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) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Monday, March 30, 2009

Praise the Lord for Matt Nisbet

In a new post on his esteemed blog Framing Science, the acclaimed communications expert and general polymath, Matt Nisbet turns his nimble wits to a fiercely burning question. I'm sure we've all been holding our breaths, waiting for an answer.

Has Richard Dawkins breached an ethical boundary in his various attempts to criticise and undermine religion? More specifically, could Dawkins have acted unethically when he's argued that the well-corroborated findings of evolutionary biology undermine religious faith and (as Nisbet puts it with characteristic understatement) undermine "respect for all religious faith"?

It will, of course, be obvious to my readers that religious faith itself is something that must receive "respect"; it's not sufficient that we respect the right of individuals to believe religious doctrines, and to engage in religious rituals and other practices, if they wish.

Nisbet elaborates how the National Academy of Science (NAS) and related bodies in the US used market research to decide what messages to present to the American public. Having researched the issue, with focus groups and a survey of course, the NAS decided to announce that religion and science are compatible.

Clearly, this is how you do it. For example, it would be wrong to check whether any particular religions or sects make claims that are inconsistent with robust, well-corroborated scientific findings. That's obviously irrelevant. Furthermore, it would be quite wrong to consider any more (shall we say?) philosophical issues. For example, might there be an argument that even some of the more moderate versions of Abrahamic monotheism include doctrines that are in tension with the emerging image of the world offered by science? How well does the idea of a loving and providential deity square with the millions of years of suffering produced by the slow processes of biological evolution?

You and I might not expect the NAS to take a stand on questions like that. We might think that the compatibility of science with religion would be a matter of some legitimate controversy. If we thought like that - silly us - we might then think it inappropriate for bodies such as the NAS to adopt a position one way or the other. After all, we'd say, philosophers of religion disagree among themselves on this, as do individual scientists, so why is it appropriate for a professional body to take a stand? But we'd be wrong. Obviously the issue can be settled by sufficiently well-planned market research involving focus groups, surveys, etc. In this case, the research told the NAS that they should present material to the public that included "a prominent three page special color section that features testimonials from religious scientists, religious leaders and official church position statements, all endorsing the view that religion and evolution are compatible." Yay!

This is how to settle a philosophical debate!

By similar reasoning, someone like Dawkins is wrong - morally wrong, that is - when he presents arguments to the public, largely based on science, in an effort to cast doubt on religion.

Again, you and I might think that he has every moral and legal right to do so, while other scientists and philosophers have a right to criticise his arguments, all of which are, of course, controversial. I, for example, find Dawkins' favourite argument, the so-called Ultimate 747 Gambit, somewhat puzzling and inconclusive. It has been criticised by many people, including some prominent philosophers. But it may also have some merit, or at least some interest, depending on how it is interpreted and what assumptions we are prepared to make. In that case, we might have thought - silly us - that the thing to do would be to let people argue about it. You know? Perhaps a worthwhile body of philosophical literature might then grow up, scrutinising the merit of the argument from all angles. Isn't that how it usually works?

But, yet again, we'd be wrong. Nisbet is made of sterner stuff than we are. Rather than studying and debating the cogency of Dawkins' actual arguments, he explains, we can cut through all that like a two-edged sword chopping up a brace of sinners. We can then conclude that Dawkins acted unethically in, for example, writing The God Delusion. In doing so - and of course going somewhat further in his criticism of the rationality of religious belief and the social value of religion - Dawkins does not merely "denigrate various social groups", but, worse (it seems) he "gives resonance to the false narrative of social conservatives that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda".

So there we have it. When the NAS takes a stance on a highly controversial issue in philosophy of religion, based on market research suggesting that this will help make science appear more acceptable to the American public, that is ethical behaviour. It is certainly not, as you and I might have thought, a meretricious exercise in intellectual dishonesty. But when Dawkins presents his sincerely-held views, relying partly (though by no means entirely) on arguments from his own area of scientific expertise, that is an unethical exercise in denigrating social groups and, yes, in Giving Resonance (don't worry too much what that expression might actually mean) to the paranoid fantasy, er narrative, "that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda". Never mind that Dawkins has never made such a claim; one must always be very careful not to go around Giving Resonance.

Now that that's cleared up, I expect that Nisbet will soon turn his skills to whether mathematicians should argue for mathematical platonism or some other philosophical account of the ontological status of mathematical abstracta. A bit of market research should clear it up quick smart. You and I - silly us - probably thought that this little difficulty in the philosophy of mathematics was intractable, but it's certainly not beyond Nisbet's powers.

Next, he could turn his Ozymandian insight to resolving the long-running grudge between the utilitarian and Kantian teams of normative theorists; no doubt, a market survey would establish which view would be better received by the American electorate.

Before we're through and have shuffled off our mortal coils, Nisbet could clear up all the central questions of philosophy, while establishing once and for all that any views contrary to his market research must not be argued for in public. Certainly they must not be presented with any passion. This denigrates groups of right-thinking American people who disagree, and it Gives Resonance to a False Narrative.

Matt Nisbet is now an expert on ethics and everything else. With a little bit of market research, he'll solve all our problems in no time. Why were we so worried about them in the first place? Just silly us, I suppose.

Hallelujah, and praise the Lord for Matt Nisbet!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Stem cell nonsense from Saletan

William Saletan recently published an essay at Slate, in which he compares research on stem cells with torturing accused terrorists, suggesting that there is an important moral line crossed in both cases.

This is infuriating nonsense.

"Embryos are the beginnings of people," Saletan says. "They're not parts of people. They're the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It's the difference between using an object and using a subject."

Wrong. An embryo is not a subject in any sense.

Unlike accused terrorists, the embryos that we're talking about are not creatures that even have nervous systems, much less nervous systems developed to the point where they can feel terror or pain. Such an embryo cannot fear death, or sickness, or injury. It has no hopes or fears at all, and it certainly cannot lie awake dreading its own destruction. It has no subjectivity, no inner experience. Our sympathies should not be engaged in any way by the plight of an early embryo that is selected for destruction in stem cell research. Not if we're rational about it. Nobody who destroys such an embryo is being callous towards its interests, let alone cruel. You cannot show cruelty to something that can't experience any physical or psychological suffering whatsoever.

Saletan says, "It was a fight between 5-day-olds and 50-year-olds. The 50-year-olds won."

I beg your pardon, sir, but there is a huge difference between a so-called "5-day-old" with no nervous system and the predicament of an adult human being of 50 (or 40, or 60, or any other age) who might be diagnosed with a serious illness. For the 50-year-old, a prognosis of increasing pain and impending death is tragic. The destruction of an early embryo is nothing of the sort.

Even if death were painless, we'd have good reason to treat it as an evil. Once we are old enough to be conscious of ourselves as existing in time, we have many reasons to want to stay alive, at least until life becomes so restricted and painful as to be a burden. Until then, we have powerful forward-looking reasons to want to go on living, immersed in our relationships and projects. Take a man in his early 50s, for example ...

In fact, let's keep this real: take me, for example. I may wish to complete whatever book I'm currently working on, to see progress with political causes that I've taken up, to watch how my loved ones fare in life, and on and on. Speaking of my loved ones ... yes, various people love me, and some would be emotionally shattered by my death. And I care deeply about this because, as it happens, I love them.

No one in my situation could be indifferent to a medical prognosis of imminent death. For me, or anyone at all like me, it would be a terrible evil, snatching away all my hopes while also inflicting great loss on the people I care about most. If it happened to someone else I know, or whose predicament was brought home to me, I'd be moved by pity and a degree of futile anger.

By contrast, an early embryo harvested for stem cells has no plans for the future and cannot imagine the future at all. It cannot commit itself to any projects that give it reasons to want to go on living and developing. Indeed, it has no concepts, or experiences, or wants. There is nothing at all that it is like to be that embryo, and if its destruction is a misfortune for it in some way, it is certainly not in the same way as death is a misfortune for a human adult (or a human child, if it comes to that). When we decide how to conduct ourselves towards it, there is no reason to be motivated by sympathy. That would make no sense. Nor is there anyone else whose interests come into the decision - it has no networks of kin, loved ones, dependents or colleagues. No one will be left behind with a broken heart. Its situation is radically different not only from that of a 50-year-old man or woman but also from that of a child or even a newborn baby.

