature Donnie Darkos or infants with budding horns (shades of Rosemary's Baby).

Actually, it's difficult to see what would be so wrong with creating human beings with some non-human features and abilities, if it were ever possible to do so safely, and if they were born into a more tolerant society in which they would be welcomed and treated well. As I see it, the major problems are threefold. (1) We are at an impasse with any research that could possibly lead to such attempts, since it is difficult to see how any experiments could be done safely. (2) Because genes are typically pleiotropic, there is no guarantee that we could ever create such beings without scrambling important human capacities as a by-product. Even if the creatures we created were not deformed or diseased in some obvious way, as a result of the disruption of gene expression, they might be poorly equipped to bond into human society. (3) And even if neither of these were the case, we could not guarantee that such strange-seeming beings would be welcomed - in which event, creating them would be a terrible error. But all that is beside the point of the current debate.

If, in the real world, there are gains in scientific knowledge to be made from experiments that, in some sense, mix human cells and animal eggs - or whatever exactly it is that the Senate has tried to rule out - then let the research take place. We have nothing to fear. We really must stop getting so far ahead of ourselves; it is not good public policy to ban research simply on the basis that, speculatively, it may one day lead to some practice that we currently find uncomfortable and bizarre (and would be wise to abjure in contemporary circumstances). Speculation about the hypothetical motives of any Dr Frankensteins or Dr Moreaus out there is always a poor form of contribution to serious political debate.

Be all that as it may, the situation in Australia now looks far more hopeful. Despite the closeness of the margin, the Senate has rebuffed those irrationalists who have been lobbying rabidly for the past few weeks. We are still confronted with a whole smorgasbord of bio-Luddites to choose from - coming in all political and religious colours - who value insentient "human life" above the goal of finding therapies for actual human children and adults who are burdened with disease. Irrational though it is, these people want to protect tiny blobs of biological material that are incapable of hopes, ambitions, fear, grief or any kind of suffering. Just for once, though, the rest of us have a chance to celebrate a political outcome.

There's been a small victory for reason!

Now we must await the deliberations of the House of Representatives to see whether Australia will take the next vital step to a reasonably enlightened set of laws on embyro research.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Midnight at the Black Sun

I spent Friday mooching around, as far as I can remember, although I did do some work on the pile of exam papers that I have to mark. I'm always too much of a perfectionist about marking - too conscious of the responsibility to get it right, knowing what can be at stake for people whose work is being assessed and graded.

Jenny and I went out that evening to Race and Iola Mathews' place for their monthly film night, and caught up with the folks from that group. Race was showing The Triplets of Belleville on their big TV screen. I'd never seen this Canadian animated movie, and I totally enjoyed its surreal comedy. Hey, and the theme song is incredibly catchy; it had me shuffling around and snapping my fingers in what I hope were the right places, during the ice cream and discussion period afterwards.

Meanwhile, an old acquaintance of mine from the days when I was on the Extropians list-serve was opening his elaborate Second Life sim, the Black Sun Night Club. So when I got home after the show at the Mathews' place, I called into there for the opening-night party and enjoyed a taste of virtual reality.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Pundits who just don't get it

The clash between radical Islam and Western modernity has led to many opportunistic analyses that are themselves essentially reactionary. In the Australian context, we have the country's most senior Muslim cleric, Sheik Hilali, demonising the pleasurable (for all concerned) and essentially harmless exercise of female sexual power when attractive young women wear clothes that display their beauty. The mufti says that this is wrong and that it invites rape - as if most men are dumb brutes who cannot control themselves when confronted by the sight of female skin.

This has led to a storm of commentary here, almost all of it denouncing the mufti's views, but much of it in a way that is itself reactionary. A good example is the op.ed. piece by Michael Keating this morning, in which he wants to compare Hilali's attitude to that of footballers who have (consensual) group sex. Both are, supposedly, "disrespectful" to women.

Keating, like many other pundits who are having their say at the moment, just doesn't get it. The issue is not about whether people are in some sense "disrespectful". For what it's worth, Hilali probably treats women with (a strange kind of) respect. The issue is about the suppression of women's sexuality, and about acts of terrible cruelty and violence that, quite rightly, led to some rapists in New South Wales facing long prison terms.

Call me an unreconstructed nerd, but I'm no great admirer of football players, most of whom strike me as little better than narcissistic thugs. Still, if there are women who enter willingly into group sex with football players, I call that an exercise of their freedom. Good for them, if that's what they want to do; I hope they enjoy the experience, and I'm glad to live in a society where it is allowed - if not exactly admired.

As long as they are consensual, the sexual antics of footballers or anyone else have nothing to do with Hilali's medieval view that women are meat, should be covered, and deserve what they get if they show their beauty outside the home. The comparison is trivialising and obnoxious.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Sinning Against Nature - in JME

The November issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics contains my article "Sinning against nature: the theory of background conditions" - the citation is R Blackford J Med Ethics 32: 629-634. As of this morning, this is still being advertised on the site as "next" month's issue, but I expect that will change very soon, as JME is quite timely about these things. I'll probably be getting some feedback soon.