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).

Monday, April 28, 2008

Religion, science, and eternal verities

(So much for my blog break. Well, it can start tomorrow. I wrote this long comment over on John Wilkins' Evolving Thoughts blog, and thought it was worth being a post in its own right - here it is with tiny alterations. Please comment, as the theory, when expressed like this, is provisional and could do with some kicking around.)

It does seem that traditional cultures have their "eternal verities" - things that seem to be immutably true about fundamental aspects of the human condition. I put the words "eternal verities" in scare quotes because some of these things may not be verities at all, and certainly not eternal ones. And they won't be identical across all cultures. In modern, pluralistic societies, you'll get different verities believed in by different people - some may still be operating with an "eternal verity" that women are intellectually inferior to men, for example, even though this is neither true nor even a universally-shared illusion. Nonetheless, there are various fundamental "verities" that are likely to be widely accepted even within a pluralistic society. Sometimes, philosophers challenge them directly by arguing that they are not true or well-founded. Sometimes science and technology challenge them less directly. Either way, many people are going to be made very uncomfortable. They execute Socrates, try to deny women the vote, ban human cloning, beat homosexuals, get queasy about interracial marriage, etc.

There may be some deeper explanation as to why the world is like this, but in any event I think it probably is like this.

The theory isn't mine by the way; I borrowed it from Richard Norman. It's Norman's theory of background conditions, or my restatement thereof. I wonder whether it's compatible with Gigerenzer's work, with which I'm unfamiliar. Maybe there's a way of putting Norman's theory on a more rigorous basis.

What role does religion play? I'm not sure that I have the full answer, but I think that a culture's religious beliefs and its pet "eternal verities" will co-evolve. As a result, the religion will be heavily invested in the local set of eternal verities. It will have influenced them and been influenced by them. It tends to preserve them and to resist challenges to them, whether from science or from experimental lifestyles, or wherever else. Religious images of the world will be chock full of these eternal verities, whether it's the eternal verity of human exceptionalism, the eternal verity of free will (in a very strong sense), the eternal verity that women should act in such and such a way in relation to men, the eternal verity that sex is nasty and only redeemed by its procreative potential, the eternal verity that we have only three score years and ten, or whatever it is that the locals believe to be an immutable truth about the world and our condition within it.

Any attack on the local eternal verities, even if not actually intended as an attack on religion, is likely to receive strong counter-attacks from religious sources. Moreover, because religion has picked up a whole lot of these traditional fundamental beliefs that made some sort of sense once but are largely not true, it is always likely to imagine the world in a different way from the way it is imagined by the majority of people who are highly scientifically literate and are keeping up with the developing scientific image of the world. (This para and the immediately preceding one are my addition to the theory.)

If we really want to challenge the eternal verities (as they are imagined to be in our place and time), we can expect opposition from at least some - probably many - religionists. If we are serious, we may feel that we have to counterattack our religious opponents head-on, by pointing out that the religion that gives them their mantle of seeming authority is just not true in the first place.

E.g. to defend the morality of homosexuality, it may not be enough to argue that, by some secular principle, it does no harm. It may not be enough to put pressure on religion to reinterpret its doctrines to accept homosexuality. The best way of getting homosexuality socially accepted, and to stop people defending the local eternal verity that "homosexuality is evil", may be for at least some people to stop talking so much homosexuality itself, and about secular moral theories, or new theology ... and to spend more time promulgating scepticism about religion.

If you really want a transvaluation of values, according to which many things once considered virtues in your society (such as chastity and certain kinds of pietistic humility) are now considered vices, and certain things that were once considered sins are now considered good or at least neutral (e.g. homosexual acts; so-called scientific "hubris"), one of the best things you can do is spread scepticism about religion.

Of course, the fundies and the Vatican are already well aware of this last point, but whereas they call spreading scepticism about religion bad, I call it good.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Blog break!

Time to take a week or so away from writing new posts - though I'll check whether there's any action on the long transhumanism thread a couple of posts below. I'm not going anywhere; I just need a bit of time out. I've been slogging away very hard for the past two or three months - working double full-time as I've put it to some people - trying to finish my PhD thesis, doing stuff for JET, doing other stuff for Voices of Disbelief, plus my teaching (and a huge load of associated marking), and being at least peripherally involved in various other projects such as the Meteor project which I'll blog about some time. Although I'm keeping my head above water, I need to find a bit of time to relax, pay attention to loved ones, catch up on some reading, actually have some social life, and generally avoid a nervous breakdown.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Russell signs a contract (more on Voices of Disbelief)

Contract for Voices of Disbelief (working title) now signed and sent back to the publisher. We now officially have a deal here.

Okay, so it's time to start (a) celebrating (though who has time for that?), and (b) doing some more cat-herding. And what a fine cat herd of non-believers we'll have for your delectation come 2009. Those readers who are signed up to contribute ... and I just know you all read this ... do remember to spread the good news. We want to generate some buzz, though it strikes me that this is a bit incongruous when I've just been comparing non-believers to cats.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Transhumanism still at the crossroads

In 2004, I wrote a piece called "Transhumanism at the Crossroads", which has been one of my most popular essays. It was originally published as part of my old "Eye of the Storm" irregular column on the Betterhumans site. (And hey, I'm always prepared to revive "Eye of the Storm" if someone would pay me even a token amount to cover some of the time I'd need to do it properly; but it doesn't appear that that will ever happen.)

Nearly four years later, I'm sufficiently distant from this essay that it almost reads as if it was written by someone else, though I suppose I still agree with its main sentiments: I'm prepared to be counted in as part of the transhumanist movement if it is going to be an inclusive social movement, but not if it is going to be something narrow, cultish, and (not to put too fine a point on it) suitable only for techno-libertarian nerds. How transhumanism will develop currently remains to be seen, but for the foreseeable future I'd rather be inside the tent exerting some influence on it, rather than abandoning, rejecting, or disavowing it as some people among its one-time allies have done.

There is still a place for a strong transhumanist movement, if this is going to be a movement that is rational about technology and favourable to technology as long as it used in ways that are beneficial (or at least not harmful). Much of the Luddite opposition to cloning (not to mention something as obvious as stem-cell research) has nothing to do with any secular harms that it may cause, and I favour the emergence of a strong movement that says this loud and clear. It that is what transhumanism is going to become, then count me in. At the same time, I've often applied the phrase "anti-anti-transhumanist" to myself to identify that I am opposed to irrationalist opponents of transhumanism, not to rational and informed criticism of the movement, and to signal that I am not locked into any superlative ambitions that may be associated with transhumanism in people's minds.

Many self-identified transhumanists go much further than I do in what they want. I don't necessarily agree with them on any particular issue, but I do defend their right to advocate their ideas - and more than that, I think it is healthy for these ideas to be brought forward and debated without irrationalist fears or feelings of repugnance distorting the exchanges. I support some transhumanist ideas, but not others ... but above all I aim to do what I can to facilitate rational, rigorous, but lively debate about them. That was the purpose of "Eye of the Storm"; it was meant to be a place for calm philosophical reflection amidst all the raging bioethical (and similar) controversy. It is also how I see my role more generally when talking about transhumanist ideas; I'd rather introduce light than heat, though I'll sometimes be passionate when confronted by what strike as me plainly illiberal or irrational views.

In particular, I believe that it's important to discuss such ideas as personality uploading, advanced AI, the technological Singularity, and so on, and I am prepared to consider them all with a degree of sympathy. Moreover, I have defended advocates of these things against what I consider ill-informed attacks. I've even explored some of these ideas sympathetically, if a bit ambiguously, in works of fiction.

But at the same time, these specific ideas are not among those that I have actively advocated and there are reasons for that.

Okay, here's what I said in 2004, which may or may not still make sense. Feel free to discusss.


For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by prospects for the future of our society and our species. This has kept me actively involved in the science fiction field, which has likely provoked sighs and raised eyebrows from my staider colleagues in academia and legal practice.

Yet this is nothing compared to the social stigma of being involved in the transhumanist movement. Since about 1997, much of my thinking, reflected in my fiction and nonfiction writing, has focused on issues that concern transhumanists: the prospects of artificial intelligence and uploading; the rights and wrongs of reproductive cloning, genetic engineering and radical life extension; and the general merits of human enhancement technologies. My viewpoint has generally been sympathetic to transhumanist approaches and at least one commentator has labeled me a "transhumanist technophile," which is fair enough.