We have no reason, none at all, to refrain from stem cell research, merely on the basis that it destroys early embryos.

Why the hell shouldn't the 50-year-olds prevail in any supposed "fight" between their interests and whatever bizarre interests can be attributed to the so-called "5-day-olds"? Saletan is not being rational.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Stephen Conroy has got to go

I've just watched Stephen Conroy's fatuous, giggling performance on the TV show Q & A, in which he essentially refused to take seriously the fact that he is planning legislation that will endanger our most fundamental right - the right to freedom of speech. We must never let an Australian government gain control of the internet and start blocking sites. Conroy argues that there is no current intention to block political sites, but that is not the point.

Let's leave aside the bizarre stories about Russian gangsters taking over the sites of innocent dentists who then get blacklisted by the government. That was sure a great yarn, but, um, minister, if the government knew what had happened, why didn't it at least think to tell the dentist ... rather than just secretly blacklisting his site? Leave aside, too, that at least one PG-rated site was discovered to be on the blacklist. Forget that none of this would have been known if Wikileaks had not leaked the list, and that the PG-rated site would still be blacklisted for its innocuous Bill Henson nudes. Leave aside the fact that many of the blacklisted sites apparently have nothing to do with child pornography. All this is important and rather sinister, but that's not the main point either.

Let's get it clear: this government, which I voted for, as you probably did, too, if you are Australian, is attempting to use technological means to obtain a power that no government should ever have. Once the mechanism is in place, nothing stops it from blocking whatever sorts of material may be attacked in the future by populist opinion.

I'm sick to death of this communications minister; Conroy is a disgrace to the honourable tradition of the Left in Australia. It comes down to this: sack Conroy. Nothing less will do. Start again with a new communications minister.

Conroy has got to go.

UN's Human Rights Council condemns "defamation of religion"

On 26 March 2009, the UN's Human Rights Council resolved to adopt a proposal drafted by Pakistan condemning so-called "defamation of religion" and calling for nations to enact new laws against attacks on religious beliefs, organisations, and symbols.

The resolution was adopted by a majority of 23 in favour, with 11 opposed and 13 abstentions. Similar resolutions have been passed for several years by both the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. They are sponsored by members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), but typically gain support from many developing nations as well as others outside of the Western democracies, such as Russia and China.

The draft text prepared by Pakistan can be found on the UN Watch site.

Among other things, the resolution "Deplores the use of the print, audio-visual and electronic media, including the Internet, and any other means to incite acts of violence, xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination towards any religion, as well as targeting of religious symbols and venerated persons", so my recent republication of a satirical cartoon of the pope in the London Times, clearly makes me guilty of defamation of religion.

Throughout the document, "defamation of religion" is closely associated with hate crimes. Absurdly, the resolution "Stress[es] that defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence". Let's try to get our heads around that idea: in the name of freedom of religion, of all things, our legal right to subject various religions, and their activities, to criticism is supposed to be taken away from us. Right, gotcha. George Orwell, where are you when we need you?

The resolution is in broad enough terms to condemn almost any satire or criticism of religious beliefs, organisations, activities, or leaders, and it obviously represents a fundamental attack on freedom of speech. The persistence of religion - not to mention its continued power and influence - merits scrutiny, and it is in the public interest that religion not be placed beyond discussion. This includes harsh criticism and satire. I particularly include Islam, which is invariably singled out by UN resolutions as a religion that must be protected from criticism of any kind.

Such resolutions are obtained cheaply. Both the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council are well-stocked with countries that delight in provoking the Western democracies and undermining Western ideas of individual freedom. Those countries are not limited to those making up the OIC. In addition, many others are simply unwilling to take sides, for whatever mix of reasons. Accordingly, they abstain - with the result that the Western nations are invariably outvoted, as in this latest debacle. While nations such as the US, Australia, and the European democracies cannot be forced to enact legislation that protects religion from criticism and satire, such resolutions strengthen the hands of regimes that persecute journalists and others who criticise religion (most notably any who dare criticise Islam). In short, these resolutions give theocrats, demagogues, and tin-pot dictators the high moral ground.

They also strengthen the hands of illiberal academics, lawyers, government officials, and others in Western nations, who place a low priority on freedom of speech and continually push for restrictive laws in the name of social harmony. There is no shortage of Western intellectuals who see the whole idea of freedom of speech as an outdated relic of the much-maligned Enlightenment. According to their way of thinking, the presumption of free speech should be replaced by active government control of what we can say and what we should think - all in the interests of protecting social harmony and shielding the sensibilities of people from religious (especially Muslim) backgrounds.

This highly illiberal position has become almost the dominant paradigm within legal academia and in much of the intellectual culture of the West. Indeed, there is an unstated taboo on criticising it or the fifth columnists for the Taliban who advocate it. No one, it seems, wants to look like a political dinosaur who still defends Enlightenment thought or the views of John Stuart Mill ... or perhaps to look like something worse, such as a xenophobe or a racist.

It's about time for those of us who still consider free speech to be important and relevant to do far more to contest the issue within Western intellectual culture. We'll need to struggle, and we'll suffer slurs on our reputations, but someone has to defend freedom of speech before it's too late.

Meanwhile, Udo Schuklenk observes that our forthcoming book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, might find itself in an official UN Human Rights "report" as defaming religious people, their symbols, etc. But Udo adds that our book would find itself in good company, such as Voltaire's Candide; as he says this would actually be "Kinda cool".

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Big day today - and an open thread

Well, as of today I have PhD number two OFFICIALLY, having now graduated (in absentia). I'm thus finally out of the kind of limbo where the thesis is all approved and everything (since November) and I sort of have the shiny new degree ... but not technically coz I'm waiting to graduate. This life-changing event entails that I can now, with a clear conscience, and without reservations, demand to be addressed as Dr Dr Blackford.

Thursday afternoon is a fairly solid teaching block for me. Once that was over, I gave a talk to the Humanist Society, here in Melbourne, on religious vilification law, notably the notorious Catch The Fire Ministries case and its implications. They treated me very kindly, and the gig itself was enjoyable. I seemed to get the audience pretty fired up (as it were).

Wazzup with everyone else?

Bouncing emails

The Polish website Racjonalista has approached me asking for permission to translate and republish a couple of my longer posts. For some reason, my emails are currently bouncing from their address. I'll try replying to them using a different email account, but meanwhile, folks, if you see this, you do have my permission, and I'm grateful for your interest.

EDIT: I see I'm going to be in good company; e.g., the most recent piece they've published in translation is by AC Grayling.

FURTHER EDIT: And now the most recent piece they have there is by Johann Hari.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A very short introduction to non-overlapping magisteria

The theory of non-overlapping magisteria (or NOMA) - the idea that science and religion have authority in entirely separate domains and do not come into conflict - is, in a word, rubbish. However, it's remarkably persistent rubbish. I've written about the issue at length elsewhere, but let's deal with it in a nutshell.

According to NOMA, science tells us about the physical world while religion provides moral guidance. These are different in character, so there can never be a clash between them.

Well, if you believe that you might be prepared to call for a cessation in hostilities between science and religion, which may even sound like an attractive prospect. But the doctrine of NOMA is rotten through and through.

Historically, religions have been encyclopedic systems of belief, offering explanations of a vast range of phenomena ... as well as providing guidance for their adherents' actions. As encyclopedic systems, they inevitably come into conflict with science as the latter provides more and more facts about how the world actually works. Religion can avoid direct conflicts only by retreating into highly abstract and more-or-less unfalsifiable positions. Some modern-day versions of religion may well have retreated so far from falsifiability that they are no longer in direct conflict with science, but that's a fascinating historical development, not an indication that religion and science exercise inherently different and non-overlapping magisteria.

Even when religion avoids direct conflict with good science, and is thus not plainly irrational, it tends not to be believable when its image of the universe is held up against the emerging scientific image. In particular, who, in the light of science, can seriously adopt the orthodox Abrahamic idea of a loving and providential (yet all-powerful and all-knowing) deity? Who can believe - without having been brainwashed, or shall we say "socialised"? - that a loving and providential god is responsible for the emergence of rational beings in its divine image only after the passage of hundreds of millions of years; the extinction of countless species; various planetary catastrophes and mass extinctions; and throughout all this, ever since sentient creatures evolved a few hundred million years ago, the ever-present agony of nature red in tooth and claw?

When it comes to the moral teachings of religion, some of them are uncontroversial because almost any moral system must find a place for them: try to be kind to others; treat people honestly; settle your disputes without violence if you can. Almost any society needs to treat kindness, honesty, and non-violence (except in specific, regulated situations) as virtues rather than vices, and must have some concept of theft, fraud, and unlawful killing. It always seems anomalous - not to mention suspicious - when anthropologists claim to have discovered an isolated tribe with a radically different concept of moral virtue.

But the specifically religious content of religious morality is usually sick and miserable. It typically involves a nasty kind of ascetism; it fossilises moral injunctions from unenlightened and more economically-backward times (injunctions that were of dubious value even then, and are totally disconnected from modern needs); and it is couched in terms of an implausible absolutism that makes no allowance for circumstances, or gains flexibility only by means of bizarre doctrines such as the Catholic principle of double effect.

I was struck again by the nasty ascetism that's a legacy of our society's heritage of hundreds of years of Christian hegemony when I read a recent piece by Roger Scruton. Here, as so often, there is an assumption that asceticism has the high moral ground. Why - from any viewpoint based in reality and reason - is Scruton's word "hedonism", which he plasters over contemporary humanism, a term of shame?

As my readers know I don't deprecate the activities of art, science, and scholarship. Quite the opposite. Nor do I doubt the importance of fighting injustice. By all means let's put much of our energy into those things, in whatever ways suit our individual talents. But nor should we deprecate the pleasures of the body - the joy of dancing, the liquid velvet of good red wine, the caress of sunshine on our skin, the visual delight of beauty in its all forms, the ecstasy of sex ... I'm not going to bullied into shame about those pleasures. They are wonderful things, there to be enjoyed without reservation.

One of the most deplorable aspects of religion, as we've experienced it historically, is its pathological rejection of sexuality, the body, and ordinary physical pleasures, as if we need some excuse to engage in them. As if we thereby lower ourselves.

Religion has never, except as a strategy of retreat, restricted itself to teachings about morality ... and when it does offer its own distinctive moral teachings, the effect is usually a morality that we'd be better off without.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What should I say to Frank Brennan and his crew?

I'm going to attend a "community roundtable" of the National Human Rights Consultation Committee in a few weeks' time. I have no idea how these things work - how many people go along, how much chance individuals get to present their views, and so on. I suppose I should try to find out, but it may well vary. A lot of these community roundtables are in quite small towns; they may have to do it differently here in a big city.

I guess there's no point in over-preparing, as I may only get to ask one question, or take part in a syndicate group, or something equally frustrating. Still, I've been wondering about what point to hammer if I only get a chance to say one thing.

Should it be my concern about threats to freedom of speech and expression, or my general view that what is required is political and cultural struggle from people who are committed to a defence of basic liberties, or just the importance of the Millian harm principle in liberal democracies? Should it be a warning about trying to constitutionalise the wrong things, or against adopting a mechanism that won't survive constitutional review? Or something else? There are many important issues, and I can't cover more than a tiny fraction of what I put in my written submission.

Maybe I should just seem pleasant and rational ("Seems, Madam?"), and concentrate on commending the written submission ... but I'm still wondering which point to hammer if I only get a chance at one. Problems, problems.

"What Is Transhumanism?"

With Parijata Mackey, I've written a piece called "What Is Transhumanism?", which has been published online at the Exception magazine, a fascinating news magazine based in Portland, Maine.

"The body of thought that deals with enhancement technologies is called transhumanism," we say. "In essence, transhumanists favor using technology to enhance mental and physical human capacities.

"For transhumanists, the human species is about to begin a new form of evolution. Instead of biological evolution – slow processes of survival, reproduction, and adaptation over geological time – it will be powered by technologies that will increasingly work their way inwards, radically transforming our bodies and minds."

Please consider reading the whole article, and if you like it give it a nice rating. If you don't like it, I can only suggest you pretend you haven't read it.

While you're there, have a look around the magazine, which is nicely done indeed.

Monday, March 23, 2009

More good material from Irving

Professor Irving seems to me to be on strong ground when she argues that many new rights are not apt for constitutionalisation.

While I am actually strong on such matters as "sexuality rights", "reproductive rights", "the right to die with dignity", and "environmental rights", I agree to some extent with Irving that that they "rest upon values or claims that are still controversial, and still open to reasonable disagreement."

She says, I think correctly:

They are current topics of public debate. In casting these values as "rights," their supporters seek to make them unassailable and foreclose debate. This is not merely inconsiderate towards those with different perspectives, it is also detrimental to the democratic process which requires open and robust debate about competing values.


Even where it is clear that a matter is a "right" rather than value claim, it needs to be recognized that different rights derive from, and belong to, different fields. Some arise from the natural law tradition. Others are creatures purely of legislation. Some rights are available to the individual alone, others to groups or classes of person; some rest on a distinction between citizens and non-citizens; others are enjoyed by natural persons only, and still others extend also to corporate persons; some are enforceable only against governments, others against private actors as well. Some rights are "negative," taking the form of prohibitions on legislation. Others are "positive," expressed as guarantees that can be asserted against governments.

I agree with this as far as it goes. Indeed, I've always argued that we need to be careful not to confuse fundamental political rights, such as freedom from the state compelling what religion we adopt, with the messy political business of working out the scope of, and exceptions to, anti-discrimination laws giving legal entitlements against private parties.

In my submission to the Human Rights Consultation, I argue as follows in respect of anti-discrimination law:

In some cases, e.g. where there is widespread prejudice, some individuals could suffer from the cumulative decisions even of individuals who do not, taken one by one, possess much power. For example, people from a certain racial background might suffer discrimination at the hands of shop owners and proprietors of similar businesses that supply goods and services to the public. The cumulative effect of many discriminatory acts could have drastic impacts on the welfare of somebody from a widely-despised or disliked background. For this reason, there is merit in enacting legislation that forbids racial discrimination in supplying goods and services to the public. Similarly, there is merit in enacting legislation that forbids racial discrimination in employment. Indeed, there is merit in creating a strong framework of equal opportunity and anti-discrimination law; this has become an accepted function of the state in modern society.

But the details of anti-discrimination law — particularly the issue of where tolerable kinds of discrimination by people in their private lives end, and the need for regulation of various kinds of private power begins — are for the day-to-day political process. Reasonable people and reasonable political parties can disagree about just which transactions should be regulated and how, what grounds of discrimination are important problems within a jurisdiction, what exceptions should be made to anti-discrimination law, and so on. Unlike the exercise of power by the state itself, these are not matters that are apt for constitutionalisation.

Thus, there is legitimate scope in some circumstances for the state to require those who wield intermediate power in society to do so subject to legal rights that are assigned to individual citizens who stand at the weaker ends of power relationships. However, there is no general rule that constitutional limitations on the power of the state should have equivalents whenever individual citizens deal with each other. To imagine otherwise would be to neglect the important difference between the vertical relationship of citizen and state and the horizontal relationships among citizens. It would also show a poor understanding of the sheer complexity of the various power relationships among citizens and other parties that interact beneath the overarching protection of state power. In many cases, there are good reasons to use law to regulate these other power relationships, but reasonable minds will differ on the manner and extent, and the law must be open to detailed amendment from time to time.