Even so, I have not identified strongly with the organized transhumanist movement. After a brief period of enthusiasm, I declined to apply the label "transhumanist" to myself, and still feel some residual discomfort with it. But I am now more actively associated with transhumanism, especially through this site [i.e. Betterhumans], and my main project at the moment involves research on the social implications of enhancement technologies. With my working life centering around transhumanist issues, the time has come to take stock of where I stand, and of how I view transhumanism. One thing I know for sure is that transhumanism must become a far more inclusive, broadly based and mainstream social movement if it is to flourish.

Transhumanism and its discomforts

One good reason to feel slightly uncomfortable with transhumanism is its unmistakable nerdy aura, the sense that it appeals to a particular demographic, essentially young white males with computers. Its restricted demographic appeal is, indeed, part of the problem.

But the discomfort goes far beyond nerdiness or restricted appeal. It is one thing, I feel, to use science fiction to explore possible changes to human nature, and the prospects for enhanced human capabilities. (In any case, science fiction has often approached those possibilities and prospects with hostility.) It is another thing to use images of enhancement or cyborgification as metaphors for contemporary social reality, or for an agenda of political change. It is something else again, and something far more radical, to propose that we should quite literally upgrade our human biology. For many thoughtful, intelligent people in the professions and the academic world, this is a frightening idea. Now that transhumanism is getting media attention, it is not surprising some conservative commentators (such as Francis Fukuyama) are starting to brand it as dangerous.

To understand this reaction, we need to remember that the wider intellectual culture is still focused on the horrors perpetrated in the first half of the 20th century by those who carried out programs of racist eugenics. I cannot make the point any better than by quoting at some length from Walter Glannon's book Genes and Future People: Philosophical Issues in Human Genetics:

"Eugenics" is almost universally regarded as a dirty word, owing largely to its association with the evil practice of human experimentation in Nazi Germany and the widespread sterilization of certain groups of people in the United States and Canada, earlier in the twentieth century. One cannot help but attribute some eugenic aspects to genethical questions about the number and sort of people who should exist. But there is a broader conception of eugenics (literally "good creation" in Greek) that need not have the repugnant connotation of improving the human species.

Glannon goes on from here to discuss gene therapy, which he considers acceptable in principle because its aim is to prevent or treat disease in particular people. But he is implacably opposed to genetic engineering for the purpose of enhancement.

What strikes me as most remarkable is his unsupported assumption that improving the human species has a "repugnant connotation." It is symptomatic of something important in our intellectual culture that a reputable academic philosopher fails to put forward any argument at all for the supposed repugnance of species enhancement, contenting himself by referring to an "association" with the evil practices of the Nazis, and forced sterilizations in North America. After this point, Glannon's book simply assumes, still with no attempt at argument, that any proposal to improve human capabilities for a "perfectionist" reason is beyond the pale of respectful consideration.

Of course, it is worth reminding ourselves of the danger (not to mention irrationality) of guilt by association. To take the example of the Nazis, what made their practices so evil was their extreme prejudice, cruelty and violence. As Philip Kitcher has said, "The repeated comparison between Jews and vermin and the absurd - but monstrous - warnings about the threats to Nordic 'racial health' display the extent to which prejudice pervaded their division of human characteristics. Minor, by comparison, is the fact that much of their genetics was mistaken." None of this bears the slightest resemblance to what contemporary advocates of genetic enhancement have in mind.

But the point is not that Glannon can be debunked. Of course he can be. It is more important to understand that he is able to write in such a sloppy way because he can take for granted that his audience will start with similar assumptions. The situation may be changing, as more books and articles call for a sympathetic assessment of human enhancement. One straw in the wind is a new book [in 2004] from Nicholas Agar: Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement. Still, until very recently, even the relatively modest idea of gene therapy has attracted expressions of concern. In this intellectual environment, the goals of transhumanism are ruled out of discussions from the start, except as targets for attack. To associate yourself with them is to be perceived as at best idiosyncratic and naive and at worst the sort of person who would happily consort with Nazi doctors and mad scientists. It is far easier to associate yourself with movements that project the picture of a caring person, dedicated to benevolence and justice.

Stand up and be counted

It would be nice if opponents of transhumanism were open to rational debate. However, I have gradually been learning some important, not terribly palatable lessons. One is this: We have moved beyond the point where liberal arguments about individual freedom and personal choice have much impact. I have argued in many forums that there is little intellectual basis for laws against innovations such as human cloning, which liberals should accept as a legitimate option for those who feel a need or preference for it. It is already too late to argue in that way, at least exclusively, for the cloning debate has demonstrated again and again that transhumanism's main opponents have abandoned traditional liberal ideals. John Stuart Mill's claim that experiments in living are to be welcomed now receives short shrift in public policy. The tone and content of the debate show that we are up against a scarcely disguised wish to impose certain moral ideals as legal norms, and a fear of strange directions that society might take in the future. [My thinking has changed a bit since 2004 in that I now think that the defence of our liberties necessitates an element of head-on confrontation with religion. I have only gradually come to think this.]

While there will be different outcomes in different societies, anti-cloning laws have created the precedent to abandon liberalism in areas of legislative policy relating to bioethics. We can go on complaining about this - and I believe that we should [and I'm still doing so] - but our complaints have a small likelihood of success.

What else can we do? The main thing is simply to stand up and be counted. Transhumanist ideas cannot be suppressed forever, since they appeal to deep-seated urges to improve our own capabilities and those of the people we love or identify with. But the movement can be frustrated for years or decades. The only answer I see is that transhumanism must develop rapidly into a movement of committed people in large numbers, including many articulate, prominent people who are prepared to identify with transhumanism in public. We must grow to the point where it would not merely be illiberal but also irrational for the state to try suppressing activities of which we approve or that we wish to try - whether we are talking about longevity research, technological methods of cognitive enhancement, or anything else that falls into the category of distinctively transhumanist acts.

As John Locke pointed out in his call for religious toleration more than 300 years ago, the state cannot coerce people's beliefs, as opposed to their outward actions. Doubtless, censorship and propaganda can accomplish much, probably far more than Locke realized. But, to adapt a point that Susan Mendus has made in her writings, it is still irrational for the state to buy into this, because popular belief systems get too strong a hold on too many minds. Once the state starts trying to suppress belief systems with wide appeal, it takes on tasks beyond even its vast resources. There is no limit to what might be needed to suppress beliefs, and it is not rational to try.

Mendus herself might confine her point to religious belief, which is sustained by powerful irrational forces. But the same argument applies beyond the area of freedom of religion. It is difficult to believe that the state could ever suppress the entirety of modern science or philosophy, for example, and it would be foolishness to try. As for social movements, the gay rights movement is a good example of one that has mobilized in recent decades and become so strong, visible and mainstream that it would simply be irrational for any Western state to attempt to stigmatize and destroy it. While some conservative governments continue to resist the idea of gay marriage, the actual persecution of people for homosexual practices is now almost unthinkable in Western societies. Now and then, Western governments will indeed take on missions that are completely irrational because they are destructive, never-ending and futile (the War on Drugs in the US is a deplorable example), but they usually know better.

The transhumanist movement now has a competent formal organization, which is increasingly active in pushing its message. It is getting media coverage, and there is the opportunity to gain increasing mainstream social acceptance. That's what we must do. We must go mainstream. We need to create a culture that is visible, proud and energetic. This is one lesson.

Arguing for equality

But this is not the only lesson. Are we sometimes our own worst enemies? It is all very well wanting to stand up for the transhumanist movement, but what will the movement be like in 10 years' time, or 20, or 50? How can I be sure that it will develop in a way that will make it a movement with which I am still pleased to be linked?

If transhumanism is to deserve our support, it must flourish as something that is humane and philosophically plausible. This does not mean that we should abandon any key ideas - at least not yet - but it does mean that we must accept that the availability of transhumanist technologies could have downsides.

I do believe that the overall effects will be positive. Consider, for example, the first great transhumanist technology that our society has embraced: the contraceptive pill, a biomedical innovation that alters bodily functioning in a way that is clearly enhancing rather than therapeutic. The pill's social impact has been far-reaching, and mainly for the better. Few of us would dream of going back to a time when there was no powerful technology available for women to control the fertility of their own bodies.

I expect we will come to feel the same way about technologies that help us increase our lifespan or our cognitive abilities. But the issue of social justice looms larger here than it does with the pill, since there are more obvious competitive advantages. Even if we do not accept a thoroughgoing egalitarian approach to questions of distributive justice - and I don't - we must avoid the exacerbation of existing social divisions that might arise if enhancement technologies became differentially available to the rich and the poor. Likewise we must avoid the alternative scenario of a mollycoddled, superficially "happy" genetic underclass whose ambitions and social contributions would be stunted.