However, none of this entails that legislatures should have unlimited power to encroach on our private decision-making in areas such as sexuality and expression. If we are not talking about some kind of controversial right to resources, or against private parties, I see nothing wrong in principle with developing constitutional arrangements that will keep the government from muzzling us or prying into our bedrooms.

Where I agree with Helen Irving

Professor Irving is not opposed to limitations on legislative power as such, or to judicial review to determine whether the legislature has acted within its constitutionally-mandated limits. I agree with this, of course. But there is then a question as to what those limits should be. Generally, this is not addressed in her submission, although she does defend certain rights of procedural fairness.

She objects to certain content going in a Bill of Rights, and on this I also agree with her.

Specifically, she objects to any Bill of Rights whose content requires that judges go beyond the sort of judicial review mentioned above, and "answer political questions and provide legal remedies for controversies concerning policy." For example, she objects to a draft Bill of Rights proposed by the New Matilda campaign, which she describes as providing for rights that extend far beyond civil and political rights, to include a wide range of positive socio-economic rights, albeit with a provision requiring courts to consider costs and the financial capacity of the public sector to provide for such a right. As she says:

Such a provision ... would empower the courts to order governments to submit financial statements, budget papers, and justifications for fiscal policy. The courts would become, effectively, tribunals where judges challenged budget decisions or the costing of public programs. The separation of powers would be severely damaged. The time and cost involved in this process would also seriously hinder the normal work of the courts.

Irving adds:

Every good society should provide the best levels of health and education and housing, the best opportunities for decent and well-paid employment, a clean and healthy environment, and much more. But according to which criteria are we to decide whether these claims have been met? How are we to know whether the resources available have been optimally or equitably allocated?

Again, I concur. As she argues, these are not questions that should be justiciable in courts of law. As I would put it, they are the stuff of day-to-day politics.

Here is how I argued the point in my own submission to the National Human Rights Consultation:

Notoriously, there is no general agreement about what level of overall taxation should be levied, what tax mix is most desirable, or which government programs should be the highest priority. Debate about these issues is the stuff of day-to-day politics, with "left-wing" political parties generally seeking to expand government programs, while "right-wing" wing parties generally seek to contract them. (In fact, this is simplistic since "right-wing" politicians often end up leading high-spending administrations that splurge public revenue on such dubious projects as foreign wars, extreme efforts to suppress the trade in recreational drugs, subsidies to big business, etc.) This is all part of day-to-day politics in a country such as Australia, and I submit that it should not be constitutionalised. At least in Australia's situation, a Bill of Rights need not spell out the role of the state in conducting programs related to such things as housing and education. That role should, of course, continue, but the precise outcomes must be determined through the political process, including the negotiation of party platforms and the regular testing of rival platforms through democratic elections.

As well as being unnecessary and at odds with ordinary political processes in Australia, the constitutionalisation of positive rights to such things as housing and education would not be readily justiciable. While the modern state should gather revenue and provide resources for these programs, its duty to do this is one of imperfect obligation. That is to say, the state has a broad discretion in how the duty is to be performed. Democratic politics assumes this, as the electorate is given the choice of rival sets of policies that are themselves expressed at a fairly vague level. Thus, it is not possible to specify in a document such as the Australian Constitution or a supplementary Bill of Rights exactly what positive steps a government must take in order to fulfil its duty. ...

Finally, on this point, it is not necessary that a nation's constitution spell out the entire role of a modern state. If it did so, it would mention not only the provision of services such as education and housing but also the state's fundamental Hobbesian functions. The apparatus of the state enables large societies to exist and prosper, without the kind of war of all against all feared by Hobbes. It does so by such means as establishing a system of property (taking some resources from the commons and allocating them to individuals or groups), sustaining a market for goods and services, banning most uses of violence to obtain advantage (hence we have laws against murder, rape, armed robbery, and so on, although we leave some limited scope for prowess in violence by permitting heavily-regulated martial sports such as boxing). In order to carry out these roles, the state must spend revenue on such institutions as police forces and criminal courts, but also systems of registration for major items of property such as allotments of land. In addition, it attempts to deter — and where necessary to resist — attacks from foreign enemies, and thus spends revenue on military personnel and equipment.

It might be suggested, with considerable plausibility, that everyone has a "right" that the state provide such things as a system of property, a criminal justice system, the armed forces, and so on. Certainly these things are necessary for large societies to function with internal peace and a degree of security from external attack. However, it is not necessary to spell out rights to these things in a constitution. The moral here is that the role of the state, even its most fundamental role, need not, and should not, be constitutionalised. A document such as the Australian Constitution need not delineate the vast range of governmental responsibilities under contemporary conditions. A subsidiary document such as a Bill of Rights should be restricted to fairly precise specification of those things that the state should not do, but which governments of all persuasions may be tempted to do.

Some of Irving's examples in existing non-entrenched Charters of Rights are worth considering. E.g., the Victorian Charter requires courts to consider whether a person who has "a particular cultural, religious, racial or linguistic background" has been denied "the right, in community with other persons of that background, to enjoy his or her culture, to declare and practise his or her religion and to use his or her language." I don't think that the objection that Irving makes to this is so clear-cut as her objection to, say, a constitutional right to something as open-ended as good health or education or housing. Nonetheless, it is a tricky question for the courts. It requires an investigation of social and historical issues to determine what "backgounds" exist and whether a person has such a "background".

Again, the ACT Human Rights Act states: "[t]he family is the natural and basic group unit of society and is entitled to be protected by society."

Irving responds:

This provision requires the courts to resolve questions about the identity of the family and the indicia of its integrity, notwithstanding the fact that the family is social institution, the character of which has long fascinated and taxed ethnographers and social historians. Again, these are not judicial inquiries.

My difficulty is more that this is an example of a contentious anthropological cum moral claim being given the force of law.

Irving suggests that many people who advocate a Bill of Rights hold up the redress of indigenous disadvantage as an example. I agree with her that this is not a good use for a Bill of Rights. It is not a simple matter to draft a provision protecting indigenous people from adverse government actions when it is controversial, even among indigenous people, just which actions are adverse. For example, it is not clear whether, on balance, the current Commonwealth Intervention is adverse or the opposite. That is a matter of political opinion that is not readily, or appropriately, justiciable. As Irving says:

A court cannot determine whether a highly-complex set of processes and actions, based on detailed legislative and administrative schemes, with reference to conduct that is ongoing and future-oriented, is or is not “adverse.” This is a matter for political debate, for public discussion and input, for fine-tuning, for long-term planning, for compromise, for balancing of interests, for hard decisions about means and ends and resources. In short, the sorts of things that are done in the political realm.

But none of this amounts to an objection to the kind of Bill of Rights that I want: a constitutionally-entrenched limitation on the ability of legislatures to abridge freedom of speech and expression - and not just political speech - or other basic negative rights such as freedom of belief and conscience. Such provisions have proved workable in, for example, the US and Canada. There is no reason why they should not be here in Australia. Furthermore, with governments that are continually finding new ways to attack freedom of speech and expression, we could certainly do with such provisions.

50 Voices of Disbelief at Amazon

50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists now has its own page at Amazon, with an announced publication date of 10 September 2009. You can register to be informed when the book is actually published.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Helen Irving on constitutional rights

I'm currently reading the submission made by Professor Helen Irving, of the University of Sydney's Law School, to the National Human Rights Consultation Committee.

This is a well-argued document that displays, as one would expect, a strong grasp of Australian constitutional law. I find much to agree with and much to disagree with, but it's a document that's worthy of examination and respect. It is compatible with my own submission at least to the extent that Professor Irving's arguments against the constitutionalisation of positive economic rights are along similar lines to mine (in my own submission to the Committee), which has not appeared, as yet, on the Committee's website. I also agree with her view that one popular model for reform that is doing the rounds would be unconstitutional in requiring the High Court to give advisory opinions, contrary to the requirements of Chapter III of the Constitution. I've dealt with this in my own submission.

However, the general viewpoint offered is, all in all, far more conservative than my own.

I'll come back to Professor Irving's submission over the next couple of days and make a few comments to elaborate on the above, but meanwhile, without embracing its specific recommendations, I do draw attention to it as a legally-solid and useful contribution to the debate.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Religious vilification gig - reminder

I'm reminding myslf, and other readers, that on 26 March 2009 I'll be talking to the Humanist Society on the topic "Liberalism, humanism, and freedom of speech: The trouble with religious vilification laws".

The venue is Balwyn Library, 336 Whitehorse Road, Balwyn (Melway map reference 46 E8). This is free, but a gold coin donation at the door is encouraged, No booking is required; just turn up at 8 pm.

No respect

Here is Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, complaining about the disrespectful treatment of poor Pope Ratzinger in a British newspaper. I've  provided a copy of the cartoon that the Cardinal is referring to.

Sir, I was appalled at the tasteless cartoon depicting Pope Benedict XVI. No newspaper should show such disrespect to a person who is held in high esteem by a large proportion of Christians in the world. To pillory the Pope in this way is totally unacceptable. As to what Pope Benedict said, it would be wiser for people to look at the issues that he was raising in his remarks. It is certainly true that the widespread distribution of condoms can run the risk of greater promiscuity and that the best way to combat the Aids epidemic is by healthcare, education and fidelity in married life. Even if people do not accept the Church’s teaching in this matter, it is a well-known fact that the greatest contribution to health care for those living with Aids in Africa is given by the Catholic Church. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor Archbishop of Westminster 

As it happens, I support the pope's freedom of speech. For example, I do not want him jailed for a crime against humanity for urging that condoms not be used in Africa to combat the AIDS crisis. Still, I can definitely see the problem with this, given the enormous loss of life that may follow if the Pope's advice is taken seriously. 

I defend freedom of speech consistently, partly on the basis that there are many ways to respond to bad speech other than by simply suppressing it. One such way is by treating it - and its perpetrators - to ridicule. There are other ways, too, such as (in this case) pressing for renewed efforts to provide condoms in Africa. All in all, though, the ridicule of ridiculous doctrines is one very good response to them. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor should be grateful that he lives in a liberal democracy where free speech is protected, and that free speech still has some acceptance as an international norm, despite the best efforts of the Vatican to undermine it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

New articles at Journal of Evolution and Technology

The Journal of Evolution and Technology has published new articles by Stefan Lorenz Sorgner and Austin Corbett.

In "Nietzsche, the Overhuman, and Transhumanism", Sorgner argues that there are significant similarities between transhumanism's concept of the posthuman and the Nietzschean concept of the overhuman. He compares these two concepts, focusing more on their similarities than their differences (by contrast to an earlier discussion by Nick Bostrom). At the same time, he seeks to identify a dimension of Nietzsche's though that is lacking in transhumanism.

"Beyond Ghost in the (Human) Shell" , by Austin Corbett deals with the image of the cyborg, drawing on the work of Donna Haraway. In the light of this, Corbett examines the discourses of humanity, modernity, Japan, and technology. He traces the early history of the cyborg through to modern conceptions in Haraway's work and elsewhere, then examines the idea in the Ghost in the Shell mythos, particularly Kenji Kamiyama’s 2002-2003 TV series Kōkaku Kidōtai Sutando Arōn Konpurekkusu (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex).

These articles illustrate the breadth of JET's cross-disciplinary interests in a topics that illuminate the human or posthuman future.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wilkins on internet censorship

Over at his Australia-related blog, The Drought Resistant Philosopher, as opposed to his blog at Scienceblogs, Evolving Thoughts, Aussie philosopher John Wilkins has published an outstanding post on the threat of internet censorship.

"Yes," he says, "I object to the fact that clean feeds are impracticable, will degrade internet performance, and not do what they set out to do (which is protect children), but fundamentally the main reason for not adopting them is that it gives power to governments and their instruments to decide sub rosa what we can and cannot see. Suppose that the present government and all the members of the department of telecommunications are exemplary individuals who not only have our best interests at heart, but do so intelligently and effectively. Can we guarantee that the next government, or a much later bureaucracy, will consist of these people? Not at all, which is why checks and balances are a crucial aspect of democratic government."

Go and have a look at the whole post to see the full development of his argument. This is one of the best discussions that I've seen of this subject to date. Better still, I'm pleased to see how much John has been weighing in of late in opposition to the creeping moralism - even a tendency to theocracy-lite - in current Australian politics.

OMG, we survived another killer earthquake this afternoon

What's the world coming to when we keep getting these 4-point-something earthquakes in Melbourne of all places? Are the plagues of locusts and flies next? What about the deaths of our first-born?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

My submission to the National Human Rights Consultation Committee

I've decided, for the sake of debate, to publish my entire submission to the National Human Rights Consultation Committee - all 55,000 words of it - on the internet. I hope this document is useful, especially for others who are concerned to defend freedom of speech and individual liberty. I'm arrogant enough to feel sure that it could be a valuable resource, if used well.

As I indicate towards the end, it is more a Green Paper than a White Paper - though I've settled on a nice yellow background for the moment. I.e., I am open to correction and to refining my views as this exercise continues.

In that sense, it's a work in progress. Still, I believe that it's worthwhile as a contribution to the debate and I hope that it attracts some readers. The various philosophical and legal principles, and the various statutes and cases, have been researched with as much diligence as I could manage at fairly short notice, and I believe that they are generally described accurately. Fortunately, I was not starting from scratch.

Do write to me if you think anything needs to be corrected as the debate goes on, or feel free to discuss it here.

This is not good enough - freedom of religion and belief project to publish "selection" of submissions

The freedom of religion and belief project has now announced that it received a total of 1937 submissions from organisations and individuals. That's a lot, so it's reasonable that it is taking some time for those concerned to check the submissions prior to publication.

However, they now say that they will publish all submissions from organisations that comply with their (vague and manipulable) guidelines. But they will only publish a "representative" selection of submissions from individuals. That is not good enough. We need a data base of all submissions to be available to the public so that we can do our own research on it and draw our own conclusions. It is not acceptable that the project can give its own, possibly impressionistic or biased, account of what was "representative". Openness and accountability require that all submissions be published unless they were expressly given in confidence.

Edit: I've now sent the following (polite) email to protest the decision (with the usual galling typo or two corrected in this version):

Dear project members,


I am writing to express my dismay at the decision to publish only a selection of individual submissions that are considered to be "representative" of the opinions that have been expressed. This breaks faith with members of the public who provided submissions in the expectation that they would be published. In fairness, you might respond that this was probably not an important factor in people's minds. However, you can't be sure of this.

More importantly, your decision creates a situation where we must all take on trust what was or was not "representative". We need a data base of all submissions to be available to the public, so that we can do our own research on it and draw our own conclusions. I have read all submissions from individuals that have been published so far, and have been able to draw certain inferences (e.g. some submissions are very similarly worded, suggesting an organised campaign by evangelical organisations). I will not be able to continue to draw inferences such as this unless all submissions are published. If only a "representative" selection (as judged by you, with inevitable biases no matter how objective you attempt to be) is published, much of the value of the data will be lost. It will of far less value to other researchers, and your own eventual report will be less authoritative.

In the interests of openness and accountability, I urge you to reconsider this decision.

Yours sincerely,

Russell Blackford

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Origins of natural evil (humour)

Now and then I find something over at Pharyngula that I just have to share. PZ Myers claims that this is the genuine abstract of an academic paper (apparently by an academic at a fundamentalist college in the US). I just love it, especially scenario 1., even if (contrary to information from the commenters at Pharyngula) it turns out to be a hoax. PZ loves the "Satan et. al.", which sounds like an article by the Prince of Darkness and his colleagues.

Here, for your enjoyment:


The Origins of Natural Evil
Gordon Wilson
New St. Andrews College

In a cursory survey of life it is obvious that a vast number of species spanning most kingdoms and phyla have features that are teleologically designed to deal out disease and/or death. Many pathogens, parasites, and predators have sophisticated genetic, morphological, and behavioral arsenals (natural evil) that clearly testify to the God's eternal power and divine nature (Romans 1: 20), i.e. they are not the result of mutation and natural mutation.