As George Dvorsky argues, benefits are likely to trickle down even if enhancement technologies are initially taken up only by the wealthy. But we need to make sure it turns out that way. I've come to believe that transhumanists should go beyond arguing that enhancement technologies should be widely available. I now think that we should support political reforms to society itself, to make it more an association of equals. I am not planning to give away my own modest wealth, and I am only prepared to give two cheers for egalitarian political theory, but we have to find ways to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Of late, I've seen more and more acknowledgments that transhumanism must be inclusive, both for our sake and for the sake of society. Nick Bostrom has recently emphasized that transhumanism must "ensure that enhancement options are made available as widely and as affordably as possible." I would go even further. We should actively promote a more egalitarian society, and a more equal world order.

This might not be a popular message for some people who identify with transhumanism. To date, part of the appeal has been to techno-libertarians who oppose regulating the market. If transhumanism became a more inclusive movement, it might actually alienate some of its current support base: people whose ideas are in many ways of great value. I hope this can be avoided, but we must become an inclusive, mainstream movement even if it leads to more fragmentation between "Left" and "Right" transhumanists. The forging of a humane and socially aware transhumanism is not only intellectually justified, it is necessary for transhumanism to survive and flourish.

Count me in.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Ben Stein's thesis is hardly original

One thing that no one else seems to have noticed in the current back-and-forth about Expelled is that Ben Stein and the rest of the film's fundamentalist shills are not the first enemies of reason to argue for a connection between Darwin (or modern biological science in general) and Hitler. Anti-science intellectuals have been trying to establish such connections for some time. One of the worst offenders is the anti-science British journalist Bryan Appleyard.

As I discuss over here, Appleyard argues that Hitler was influenced by Eugene Fischer's The Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene and by the work of Ernst Haeckel. Appleyard advances the thesis that Nazism was not a misuse of science but somehow exemplary of it.

It's one thing to suggest that something Hitler got from Fischer or Haeckel influenced his bizarre worldview (along with many other things, including the traditional anti-Semitism that pervaded Christendom for hundreds of years). In taking the line that he does, Appleyard ignores the various kinds of race hatred and xenophobia that have existed through most or all of known history, and which were certainly not a product of the scientific revolution in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or of the revolution in biology, geology, and other sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth. Nonetheless, Appleyard's fevered thinking - with all the Luddite diatribes it has generated throughout the man's lengthy career in highbrow irrationalism - is coloured by his perception of science in general as somehow tainted by the monstrosity of the Holocaust.

I'm afraid that Bryan Appleyard is not the only one. You can be pretty sure that many intellectuals on the humanities side of things have similar beliefs. Call it trahison des clercs, as I do, but it's there.

Ben Stein and the whole sick crew of Expelled have grabbed on to a thesis that is not original to them, and which will resonate in (parts of) the academy. This thesis has been lying around like an ugly length of wood, just waiting for the fundies to pick it up and use it as a club against science.

A lot more needs to be done to debunk such distortions and misconceptions, which is one reason why I'm particularly pleased to see recent efforts by Richard Dawkins and others to explain the facts.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

How about a 2050 Summit?

With all the current fuss about the 2020 Summit, it's easy to forget how close 2020 actually is. It's only twelve years away, the same number of years as the life of the 1995-2007 John Howard era of government or the 1983-95 Hawke-Keating era. For baby boomers like me who still remember the 1983 election vividly, that's not long.

The 2020 Summit is really looking at stuff that's quite short term, though at least its thinking will go beyond one electoral cycle. This is a good start in imagining the future (and not just the next three or five years) as something that will be different ... yet in ways that we can actually influence. But why not think beyond that?

Admittedly, a point arrives when there's so much contingency that it scarcely helps to speculate, but surely we can think at least a few decades ahead. One bright idea that the 2020 Summit probably won't think of (though maybe it'll surprise me in the morning!) is to follow up, not too long down the track, with a 2050 summit. That would give us all a chance to think in a much more visionary way about Australia's future, not just about what might be done during the forthcoming Rudd era (if Rudd ends up being as resilient a politician as Howard).

How about it?

Blake Stacey sets the record straight

There's nothing I can really add to this post by Blake over at his Sunclipse blog. It tells, in great detail, who are the real victims of intellectual suppression in the United States and elsewhere - and I'll hint that it's not the supposed martyrs to ID thinking who are portrayed misleadingly in Expelled.

At least in America, teaching well-corroborated science is more likely to lose you your job or your career or your quiet enjoyment of your home than trying to propose ID-idiocy. People have suffered death threats for no more. And of course, products like Expelled contribute to this poisonous atmosphere. While I'm busy defending the right of its producers to make the travesty that they have, and to express their views, let's remember the folk who have really been expelled, or worse, because of their intellectual honesty and commitment to science. As Blake reminds us, many of them are strong Christians whose faith is reasonable enough to be compatible with the facts of biological evolution.

Let's try to be strategic

I guess this is an impossible demand. It may well be that my allies on particular issues don't actually share my overall worldview, and can't be expected to agree with me on an overall strategy. Nonetheless, whatever any of us are attempting to achieve by way of advancing the cause of freedom and reason, let's at least try to go about it strategically.

That doesn't mean hiding some of what we believe, as with the framing strategy of advancing the credibility of science by hiding any anti-religious views we have when we're talking to the faithful. We shouldn't hide who we are or what we believe. But it does mean identifying what we actually stand for and then defending it in a principled, consistent way.

We are better off doing that than being blown about by every wind of expediency in particular situations that arise day by day. For example, I will defend the freedom of speech of my opponents because part of what I want to do is advance the cause of free speech. I can't do that while making exceptions for people whom I dislike. If I see someone I dislike, or disagree with fundamentally, being denied her freedom of speech, I will defend her. I'm not going to respond to the situation emotionally on the basis of my attitude to her or the views that she wants to express.

This is totally different from a strategy of hiding my own worldview. To hell with that.

My worldview is a naturalistic one. I'd be happier if more people shared it, or at the very least, tempered their supernaturalist beliefs with an element of doubt and self-criticism. For me, defending the life of freedom and reason includes promulgating scepticism about religion (though it goes far beyond that; for example, it includes working out the naturalistic underpinnings of morality).

As previously announced, with my pal Udo Schuklenk, I'm even editing a book designed to promulgate scepticism about religious doctrine, to the extent that I can without having the fame and clout of a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens: working title, once again, Voices of Disbelief, to be published by Blackwell in 2009.

(The idea for this book was Udo's, incidentally. So while I think of it, I should thank him publicly for coming up with the idea, thinking of me as someone who could help, and getting such a fine publisher on board with us.)

The bottom line is that I yield to no one in my concern to fight againt unreason, rather than appeasing it. But, strategically, it's always going to be better to go about that fight in an intellectually principled way than to judge every day-to-day issue by whether taking a particular stance that day will put you on the side of the "good guys" or the "bad guys". I see the latter happening all too often in the current culture wars, in which knee-jerk atheists often forget their principles and won't give any credit at all to genuinely moderate religious folks, and won't concede that their real enemies - the fundamentalists and theocrats, and the Vatican-based cult of misery - can ever be in the right on any day-to-day issue at all. It doesn't work like that. Sometimes even our enemies will be denied freedom of speech, for example, and when that happens we should defend them.

My plea is that we all try to think like strategists, rather than responding to every issue that arises on the basis that the "bad" guys must be in the wrong every time on every issue. Or that it's fun to gloat when our opponents are in trouble (even though it sometimes is fun to gloat a little). Or that anyone who disagrees with us on anything must be one of the bad guys. It just doesn't work like that.

Friday, April 18, 2008

New York Times review of Expelled

Don't take my word for it that Expelled is a meretricious propaganda piece - after all I haven't even seen it and have to draw inferences about it from what I read (and my own knowledge of its subject matter ... oh, and the trailer on YouTube; don't forget that). Here's a review of Expelled in the New York Times.

Good for their reviewer, Jeanette Catsoulis. She doesn't mince words: "Mixing physical apples and metaphysical oranges at every turn 'Expelled' is an unprincipled propaganda piece that insults believers and nonbelievers alike. In its fudging, eliding and refusal to define terms, the movie proves that the only expulsion here is of reason itself."

Russell has his say on the 2020 Summit

I just did a Drive Time radio interview with ABC Illawarra about the 2020 Summit - an opportunity that came to me out of left field this morning.