These range from the bacterial type III secretion systems, the cnidarian nematocysts, the toxoglossate radula and apparatus of Conus, the parasitic physiology of Wuchereria bancrofti, the piercing/sucking mouthparts of predaceous insects, and the solenoglyphous skull, pit organs, and venom apparatus of pit vipers. Scripture states that: 1) every green plant was given for food (Genesis 1:30), 2) death and disease are a consequence of sin (Genesis 2:17), and 3) creation was completed on the sixth day (Genesis 2:1). The following six scenarios attempt to explain the presence of natural evil in the biological world from a young earth creationist framework. I will then assess them in light of these aforementioned biblical truths.

At creation creatures that were to become pathogens, parasites, and predators:

1. had dual gene sets: (such as in holometabola: larva, pupa, and adult) one gene set for benign morphology and behavior (sinless contingency) and one for malignant morphology and behavior (Fall contingency) with only the benign genes sets expressed prior to the Fall.

2. had malignant morphological gene sets expressed for an imminent preordained (or fore-known) Fall, with no usage prior to the Fall. Malignant behavioral gene sets expressed after the Fall.

3. had the same malignant morphology before and after the Fall, however benign usage was normative before the Fall. After the Fall micro-evolutionary factors altered benign behavior into malignant behavior.

4. were morphologically and behaviorally benign and then subsequent to the Fall malignant genes were designed, created, and incorporated into the genome of certain creatures transforming them into pathogens, parasites, and predators.

5. were subject to random mutation and natural selection after the Fall transforming their benign gene sets into malignant gene sets. The latter were not designed by God.

6. were completely benign in all respects but at the Fall the enemy (Satan, et. al.) engaged in post-Fall genetic modification and/or bestiality that resulted in creatures with malignant behavior and morphology.

I will argue that the two scenarios that are the most harmonious with both scripture and the scientific data are 1) and 2). Any scenario attributing the presence of these highly complex morphological and behavioral arsenals to random mutation and natural selection is granting creative powers to mindless processes (this is no better than atheistic evolution). Any scenario that attributes these complex arsenals to God's creative power yet shifts their time of origin to a post-Fall creative act, contradicts the finished creation on day six. Finally, any scenario that attributes these complex arsenals to Satan et. al., attributes too much creative power and intelligence to the powers of darkness.


So now you know how to reconcile the existence of a loving and providential God with the existence of all those pesky parasites and carnivores. Easy, wasn't it?

Short report on Watchmen - and an open thread

I loved the movie version of Watchmen, which Jenny and I saw yesterday. I loved the characters, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the substantial fidelity to the original graphic novel (though the changed ending was actually better ... without really changing the tone and structure in any way), the uncompromising (if, perhaps, unduly pessimistic) vision of human nature and of what superhuman individuals would be up against if they wanted to make real change.

Random observations:

It's often said that Dr Manhattan is the only character with real super powers - but that wasn't how it looked in the movie. Many of the moves made by Rorschach and the other less powerful superheroes were beyond what even an Olympic athlete could do, and this wasn't just a Hollywood convention. It was made quite explicit in the way stationary jumps, for example, were filmed. At a higher level of power, Ozymandias, the Germanic ubermensch, was clearly far beyond any human level in his strength and speed (leaving aside his claim to be the most intelligent man in the world).

There was no explanation of this, although it didn't worrry me. I'm happy to accept that there are human beings with superhuman levels of strength, agility, etc., within the diegesis of the movie.

I'm seriously wondering how a movie like this could have received an R rating in the US. Sure, there's a darkness of vision that may not be suitable for little kids, but a PG rating would have been more appropriate. There's one very low-level sex scene, some anodyne nudity, and a lot of comic-book-style violence. So?

I loved the moral ambiguity that surrounded all of the main characters ... for different reasons. Dr Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorschach, Silk Spectre (both senior and junior), Nite Owl, and the Comedian are all morally ambiguous.

I adored the genetically-engineered lynx! I want one.

I'm wondering whether anyone else has noticed a resemblance between Dr Manhattan and Winston Niles Rumfoord in Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan. I'm sure a google search would tell me, but I'll let Blake Stacey or one of my other regular readers do it.

I totally loved the soundtrack. It really brought back the 1980s.

This is just a quick post, in lieu of a more considered one. lol Please discuss this or anything else that's on your mind.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Freedom of religion and belief site

I see that, as of today, this still has not been updated beyond the submissions received as of 9 January 2009. I've heard around the traps that the project ended up receiving an enormous number (as in 1500, or something) of submissions, though I imagine that a lot of them were only a page, from what we've seen so far.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Formally graduating on 26 March

I'll be formally graduating (in absentia) on 26 March 2009 - this is now confirmed on Monash University's graduations page. So I'll soon be out of that limbo where I sort of have my PhD in philosophy ... but not strictly speaking because I haven't yet graduated. That'll be nice.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New issue of JET taking shape

Over the next few days we'll be publishing another two articles in The Journal of Evolution and Technology: a piece by Austin Corbett on the complex Ghost in the Shell mythos; and an article by Nietzsche scholar Stefan Lorenz Sorgner on the relationship between Nietzsche and transhumanism.

I'll report further as these are published. With some other promising material under discussion, issue 20(1) will be both strong and diverse.

We've almost caught up with ourselves at JET! While we're still not as timely in reviewing articles as we'd like to be, and we apologise to one or two people who may be feeling a bit frustrated by now, we're gradually getting this under control. Importantly, we're very close to clearing our backlog of work, which will make things much easier, and we're normally publishing material as soon as it's ready ... as opposed to waiting until an entire issue is ready to be published at once.

I'll take another opportunity to urge interested authors to have a good look at our website - http://jetpress.org/ - and consider JET as a possible home for your best work on the human or posthuman future.

My name is NOT "Russel Blackford"

Publishers take note. My name is "Russell Blackford". That's "Russell" spelled in the ordinary way with two L's.

For the third time in the past year or so, I've just had a publication of some importance - and that I would otherwise have taken pride in - ruined when the publisher, for some totally unknown reason, decided to spell my name as "Russel Blackford" ... despite my name being spelled correctly on all the correspondence, the copy, etc. I have no idea how this happens, but I'm fed up with it. I'm not going to name the culprits, but PLEASE, from now on, all publishers, spell my goddamn name correctly.

I do not want my hard work thrown away. I don't want it attributed to some other person who does not exist; I do want my work to be discoverable if somebody googles for my name; I do want my name to come up correctly if somebody searches on terms relevant to the subject matter; I don't want confusion about my identity (or whether there may be two people with similar names, or whatever people are thinking by now).

It's just not that difficult. It's not as if it's a rare spelling or that unusual a first name. Is it asking too much for professional people in the publishing industry to get such an important and easy thing right?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Gig reminder - "Voices of Disbelief"

Reminder to self (and anyone else): I'll be speaking tomorrow night at the Unitarian Hall in Grey Street, East Melbourne, on the topic "Voices of Disbelief". This gig is for the Atheist Society, and is a first opportunity to do some public promotion of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. It's also an opportunity to do a bit more, such as asking why such books are currently needed and whether they just preach to the choir.

Come along if interested.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Atheists and agnostics

Often, in discussions of atheism on the internet, an issue arises about the distinction between atheism and agnosticism. Sometimes it takes the form of an atheist pressing someone who prefers to call herself "an agnostic" to accept the label of "atheist". Personally, I think that people should label themselves how they wish, or avoid labels if they want (and can). Still, this issue arises very commonly: I won't even start to provide links to prove it; you'll have to take my word for it, if you haven't had the same experience. So, maybe it's worth trying to get the distinction clear.

First, it seems that there is an overlap between atheism and agnosticism. As I understand it, an agnostic is someone who claims to lack knowledge (as to the existence of God - though the expression is sometimes extended by analogy as in "I'm agnostic about whether Obama made a good choice for Secretary of State").

Theists can't also be agnostic, or if I'm wrong and there is some overlap between theism and agnosticism it certainly cannot be typical. Many theists do claim to have knowledge, even if they also claim that knowledge can be based on something like a leap of faith or the hearing of an inner voice, or the possession of a supposedly innate conviction. They may be wrong about all this - I believe that they are - but they do claim to have knowledge of the existence of their god of choice. Putting it another way, they believe that their belief in the existence of this being is appropriately justified.

As for atheists, I work with the concept that an atheist is someone who has no belief that God or gods exist. Such a person may also say that they do not have knowledge that these beings don't exist. They believe there's no justification for a confident claim either way. There's no inconsistency between being an atheist and also being an agnostic in those senses.

Still, some atheists make stronger claims. To do so, it is not necessary to claim anything as strong as certainty. You can have an appropriately justified belief that falls well short of certainty. It seems to me that you can have an appropriately justified belief that at least some gods don't exist, and at the same time you can have the belief that your belief is justified, so you express it with confidence. E.g., I have what I consider an appropriately justified belief that Zeus does not exist - there is plenty of evidence that Zeus is man-made, essentially a fictional character. For example, the existence of this being is not required to explain lightning and rain, no such being has ever been reliably encountered on Mount Olympus or anywhere else, the stories relating to Zeus are implausible beyond their cultural setting (why is the lifestyle of this being such an ancient Greek one?), and so on. Attempts to save the existence of Zeus from such criticisms would appear ad hoc and even desperate, despite the fact that it is logically possible that a being something like this exists somewhere in the Universe.

In short, I confidently deny Zeus's existence. I think I have appropriate justification for denying that any such being exists. The same applies to all the gods of pagan mythology.

I also confidently deny the existence of anything remotely like the God described in the Old Testament, and on pretty similar grounds to my denial of the existence of Zeus (though the grounds won't always be the same - e.g., on some conceptions of the Old Testament God, he is supposed to have caused events that we can confidently say never happened, such as Noah's flood).

Likewise, though for more philosophical reasons, I confidently deny the existence of the God(s) described in various popular accounts of Christianity. I also deny the existence of the more abstract God of the orthodox Abrahamic tradition of philosophical theology, insofar as this being is supposed to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and also loving and providential. Here, my justification may not be as strong, but the evidence is so strongly against the existence of this being that confidence of its non-existence strikes me as justified. Attempts to get around problems such as the traditional Problem of Evil, the hiddenness of this god, and so on, strike me as ad hoc and desperate. When I throw up my hands and say Unbelievable!, I think this is a rational response.

I'm less sure what to say about the gods of deism and pantheism. I don't believe they exist, so I am an atheist about them in at least that weak sense. It also strikes me that the grounds for claiming they exist are rather weak, and there's an appearance of wishful thinking, or of heuristic bias in favour of seeking ultimate explanations that are couched in terms of agency. Still, I would feel less confident about denying the existence of such beings. When we reach the far ends of explanation for various phenomena, we may think that positing, say, a deist God is just ad hoc, an unnecessary science stopper. On the other hand, we just don't know enough about the ultimate answers to philosophical questions to rule out the existence of the deist God (or, I suppose, the pantheist one).

On balance, I am actually prepared to deny the existence of the deist and pantheist gods, but with a lower level of confidence because I have a lower level of justification for concluding that these beings don't existence. They probably don't, but I could not put a level of probability on it.

None of this worries me too much, because even if I'm wrong and it turns out that such a being exists it can't make any difference to how I live my life. The deist and pantheist gods do not have opinions about, for example, who I've slept with, whether it was a good idea to eat pork and drink wine, and so on. Nor would their existence affect the merit of any of the work I've done as a writer, a philosopher, and so on. Nor would it restore the authority of any popes or priests, whose authority depends on the truth of the actual religions they profess.

If the deist or pantheist god turns out to exist after all, I can live with it. Insofar as some Christians these days are really just deists or pantheists, I don't see why I should try to "convert" them to my atheist position on the deist and pantheist gods. It doesn't really matter that much.

The gods that matter are the ones that want to interfere in our lives, the ones whose bidding is carried out by all the presbyters and pulpiteers. I'm talking, in particular, about the Old Testament Yahweh or Jehovah, the Trinitarian godhead of orthodox Christianity, the deities of orthodox theologians and popular preachers, and about Allah, as depicted in the Koran. We can confidently deny the existence of all those gods, and the authority of anyone who claims to be expert in what those gods think about what we should do and how we should live.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Whoa, we just had an earthquake!


Well ... it was only a little tremor, and I doubt that there was any damage done anywhere, but Melbourne had a small earth tremor about a quarter of an hour ago. It was a bit freaky sitting here watching everything shaking for what was probably only a few seconds but seemed to go on for quite a long time.

No news on the net about it yet, but I gather there was just something on ABC Radio.

Edit: Here's one story, though a bit misleading in its form as I write: we felt the tremor here, as south as you can go in Melbourne - it wasn't just the north and north-east.

Further edit: Here's some better information.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

165 and counting

About this time last night I created a Facebook group for Voices of Disbelief. As of a couple of minutes ago, we'd already reached 165 members. Hooray for us. Now let's see how high we can go.

Thanks to Roy N. for the great image. This isn't the cover, which has yet to be designed, but it's excellent for the Facebook group.

Edit: as of 23 March, we are approaching 600 members!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The irrationality of the "true faith-head"

I'll start by explaining how even "true faith-heads" can be sort of rational.

If two people start with totally different fundamental assumptions, one will never convince the other. I mean truly fundamental assumptions, such as assumptions about what even counts as evidence. Because of this, the most extreme religious dogmatist, no matter how stubborn, may not suffer any psychiatric illness or make any egregious error of deductive reasoning.

Note that the situation of such people relative to others is not symmetrical. In our everyday lives, we have standards of evidence that most people - religious or otherwise - accept. E.g. the fact that I can see no hippopotamus in my study when I look around is good evidence that there is no such hippopotamus in my study. If my lovely Significant Other pops in here in a minute, I can ask her if she sees one, but she'll think I've lost my mind (or, more likely, that I'm asking her as part of a philosophical thought experiment). Outside of religion, we have no trouble reaching consensus on most everyday issues because we use common standards of evidence and possess similar powers of observation.

Science typically deals with things that can't be observed directly with our unaugmented senses - often because these things are very small or very far away or no longer in existence. We have traces and indirect clues, but no one has ever observed, say, a brachiosaurus, only certain fossilised bones (and even the interpretation of them as fossilised bones requires a body of theory). But science uses methods that are continuous with our usual methods for inquiring rationally into the world around us. Over the past four hundred years, science has been able to tell us much about the world beyond observation by our unaugmented senses. It delivers reliable knowledge by using such methods as scientific instruments, highly precise modelling, conducting experiments that control for extraneous variables, using convergence of results from many lines of inquiry. Most of these are methods that we use in everyday life, but outside of science we don't always need to be so rigorous because everyday questions can often be resolved just by observing.

Applying ordinary kinds of reasoning from everyday life and from scientific inquiry, we can answer many questions. People who disagree can be brought to change their minds if the evidence is provided to them. Over time, science tends to converge on answers and to develop well-corroborated theoretical knowledge that is unlikely ever to be overturned, such as the knowledge that life on Earth evolved over hundreds of millions of years. That doesn't mean that the scientific image of the world is ever complete; there's always new stuff to find out. Still, there are many things that we can now be confident about - the approximate age of the Earth, the evolutionary explanation for the diversity of life and the apparent purposiveness of adaptations such as the eyes, the descent of Homo sapiens from earlier primates, and so on.

The people who can't be argued out of their position are those who have certain substantive beliefs about the world that go psychologically deeper than their commitment to ordinary standards of evidence. This certainly includes some religious people - the so-called true faith-heads. If someone believes doctrine X in that way, and is then confronted with good evidence (by ordinary standards) for ~X, she has many options including the option of claiming that ordinary standards of evidence are wrong or inapplicable. Someone like that can enjoy a hermetically-sealed worldview. No argument based on evidence can ever penetrate it. 