They wanted to talk about how I see it all as a science fiction scholar, so, putting that hat on, I talked a bit about how the concept of "the future" that we have is something that's quite new, historically. We now see societies as existing in time with a past - and with a future that will actually be different from the past and present (not just more of the same, or as coming to an end when a god winds up the show one day). I also managed to say a bit about how science fiction imagines futures that we don't want and seek to avert (mentioning Nineteen Eighty-Four and stories of nuclear holocaust), as well as futures that we might aspire to. But it also uses depictions of the future to comment on the present.

Asked about what idea I would like to see discussed at the summit, I said the question of whether we want to be a truly liberal society. Referring to the debates in Australian parliaments over therapeutic cloning, I said that politicians should not be voting on the basis of their religious beliefs but on the basis of individual freedom and people's welfare.

And there was actually quite a bit more.

I have no idea how all this came across in a quick interview ... but overall I guess I felt pretty good about this gig.

Expelled defended - on one point

I didn't think I'd be writing any posts in defence of Expelled, the creationist propaganda film starring Ben Stein. Its content has been roundly debunked in numerous forums, and Richard Dawkins, Skatje Myers, and Josh Timonen (among others) have written convincingly scathing reviews.

Obviously, I need to see it for myself, but we can be pretty sure that Expelled is a meretricious pseudo-documentary. Its main claim is that various academics have been "expelled" from the academy for challenging Darwinian evolutionary theory. However, once examined in detail, this turns out to be a farrago of lies and distortions.

The individuals concerned are not involved in any genuine scientific research program based on the idea of "Intelligent Design"; their criticisms of mainstream evolutionary biology are without merit; they have engaged in morally dubious tactics, showing little concern for intellectual honesty; and yet they've been treated with considerable leniency, despite all their efforts to provoke confrontation. Read the details for yourself when you study up on the dramatis personae of Expelled, using the fine Expelled Exposed site.

All that said, let's consider the latest row about Expelled: its use of a snippet from the John Lennon song "Imagine", apparently in a bitterly ironic way. As far as I understand the details so far - without having seen the film - about twenty-five seconds of the song are played, involving the invitation from Lennon to imagine "no religion, too". This recording is played over frightening images related to Nazism and the Holocaust (or maybe it's to Stalin and Mao, or to all the above). The clear effect (if my understanding is accurate so far) is to attack Lennon's message and to suggest that a world without religion would be horrific.

Presumably, this part of the film attributes Nazism to atheism in some way (much as this would be a stupid claim). That is evidently one theme, though a more pervasive one, going on reports, is that Nazism can be blamed on Darwin. Or perhaps, at this stage of the film it's suggesting that any non-religious society would be as bad as Stalinist Russia. The precise point being made by Stein and company doesn't really affect any of the analysis below.

The current kerfuffle on the internet arises from the fact that the song was used without permission and is thus a copyright violation.

There are several things to be said about this. First, given all the other things that are evidently wrong with this film, complaint about a copyright violation sounds pretty trivial. But there's a lot more to it than that.

Second of all, it should be clear by now that I totally disagree with the messages of Expelled, including its attempt to equate atheism and Nazism, or to suggest, as the film is apparently trying to say throughout, that Darwinian evolutionary theory and Nietzschean atheism led to Nazism. That is a massive and unfair distortion of history, as Dawkins discusses in his review. As for a connection between Darwin and Hitler, yes Hitler may have been influenced by some garbled version of Darwinian theory, to which he added a good dose of the Humean fallacy, thus producing one ingredient in the racist, totalitarian witches' brew of Nazi ideology. But that by no means entails that Darwinian theory leads to Nazism. It also has nothing to do with whether the essentials of Darwinian evolutionary theory are actually true.

However - and this is crucial - the perpetrators of the movie are entitled to try to make their case. Which brings me back to the copyright infringement thing.

Intellectual property law exists to encourage the creation of valuable cultural products that, by their very nature, are not scarce and so cannot readily be taken from, or kept from, the commons and turned into property. Items of intellectual property are non-rivalrous because they essentially consist of information. Information can be replicated endlessly (in contrast to, say, a particular hamburger or a particular block of land or a particular, physical CD that your lover gave you for your birthday - all of which are genuinely scarce resources). It is socially important to create a kind of property in the information that cultural products such as songs and recordings ultimately consist in, but it takes a legislative scheme to accomplish that.

However, it is also socially important that items of intellectual property be open to criticism relating to their aesthetic form or to their explicit or implicit ideas. Public policy needs to strike a balance between (1) offering the creators of intellectual property a means of obtaining income from it, thus encouraging the creation of valuable works, and (2) allowing criticism and comment that relates to these works once they are created. The legislative scheme should reflect that policy.

In this case, it appears that the Expelled people play a small part of Lennon's song solely to attack its message, by the way that it is presented with images that make its original message ironic. Given the length of the snippet, it seems that they play no more of it than is needed to evoke the message that they are attacking, so it can't be said that any defence that they're playing "Imagine" to attack it is contrived. Most obviously, they are not using "Imagine" for its entertainment value - this is not a rivalrous use of "Imagine" for the purpose for which it was written, to entertain and to put across Lennon's message. It's not an ornamental use of it, as if it had been pilfered to jazz up an advertisement (for sports shoes, perhaps, or condoms, or life in the army). Rather, it is a nakedly hostile use: it's an unashamed attack on the song and what it stands for.

Given all that, and that this is a clear-cut case, not some kind of contrivance, I think that freedom of speech should prevail here. Morally speaking, the Expelled people should be allowed to put across their message in this way. It doesn't open any floodgates, because this kind of direct attack on a high-profile popular song and its message would be rare. Accordingly, I think that all the attacks in the blogosphere, asserting that this is yet another example of bad ethics by the Expelled people are actually taking the low moral ground. This is a case where we should be defending freedom of speech. If copyright law prevents this sort of thing, then it is operating in a way that goes beyond the fundamental policy considerations that justify the enactment of copyright law in the first place.

That's the moral position. What about the legal position?

I'm not a copyright lawyer. I have no idea what the case law says about a situation like this. As I stated above, it would be a rare kind of case anyway. But from the one or two comments that I've seen from people claiming expertise, Expelled may be on very shaky legal ground.

But should it be? Again, this is not a contrived case: it appears that the song is played in order to make a genuine, and genuinely hostile, comment (however wrong or foolish the comment may be in substance). It also seems that the song is played to no greater extent than necessary to make the film's point. This is not the kind of use that the law should be attempting to prevent.

Protecting the creators of intellectual property from this kind of use of their products is not consistent with the ultimate justification for intellectual property law, which is a statutory system based on particular policy considerations. If the law can be interpreted in a way that allows this kind of use, then the courts should interpret it that way. Obviously, they cannot (or should not) do so if it would go against the clear words of relevant statutes or against binding or overwhelming precedent. Whether that is or is not the situation, I will leave to lawyers with expertise in the area - but I actually hope it isn't.

Finally, a word of caution. While many of us may be involved in a kind of culture war against Expelled, and its makers, and everything they stand for, that does not mean that we should oppose them or their allies on every single issue that crops up day by day. We don't want to be a bunch of knee-jerk atheists. It's important that we stand up for such values as freedom of speech, including our opponents' free speech. That will give us more credibility, and it's also the right thing to do.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Voices of Disbelief on its way

Okay, so the deal is that Udo Schuklenk and I will be co-editing a book, provisionally entitled Voices of Disbelief, which will contain 50 to 60 relatively short essays by prominent people explaining why they are not religious believers - why they don't accept the existence of the Abrahamic God, or subscribe to other religious doctrines. The essays will be diverse - philosophical, autobiographical, humorous, something else entirely, or a combination of some or all of the above.

Once the contract is with me, I'll be signing off.

We have an excellent publisher: Blackwell, now part of Wiley-Blackwell, which will have the muscle to distribute the book internationally. I have a wonderful and dedicated co-editor, and we've assembled an enviable list of expected contributors. However, unless any of them want to out themselves here or elsewhere, I won't name names in public just yet. We need to put in some time to talk to them all and make sure they're all happy with the way the project has shaped up.

However, I guess it's fine for me to say that four have already delivered their essays, and that the quality is going to be high if these end up being typical. Indeed, there's no reason for the quality to be anything else, given the calibre of the people involved. (There are a lot of people on the list whose names my regular readers will probably know, without expecting to find them appearing together in a book like this.)

It's all happening, folks. As this comes project to fruition over the next year or so, culminating in publication of the book some time in 2009, I'll say more. Meanwhile, please help us get the word out. We need to start generating a bit of buzz if we can.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Some big news coming soon

This post is just something to whet your appetites. Udo Schuklenk and I have been working (very hard actually) on a book proposal - one that some people who read this blog already know about (some of you are, indeed, involved in it and we've bandied your names around to agents and publishers).

Udo and I will be able to make an announcement publicly very soon. We have found a very good academic publisher that can be guaranteed to produce a beautiful book and distribute it well.

There's a contract on its way to me, at last, by snail mail or courier. Or there will be in a couple of hours. Give it a few days and signed copies will be on their way back from me to Udo in Canada and our publisher in the UK. It'll be good to have a deal signed off. This is pretty exciting.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Expelled exposed

There's a great site now on-line if you want to go and get the real story behind Expelled, the creationist propaganda movie starring Ben Stein. Get there by clicking on the link I've just given.

The Expelled Exposed site debunks the (so-called) science of Intelligent Design ("ID") and the clumsy attempt that Expelled makes to smear evolutionary theory by linking it to Nazism. There is also detail on what really happened to the supposedly "expelled" proponents of ID featured in the film. Congratulations to the National Center for Science Education in the US for putting this site together.

This page from the site, on the Richard Sternberg debacle, is typical of the careful examination of Expelled's claims. Sternberg claims to have been "terrorised" after he published a pro-ID paper in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, of which he was the honorary editor. This journal is affiliated with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where Sternberg has an honorary research position (his actual paid employment was, and is, with the National Institutes of Health).

The record shows that the paper concerned was never subjected to a proper refereeing process, but was published on the sole decision of the editor (most unusual, and arguably improper, practice for a refereed journal, particularly in the sciences). Sternberg published it in 2004, after he had already resigned from editorship of the journal months before and was serving out his notice. The article has subsequently been criticised as poorly written and sub-standard, and was withdrawn by the journal. Sternberg himself has been criticised for publishing it (and handling its publication in, to say the very least, a non-standard way).

However, no aspect of his terms and conditions of employment with his actual employer (once again, the National Institutes of Health) was ever affected. Nor has he lost his honorary position at the Smithsonian, which was renewed in 2006, although it seems that he hasn't actually shown up there for years.

More details are on the Expelled Exposed site.

The Sternberg case is a good example of the tactics used by the ID movement. Here we see an ID proponent with a small measure of authority as a journal editor. He acts in a non-standard, suspicious, and arguably improper, way to get a paper published by an ally - doubtless well aware that the paper would not get through peer review by independent scientists. When his actions are criticised, he attempts to beat up the situation into one where he is supposedly being persecuted or "expelled".

So much for personal integrity and intellectual honesty. Sternberg has not been expelled from the academy, but maybe he should have been.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Obama's (possibly) fatal gaffe

Here's what Barack Obama said that now has him in such deep trouble (we'll find out just how much trouble next week):

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

So, how wrong is he? A lot of the reaction seems to based on the idea that, even if there's some truth to what he's saying, a presidential candidate is not supposed to say anything that might be construed as negative about a part of the American electorate. You always have to lift people up - all of them - and never be seen to "look down" on them.

But a lot of the flak is coming from the mention of "religion" in a way that is not respectful and implies criticism (listing it with guns, bigotry, protectionism, and so on, like it's another bad thing). You just can't do that in the US - not even in passing, in this mild, implied way. Not if you're a politician trawling for votes. But surely Obama has a point; it does appear that America's ongoing religiosity has something to do with its widespread economic insecurity.

So is Obama now on the skids? I'd hate to see him falter over something like this. I mean, I'm kind of rooting for Clinton (nothing against Obama; I just think that at this stage of their respective careers Clinton will be the more formidable opponent for McCain ... and perhaps also the most competent president on offer). But Obama has gone up in my estimation. What he said is being portrayed as a terrible gaffe, as a moment when he betrayed what he really thinks and revealed himself to be an elitist who looks down on the common people. To me, it just reveals a man with a brain his head.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A nice pro-religious argument

I came across this, or something similar, the other day. I don't think it's a successful argument in the sense that it should persuade an atheist. Still, it's quite neat. It's deductively valid, and it's not viciously circular, since independent arguments can be put for both P1. and P2.

P1. Certain religious virtues, attitudes, etc., are superior to their secular equivalents.
P2. P1. could be true only if God existed and we were His creatures.
C. God exists and we are His creatures.

It looks to me as there must be some sense in which P2. is true, though I query whether it could be true at the same time as P1. and without equivocation.

I suspect that the godless readers of this blog will want to dismiss P1. pretty quickly, and in the end I'd probably reject it too. But I actually think that a fair bit can be said in its favour.

Note that the conclusion entails only a very minimal belief: God exists and we are His creatures. A very moderate religionist could believe this. If someone is actually persuaded by this argument to retain some kind of minimal religious belief, I won't have too much of a problem with it. I'd even adopt the argument myself if I thought it stood up to analysis, but I don't think it does. The fact that it doesn't might not be entirely welcome, though. Religious attitudes to the world may not, ultimately, be superior to their secular equivalents, but there is something impressive about at least some of them.

Consider this famous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

God's Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Nice, eh? It does appear to me that there is a certain attitude to the world expressed in this poem which it is impossible to have without some kind of minimal religious belief along the lines that God exists and we are His creatures. Hopkins does not see the world merely as awe-inspiring and beautiful; it's more than that. He sees it as charged with the grandeur of a creator-deity to whom we owe obedience. Somehow, we see the world and catch a glimpse of something beyond it, sustaining it and caring for it.

You can't translate the vision of the poem into secular terms without losing something. Hopkins is not seeing nature as just beautiful, fresh and self-renewing, or grand/awesome. For Hopkins, the world somehow conveys to us the greatness of a supernatural being who stands behind it all and whose creatures we are. Somehow - it's not clear how - we have this experience of seeing through the phenomena to a higher or deeper or more noumenal (not to mention numinous) reality.

It's impossible not to be impressed by this, and Hopkins' vision does seem, at least arguably, to be somehow "richer" than any secular equivalent. This may be an illusion - perhaps we are merely socialised to find this kind of sacramental vision of nature's grandeur and beauty especially impressive and moving. Still you can, maybe, see why a religious believer might not want to stop taking this kind of sacramental vision with full seriousness; you can see why someone might want to buy into it unproblematically. We atheists can project ourselves into it imaginatively, perhaps, or we can take a slightly distanced, almost anthropological view of it. But we can't embrace what Hopkins is saying without reservation, and perhaps there is a loss here. It may also be true that holding such a minimalist religious belief does not require giving up much that's of secular value.

(Of course, those parts of the poem that talk about us being sinners - e.g. not recking God's rod, i.e. disobeying him - may seem less palatable. If there is no secular equivalent of this, perhaps it's a good thing.)

All in all, at least some aspects of the poem's vision might impress us in a way that a secular equivalent would not. This seems to make P1. seem more plausible.

Here's a simpler example: the religious believer with at least the minimal belief that I've described can face each morning with an attitude of thankfulness. We atheists can also be "thankful", but only in inverted commas, because there is no person to thank - at most we can "thank" (or perhaps just be happy about) all the good events and so on that have kept us alive until now (we can thank goodness, as Daniel Dennett says, but surely it is an inverted-commas kind of thanking). But this secular equivalent may seem to be missing something. Again P1. is lent some plausibility.

There are many such examples. We could multiply them indefinitely.

At the same time, how could P1. be true unless it really is true that God exists and we are His creatures? So surely, it might be said, we must accept P2. But then, if the arguments for the plausibility of P1. move us, so that we accept both premises, we are forced by the logical entailment to accept C.

As I said, I don't think it's a satisfactory argument - and I'll leave its problems as an exercise for my readers. But it may bring out one way in which someone can be a very moderate and minimalist religious believer, while also being very serious about it (and honestly saying "not my religion" when confronted by attacks on religion by people like Richard Dawkins).

Don't worry, I'm not going soft on religion. I continue to believe that its claims are false, that the argument under discussion is not successful, and that it would be better if the political influence of religion were reduced. But sometimes it's good to think about how things might seem to reasonable people on the other side.


Friday, April 11, 2008

Great quote from John Harris

"I conclude that if there is an issue of human dignity which is engaged by human cloning in any of its forms, it is the huge indignity of permitting the legislative and regulatory agenda to be set by a combination of panic and prejudice. Added to which is the indignity of witnessing an undignified scramble to produce literally any argument, however poor or implausible, so long as it seems to provide some grounds for rejecting cloning." (On Cloning, 2004: 143)

Do we want a truly liberal society?

(Note: this paper was written for the context of Australia's current soul-searching about its future, but I believe that it is applicable, with very little change, to every contemporary (supposedly) liberal society.)


Russell Blackford, School of Philosophy and Bioethics, Monash University

A key question that Australia now faces as a nation is whether we are prepared to build a truly liberal society in the twenty-first century, or whether we will continue on a path where individual liberties are at the mercy of the political process. We are confronted with a stark choice.

One spur to thought about this question is the hysterical response in recent years to the prospect of new biomedical technologies. Much of this was provoked by the 1997 announcement in Nature that scientists in the UK had succeeded in cloning an adult sheep using what is known as somatic cell nuclear transfer ("SCNT") (for the announcement, see Wilmut et al. 1997). This announcement immediately led to moral panic about the prospect of human reproduction by the use of SCNT. Since then, Australia has been one of the many nations that have taken a highly illiberal approach to the regulation of new or emerging biotechnology.

Commentators on new biomedical technology often appear to believe that we are faced with Frankensteinian possibilities that cry out for a regulatory response. This, however, is getting things exactly back to front. On the contrary, the problem that we currently face is that widespread fear of new technologies has created an atmosphere in which liberal tolerance is under challenge. In the field of bioethics, what we need right now is a truly liberal response.

I suggest that our approach should identify genuine dangers and concerns, but deal with them strictly in accordance with liberal values.

Before going any further, I must stress that the recent illiberal tendency in public policy cannot be confined to bioethical issues. Once the idea of liberal tolerance is abandoned, many practices may be suppressed by the coercive power of the state, should they fail to gain acceptance within the political process.

Thus, just as arguments can be put that human reproductive cloning should be suppressed because it is somehow "interfering with nature" or "playing God", arguments can be put for suppressing certain consensual sexual practices as "unnatural", for suppressing certain speech as "blasphemous" or "offensive", or simply "inappropriate". And so on. Much of our policy framework for dealing with recreational drugs seems to be driven by an illiberal moralism, rather than a concern with liberty (or even harm reduction).

Liberal societies should give no credence to any such arguments that are based on contested values and moral beliefs.

A liberal society embraces pluralism, in the sense that it does not seek to impose any one vision of what it means to be virtuous or to lead a good life. Within such a society, approval is commonly expressed for John Stuart Mill's view that "experiments in living" should not be merely tolerated, but actually welcomed and celebrated (Mill 1974: 120).

As Max Charlesworth writes, "In a liberal society personal autonomy, the right to choose one's own way of life for oneself, is the supreme value." He adds that this includes what he calls ethical pluralism: members of the society are free to hold a wide range of moral, religious, and non-religious positions, with no core values or public morality that it is the law's business to enforce (Charlesworth 1993: 1). Accordingly, a liberal society makes a sharp distinction between the sphere of personal moral views and that of the law; no one can use the law to impose their beliefs on others (16-20).

Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to define the boundaries of liberal tolerance, and the broad idea has been formulated in different ways, even by its prominent defenders in the current debates about bioethics.

John Harris, for example, writes of what he calls "the democratic presumption", which he elaborates as the principle adopted in liberal democracies that the freedom of citizens not be interfered with without good and sufficient reasons. According to Harris, citizens should otherwise be at liberty to make their own choices, based on their own values; some serious real and present danger, whether to other citizens or to society, is required to rebut the presumption (Harris 2007: 72-73).

Similarly, Gregory E. Pence defends what he calls the "classic liberal view", though he notes that the label is confusing.

This is the idea that we do not try to dictate decisions about the good to others, but leave them alone as long as they leave us alone. For Pence, the justification for this approach is simply that all the alternatives have led to disaster (Pence 2000: 167).

In a recent defence of liberalism, Paul Starr offers a richer description of the liberal ideal. Liberalism as Starr understands it has allowed people with different religious and moral commitments not just to live side by side, but to flourish together. A liberal state will not require everyone to worship in the same way, follow the same way of life, or profess an official ideology, but it expects citizens to show reasonableness and openness to ideas. It is not neutral about such values as disease and health, sloth and effort, deceit and integrity, cowardice and courage. There are, he suggests, excellences that it must promote to survive (Starr 2007: 176-77).

Nonetheless, Starr argues, a liberal state is neutral where divisions over the nature of the good life are deep and irreconcilable. Most crucially, the state apparatus of a liberal society allows a diversity of cultural and moral practices that cause no harm to others; this provides a framework for individuals' free development (Starr 2007: 22-23).

On such an account, liberalism can welcome any worldview that is able to endorse such ideas as mutual tolerance and the free development of autonomous individuals.1

As Starr points out, modern liberalism has also adapted to growing agglomerations of private power, the harsh collective and individual impacts of unregulated markets, social changes, economic crises, and unprecedented scales of warfare (Starr 2007: 85-116). As a result of social and economic change, the apparatus of the state now exercises extensive powers for the purposes of social coordination and to ameliorate the harshness of economic outcomes that would arise under a system of unbridled capitalist competition (see, e.g., Atiyah 1979: 571-779). However, these powers are explained in liberal thought on the basis that their use is meant to extend, rather than reduce, the practical autonomy of individual citizens (Lee 1986: 16-17; Raz 1986: 414-18).

Unless some kind of harm can be identified, a liberal society is generally reluctant to restrict the liberty of individuals to act as they wish with the resources available to them. Even the idea of harm is usually restricted to direct, significant, and wrongful harm to others. In particular, the harm described must be to secular interests, not to theological ones such as interests in personal salvation, holiness, purity from sin, or conformity to the will of a deity.2

As Charlesworth describes the position, in a liberal society there cannot be a consensus on such matters as the alleged superiority of heterosexual, monogamous marriage, or the idea that deliberately ending one's life is against God's will, or that organ transplants violate bodily and spiritual integrity, or that abortion is equivalent to murder of the innocent (Charlesworth 1993: 163).

In a liberal society, the coercive power of the state is brought to bear against individuals only with reluctance. Where individuals' personal lives and life plans are at stake, including their ability to express themselves freely, have consenting sexual relations, and make reproductive decisions, the state will be particularly solicitous of freedom of choice, unless a compelling reason can be found to do otherwise.3 Prima facie, the infliction or threat of force by the state is considered objectionable, especially so when very personal interests are at stake, as with choices about sexual relationships and family formation.4

This somewhat idealised picture of a liberal society and its ethos of mutual tolerance might suggest that a forbearing, if not welcoming, attitude would be taken to new or postulated forms of biomedical technology. For example, reproductive cloning might, one would think, be welcomed by a liberal society as an acceptable personal choice - particularly, but not solely, as a legitimate response to male infertility (and the preferences of some lesbian couples).

Admittedly, reproductive cloning is not currently a safe method of reproduction, in the sense that it would involve a high risk of congenital malformation. It is arguable that even the most liberal society has good reason not to tolerate the use of a method of reproduction that is unsafe in that sense. Such safety arguments, as they might be called, could also apply to other technological interventions, such the genetic engineering of human embryos.

However, the policy debate since the cloning of Dolly the sheep by Ian Wilmut and his team has been remarkable for the way that many participants have ignored, or even rejected, the liberal idea that experiments in living are to be welcomed. Prima facie, this Millian idea should apply to decisions about the full gamut of technological innovations, even though Mill himself could hardly have foreseen them. In the absence of some argument based in liberal values, liberal societies should allow individuals to decide whether or not to bear and raise children created by the use of SCNT.

Arguments about safety, or even about the welfare of growing children, do not explain the character of the actual debate or the real-world policy responses of liberal societies. The debate appears to be motivated in large part by a wish to impose certain moral or quasi-religious, ideals as social norms, and by a fear of the potentially strange directions that societies might take as biomedical technology develops.

In the early 1990s, Max Charlesworth complained about a gap between liberal ideas and the widespread hostility, within liberal societies, to a range of practices in health and medicine. On Charlesworth's account, one would expect to see liberal societies treating personal autonomy as central to ethical discussions about new reproductive technologies, and drawing a sharp line between the morality and legality of biomedical innovations. However, Charlesworth argued, the experience was that many of the policy responses of the time were illiberal - often authoritarian or paternalistic (Charlesworth 1993: 1-2).

The years since - and particularly those since the cloning of Dolly - have only made the gap identified by Charlesworth more obvious. We have seen the emergence of widespread and politically-influential opposition to many real or mooted technologies (e.g. embryonic sex selection, reproductive cloning, human genetic engineering, and radical forms of life extension). More than ever, we should heed Charlesworth's contention that those engaged in bioethical discussion, within liberal societies, must take account of the fact that they are, indeed, living in liberal societies and of a liberal society's basic values (Charlesworth 1993: 27).

In Australia, one outcome of the debate over new biotechnology has been the enactment of the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction Act 2002 (Cth). In its current form, as amended, this specifies a raft of criminal offences with maximum terms of imprisonment of fifteen years. These offences include any deliberate alteration of a human cell that would be inheritable, and intended as such (section 15), and any action that involves placing what the Act calls "a human embryo clone" in the body of a human being or another animal (section 9). The legislation proscribes germ-line manipulation of embryos for any reason, along with actions needed for reproductive cloning; further, it imposes prison sentences appropriate only for major crimes.

This federal statute operates in conjunction with numerous other restrictions under state legislation and guidelines issued by the National Health and Medical Research Commission ("NHMRC"). In particular, the use of PGD for embryonic sex selection, a technology that is already available, is proscribed by NHMRC guidelines and prohibited by some state provisions such as Victoria's Infertility Treatment Act 1995 (Vic.), which provides a maximum two-year penalty for any attempt to predetermine the sex of a child by technological means, except where necessary for medical reasons (section 50).

I submit that little of this can be justified on grounds that would be acceptable under the Millian harm principle or any principled extension of it, such as might be found in the comprehensive review in Feinberg's four-volume The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law (Feinberg 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988).

While the focus of this paper is on bioethical issues, where my recent research has largely been concentrated, it has implications that go far wider. A truly liberal society would be reluctant to interfere in many issues relating to sexuality, free speech and expression, family formation, and other matters involving deep disagreement about values and the good life. Once a society goes down the path of allowing law-makers to impose their views about these matters (or the views of an electoral majority), liberty is threatened across the board. Such an approach cannot be confined to one set of issues, such as bioethics.

We can expect the future to bring new political issues of many kinds. Some of them will provoke anger, fear, and other strong emotions, as did the cloning of Dolly and the prospect of reproductive cloning for human beings. Next time such an issue emerges, and grants law-makers in liberal societies, such as Australia, the opportunity to demonstrate their credentials as successors to Locke and Mill, they should not squander it.

A good start would be for opinion leaders to begin right now in identifying the issue of whether we want Australia to develop as a truly liberal society. This is, I submit, an idea whose time has come.

1 This is a central theme of John Rawls's Political Liberalism (Rawls 1993).
2 An early version of this idea can be found in John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration, in which Locke assigns to the civil magistrate protection of "things belonging to this Life" but not "the Salvation of Souls" (Locke 1983: 26).
3 In so doing, the governing philosophy of a liberal society will foster autonomous choices, even where this requires a redistribution of economic resources. In this respect, it differs from political libertarianism.
4 Compare Hart (1963: 21-22), which emphasises the importance of sexuality to individuals. The same point can be made about individuals' reproductive decisions.

Atiyah, PS. (1979). The Rise and Fall of Freedom of Contract. New York: Oxford University Press.

Charlesworth, Max. (1993). Bioethics in a Liberal Society. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Feinberg, Joel. (1984). Harm to Others. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

—. (1985). Offense to Others. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

—. (1986). Harm to Self. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

—. (1988). Harmless Wrongdoing. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harris , John. (2007). Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hart, H.L.A. (1963). Law, Liberty, and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lee, Simon. (1986). Law and Morals: Warnock, Gillick and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Locke, John. (1983). A Letter Concerning Toleration. First published 1689. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Mill, John Stuart. (1974). On Liberty. First published 1859. London: Penguin.

Pence, Gregory E. Re-Creating Medicine: Ethical Issues on the Frontiers of Medicine. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rawls, John. (1993). Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Raz, Joseph. (1986). The Morality of Freedom. Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Oxford University Press.

Starr, Paul. (2007). Freedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism. New York: Basic Books.

Wilmut, I., et al. (1997). "Viable Offspring Derived from Fetal and Adult Mammalian Cells." Nature 385: 810-13.

Another annoying thing about the Australia 2020 conference

Another annoying thing is this. Those of us who hoped to go, but missed out, were given an extremely short time to regroup, after being given the bad news, and to take the alternative route. In this case, the alternative route is to provide a written submission to the conference.

Submissions were due on 9 April and apparently this is being applied strictly. To be fair, I suppose we could all have prepared written submissions just in case, but we're busy people - at least I am - and it would be nice to know what ground rules to follow.

Anyway, I was stretched far too thin to meet that deadline. I imagine that a lot of people didn't even try: anyone who has serious pretensions to go to a conference like this is going to be a busy person.

In my spare moments (ha!) I have actually managed to put something together which at least summarises what I would have liked to have said to the conference ... or to have included in a written submission. If anyone is interested in this, you only have to ask for a copy. I can't think of what else I should do with it. Maybe save it as my response for when some sort of report emerges from the conference?

I guess the "second thousand" will eventually get our chance to have a say.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Trust me!

I'm just back from the launching of Paul Collins' new anthology of genre stories for young adults, Trust Me! This features 50-odd stories, including a new fantasy story by Jenny. Paul, as editor and publisher, has done a beautiful in putting the package together.

About half the authors were present, so this was a fun occasion, with much passing around of copies for multiple signatures from as many contributors as possible, etc. Jenny visibly had a great time, and hey I did, too, though it's always the most fun to be in an anthology when it's being launched. :)

Paula Kelly gave a generous speech in introducing Paul, and Paul gave a generous speech in which he thanked everyone he could think of (even I got a mention, though I really had nothing to do with this book, except as Jenny's in-house proofreader).

Jenny and I had a tasty dinner with a few friends afterwards ...

And okay, now back to work.

Monday, April 07, 2008

I am not one of Australia's best and brightest - apparently

It's gradually becoming known who did and who did not get an invitation to the Australia 2020 seminar later this month, in which Australia's 1000 supposedly best and brightest thinkers will spend a weekend in Canberra solving the nation's problems and working out its future trajectory.

I can report that I didn't get an invitation, and I'm not going to pretend I don't care. I am, in fact, mildly pissed off about it. Those lead articles in Quadrant don't count, I guess, and nor does the fact that, in Damien Broderick's absence, self-exiled in the US, I must surely rank as Australia's best-known thinker on issues relating to the human/post-human future (hey, guys, you now have a goddamn Australian as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Evolution and Technology, the leading intellectual flagship of the transhumanist movement; just thought I'd let you know). You'd think there'd be some room for my viewpoint at a conference of Australia's ... ahem ... top thousand thinkers about the future of the country.

Okay, who am I kidding? My application was always a long-shot, since my interests in science fiction, transhumanism, scientifically-informed rationalism, and a genuinely liberal approach to public policy were always going to be seen as kind of out there by the folks running this talk fest. It doesn't matter how much prominence I build up nationally and internationally, those fields of expertise aren't going to endear me to the solid burghers in the political mainstream.

Still, I thought there was some outside chance, if someone just used a bit of imagination and thought beyond the usual suspects, so I won't pretend otherwise. Yes, I am (however mildly) pissed off by it, much as I didn't expect to get the nod from on high, much as I'm more amused than anything else, and much as there are plenty of other people, er things, I'd like to do that weekend. For all that, those grapes would have been sweet, and I did have something to say.

Anyhow, what the heck, I'm sure I have plenty of company.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Science, religion, and "framing"

I've posted a version of this on John Wilkins' blog (thanks to the commenter who pointed out to me that Wilkins had blogged thoughtfully on the issue). There is some discussion over there about whether there's really a tension between science and religion and about whether religion is really such a terrible thing.

Let's address the latter point: what's so bad about religion - apart from its falsity? I'm assuming throughout this post that all known religions actually are false. Well, (1) if you buy seriously and non-sceptically into a religious view of the world - I'm assuming here a fairly comprehensive one, not just a couple of key doctrines such as "the Abrahamic God exists" - then it's likely that your whole life will be lived in accordance with a worldview that is, ex hypothesi, fundamentally and pervasively false. In that sense, everything you do and say will be distorted and your life will be structured in accordance with an illusion. I actually think that's an unfortunate fate, and I'd like to rescue people from it to the small extent that I can (while using nothing but liberal means, such as persuasion and example).

(2) Religions tend to preserve moral norms that may or may not have once been functional in the societies in which they originated, but are certainly not functional now. The result is often a cruel disconnect between the way religion tells you how to live and the way of life that would actually be flourishing and pleasurable - and perhaps better for those around you as well as for you. Perhaps this doesn't matter so much, because religious people can still feel happy, even if their happiness is based on the comforting illusion that they are living the most moral or correct way of life in the service of a deity or a supernatural principle. But, worse, the religious are often eager to impose their way of life on others by means of the coercive power of the state. They are always trying to ban something or other, whether it's abortion, alcohol, divorce, contraception, homosexual acts, stem cell research, rival belief systems, or whatever.

We have some choices here: we can insist on liberal tolerance, according to which the state does not impose contentious religious and moral beliefs - taking some proposals off the democratic agenda and limiting the powers of the state. I think we should do exactly that, but it's not a complete answer.

* First, many religious leaders have no commitment to liberal tolerance; sometimes they merely pay it lip service, and at other times they are explictly opposed to it.

* Second, oftentimes religious and moral beliefs that are not well-founded are nonetheless not actually all that controversial within a particular population, for historical reasons, even though they perhaps should be, since they have little evidence in their support. It can be difficult taking these off the political agenda. 

* Third, there are many grey areas, since most moral and political claims that are motivated by a religious worldview can be given some kind of secular translation, even if the translation seems implausible and contrived to sceptics. Weak secular arguments can thus obtain great popularity within an electorate if many people in the electorate have a visceral response that is based more on their religious instincts than on the merit of the arguments themselves.

For these reasons, it is often only the most blatantly sectarian claims (e.g. a claim for compulsory, state-enforced belief in transubstantiation) that end up being removed completely from the political agendas of modern liberal societies. If we really do oppose popular religious moralities, or many aspects of them, we can't trust that religious lobbies and the electorate will favour liberal tolerance across the board, while interpreting the idea of a liberal tolerance in a way that significantly narrows the scope of religious organisations to co-opt the coercive power of the state. We can argue for liberal tolerance, separation of church and state, and similar ideas, until we're blue in the face. But we also need at least some people to attack religion's moral pretensions more directly, and, since the morality may claim to be backed by revelation and authority, that can require attacks on the intellectual credibility of the religion itself.

I think it's healthy that modern societies continue to have a constant stream of high-powered people expressing scepticism about religion, and in many cases backing up their scepticism with arguments. I also think it's healthy when those arguments include arguments about the almost-inevitable tensions between religion and the findings of science. This may not destroy religion, but that's not necessarily the aim. It can help create a social ethos in which there's widespread scepticism about religion's intellectual and moral authority. To me, that's a good thing. It can also put pressure on religion(s) to adapt to social and intellectual change, and to mutate into something more benign. To a considerable extent, this has been happening. There are certainly Christian positions with which I don't have too much of a quarrel (although I see no reason why I should actually believe any of them).

As for framing ... There is some contradiction between the process that I described in the two paras immediately above and any masterplan for popularising science that includes reassuring existing religious demographics that science poses no threat to religion - and so should be more appealing to the religious. I'm afraid that I'm unlikely ever to accept that a masterplan such as Matt Nisbet's - which contains this element - should be allowed to override the great social benefit that comes from a stream of intellectually high-powered people in each generation continually putting pressure on the truth claims made by religion. But if I understood correctly what John Wilkins was saying in his post, I agree with him that all viewpoints on this ought to be put. Although I disagree with Nisbet, I won't try to shut him up.

On the other hand, if he ever tells me to shut up he'll get the same sort of terse and hostile response that he received from PZ Myers recently. To be clear, if someone tried to use the coercive power of the state to prevent Nisbet saying "Shut up," to Myers, I'd defend him (i.e., I'd defend Nisbet). In that sense, but only in that rather weak sense, he has the right to say it. I'm all for freedom of speech. But he doesn't have the right to say it without getting a rude reply. Once it's said, Myers has the same right to reply, as he did, "Fuck you very much." Beyond that point, I think that it's actually quite an appropriate response to "Shut up." When you are told to shut up, the conversation has moved to a meta-level where you need not follow it: no one need feel that they have to justify their actions in arguing for their views, as opposed to giving their arguments for the views themselves.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Chris Mooney on the framing debate

Over on ScienceBlogs, Chris Mooney is publishing this interesting series of posts on his blog, The Intersection, backed up by co-blogger Sheril Kirshenbaum.

All these posts, together with the discussion they've generated, are still just a small part of the current debate on the merits of "framing" science: trying to make the conclusions of mainstream science more salient and appealing to various audiences.

Mooney, who has been one of the main supporters of arch-framer Matt Nisbet, is now acknowledging that Nisbet blundered when he recently called for Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers to stop talking in public about science.

As it strikes me, the kerfuffle is not so much about, "Is there a role for professional PR/communications techniques when presenting science to the public?" Almost everyone agrees that there should be some role for some people to use such techniques to some extent at least some of the time. The issue has become, more specifically, "Should Dawkins and PZ (and other atheists whose beliefs have been influenced by their understanding of scientific theory) basically shut up, since their message is cutting across Matt Nisbet's suggested PR strategy for organised (American) science?"

That brilliant proposal has, of course, been met with a resoundingly negative response from the ScienceBlogs community and the broader science-oriented blogosphere.

Dawkins and Myers have a message of their own, which they actually frame very well in their different ways. However, it's not their mission to make science palatable to various existing American demographics, complete with all their existing values and religious beliefs. They don't seek to take current demographics as they find them and try to be more popular.

Rather, Dawkins and Myers want to change people's beliefs if they can. This is a long-term project that involves, among other things, publishing the arguments against religion in an accessible, popular format; creating an environment in which other voices of disbelief can get a hearing; building more communities and networks, and a greater sense of camaraderie, among non-believers; making atheism seem more ... well, cool, and more like a socially-available and acceptable option; getting at least some believers to become more sceptical about what religious leaders say; getting more of the large uncommitted block, the people who don't feel strongly about religion one way or the other, to be that little bit less deferential to religious traditions and sensitivities; etc., etc.

It seems to me that Dawkins and Myers (and others) are doing a good job at a large and difficult task that no one person is leading or coordinating. To be fair, however, I can also see how their work cuts to some extent across what Nisbet is trying to do. Nisbet points out, correctly, that there's a potential for Dawkins, Myers, and other atheistic scientists to scare many Americans away from science if science is thought to undermine religious faith.

But the lesson is not that Dawkins and Myers - or anyone else - should shut up. It's that Nisbet has to find a way to work in a world that contains people like Dawkins and Myers - who have every right to pursue their own objectives in their own manner. None of us can have things all our own way; the world is full of messy compromises, and any realistic PR or communications strategy will need to take that into account.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Fitna and freedom of speech

A controversial (apparently) Dutch parliamentarian, Geert Wilders, has recently released a short film, Fitna, which has been interpreted as a warning against the Islamisation of Europe - and is, on any interpretation, an attack on the content of the Koran.

I've delayed commenting until I found some time to watch Fitna. I've now seen it.

First, I admit that I know nothing about this Geert Wilders guy, since I don't follow Dutch politics much. I've seen many claims that he is driven by a racist agenda. There is also much talk about his having made an attempt to ban the Koran in the Netherlands, which would seem hypocritical for someone who depends on freedom of speech to be able to express his own controversial viewpoint.

It doesn't matter. Perhaps he is a racist and a hypocrite. Perhaps, for all I know, he has sex with his pet parrot every night. Whether or not that's true, I see nothing in the movie that should be condemned by liberal people (whether or not they actually agree with it, which is a different issue).

The message is presented powerfully, but solemnly, through juxtapositions of passages from the Koran with footage of atrocities and Islamist rantings. The tone is not inflammatory; it doesn't arouse hatred or passion. It leaves the viewer feeling troubled - yet calm and reflective.

As I interpret the film (and like all texts it is open to interpretation), the message is quite simple:

The Koran contains material that can incite hatred of non-Muslims and violence against them. It is up to Muslims to tear those parts from their holy book. This could just mean ignoring the hateful passages, as most Christians, to their credit, ignore the most atrocious passages in the Bible.

That's a perfectly reasonable view to express, whether or not the relevant passages can be explained away by moderate Muslim scholars.

I don't care how sore that poor parrot is getting by now. I don't care if turns out that Wilders made his fortune by clubbing baby seals to death with a large-text edition of Mein Kampf that he bought from David Irving, back in the day, during a six-week orgy of Nazism, Frauleins, and booze in the Austrian Alps.

It doesn't matter. His freedom of speech should still be protected, and I see plenty of attacks on it.

What we must do, as loudly as we can, is object to politically-correct, or just plain cowardly, Western leaders who want to denounce or even suppress what Wilders has to say. Wilders may be Satan himself, but he has every right to express his views.