But notice that this person need never be irrational in the sense of refusing to apply the basic rules of deductive logic, or in the sense of refusing to apply ordinary standards of evidence in her everyday non-religious life. Nor need she be suffering anything like a psychiatric illness. Still, there's a sense in which irrationality is present.

Most atheists are open to evidence that God exists if ordinary evidence is supplied. In fact, there'd probably be no atheists around in Western countries if diluvian geology had turned out to be correct - i.e., if dating methods pointed to an age of the Earth of 6000 years, and if the fossil record and the facts about rock formation turned out to be consistent with a mass extinction in Noah's flood and the formation of the rocks and the fossil record at the time. Even now, there is probably evidence that could (in principle) come in to persuade an atheist to change her mind, though the historical record of the religionists is so dreadful that it will now take something remarkably compelling.

True faith-heads, by contrast, are immune to evidence. Since they are committed to certain substantive theological claims more deeply than they are to ordinary standards of evidence, they will even develop revised evidentiary standards if that is the only way out. In between, they'll clutch at all sorts of propositions that seem unhinged by ordinary standards. E.g., we see YEC Christians committed to a 6000-year-old Earth who will admit that the Earth looks 4 to 5 billion years old (using various dating methods)... but of course, God had His reasons for making it look that way when He created it 6000 years ago. One such person is currently arguing the toss about this over on Richard Dawkins' site. I can't disprove what he is claiming, but when it's viewed from outside it's plainly unacceptable.

There's no arguing with such people. All you can do is point out how they think and why that kind of thinking should not be given any credibility or respect by anyone who isn't already infected with it. You can also point out how arbitrary the deep assumptions that these people make really are and how baroque their worldview eventually becomes when they are pressed. But, in the end, they either see how unsatisfactory the entire picture is or they don't. No single argument can penetrate their sealed-off view of the world.

How many religious folk are true faith-heads in this sense? Well, I suspect it's a kind of sliding scale. It seems to me that it would be very difficult for a sincere and inquiring person to hang on to some religious doctrines unless they go very deep in her set of beliefs. It may take a lot of true faith-headedness to stand up for Young Earth Creationism in the face of all the scientific evidence. But I suspect that a fair amount is required even for belief in a loving and providential (and all-powerful, all-knowing) God. There is always a way out, to seal off such beliefs from ordinary standards of evidence, but if those standards are accepted it is not believable that such a being would have allowed the millions of years (and enormous amounts of misery in the animal world) needed to evolve us, or would have made its own presence in the world so un-apparent, or would have intervened at such a late stage in human history.

Now, one can argue that God must have had a reason for these things. E.g., maybe God is so un-apparent because He values belief in his existence by those who believe despite the lack of evidence. Maybe those who believe in God are just those whom God has spoken to personally. Why not speak personally to everyone then? Well, maybe only some are receptive to the message (and God would know who they are). Why not make everyone receptive to the message, if you happen to be God? Well maybe you have a choice, if you happen to be human, whether or not you're receptive. Why not make all of us so that, given such a choice, we'll want to be receptive? Well, free will doesn't work like that...

By now we're moving toward a baroque and implausible idea of free will, what it means to choose to be receptive to a message from God Himself, and so on, but for the dogmatist, there's always room to move. 

Some people are beyond arguments based on ordinary standards of evidence, and they cannot be reached. The most we can hope is that they will eventually work out that the entire edifice looks wildly implausible from outside, and that that's a good reason to reject it in toto, especially if they realise that the deep assumptions they have been making were shaped by culture and are really rather arbitrary. If they don't ever get to that point - one that involves seeing through the effect of their own socialisation - we can merely point out to others that there's no reason to give any special respect to the beliefs of these people. There's no reason to adopt those beliefs yourself unless you already share the assumptions of the faith-heads. The hermetic sealing keeps ideas in as well as out.

Again, the sort of irrationality involved need not include making a clear mistake of logic or being unable to navigate safely around the world. It needn't include hearing voices or anything of that sort. Nonetheless, it involves distorting your thinking by giving an unjustified place to certain arbitrary assumptions that other people would not (and should not) make on the basis of ordinary standards of evidence. Those assumptions are used as premises, in effect, rather than drawn as conclusions from everyday observation or well-corroborated scientific theory. This is not ordinary irrationality, and yet there's a point in calling it irrational.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Voices of Disbelief page

I've just updated my page for what I should now call 50 Voices of Disbelief. This page is still rather basic, but I'll continue to update it as we go, and perhaps it will ultimately take a more whiz-bang form. At the moment, it just consolidates the basic information about the book, but it was badly in need of updating from the rudimentary form that it took about this time last year.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Great interview with Jenny

Here's a great new interview with Jenny at Specusphere. This also stand as a preview of her book, The Priestess and the Slave, which will be published next month from Hadley Rille.

Copy edits checked for Voices of Disbelief

Udo Schuklenk and I have done our check on the copyediting of Voices of Disbelief. The checked manuscript is now back with the publisher, and hopefully we won't have too many problems between now and the next phase. In about April, we should receive page proofs, at which point it will be a matter of fixing up any typos that have slipped through so far ... plus the task of compiling an index, which will be a non-trivial one with a book like this.

The book is on target to be published in September 2009, with a final title of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.

Here's a roll-call of contributors and essays, in the order of appearance in the book:

Introduction: Now More Important than Ever – Voices of Reason — Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk

Unbelievable! — Russell Blackford

My “Bye Bull” Story — Margaret Downey

How benevolent is God? – An argument from suffering to atheism — Nicholas Everitt

A Deal-breaker — Ophelia Benson

Why Am I a Nonbeliever? – I Wonder... — J. L. Schellenberg

Wicked or Dead? Reflections on the moral character and existential status of God — John Harris

Religious Belief and Self-Deception — Adèle Mercier

The Coming of Disbelief — J.J.C. Smart

What I Believe —Graham Oppy

Too Good to Be True, Too Obscure to Explain: The Cognitive Shortcomings of Belief in God — Thomas W. Clark

How to Think About God: Theism, Atheism, and Science — Michael Shermer

A Magician Looks at Religion — James Randi

Confessions of a Kindergarten Leper — Emma Tom

Beyond Disbelief — Philip Kitcher

An ambivalent nonbelief — Taner Edis

Why Not? — Sean M. Carroll

Godless Cosmology — Victor J. Stenger

Unanswered Prayers — Christine Overall

Beyond Faith and Opinion — Damien Broderick

Could it be pretty obvious there’s no God? — Stephen Law

Atheist, obviously — Julian Baggini

Why I am Not a Believer — A.C. Grayling

Evil and Me — Gregory Benford

Who’s Unhappy? — Lori Lipman Brown

Reasons to be Faithless — Sheila A.M. McLean

Three Stages of Disbelief — Julian Savulescu

Born Again, Briefly — Greg Egan

Cold Comfort — Ross Upshur

The Accidental Exorcist — Austin Dacey

Atheist Out of the Foxhole — Joe Haldeman

The Unconditional Love of Reality — Dale McGowan

Antinomies — Jack Dann

Giving up ghosts and gods — Susan Blackmore

Some thoughts on why I am an atheist — Tamas Pataki

No Gods, Please! — Laura Purdy

Welcome Me Back to the World of the Thinking — Kelly O'Connor

Kicking Religion Goodbye … — Peter Adegoke

On credenda — Miguel Kottow

“Not even start to ignore those questions!” A voice of disbelief in a different key — Frieder Otto Wolf

Imagine No Religion — Edgar Dahl

Humanism as Religion: An Indian Alternative — Sumitra Padmanabhan

Why I am NOT a theist — Prabir Ghosh

When the Hezbollah came to my school — Maryam Namazie

Evolutionary Noise, not Signal from Above — Athena Andreadis

Gods Inside — Michael R. Rose and John P. Phelan

Why Morality Doesn’t Need Religion — Peter Singer and Marc Hauser

Doctor Who and the Legacy of Rationalism — Sean Williams

My non-religious life: A journey from superstition to rationalism — Peter Tatchell

Helping People to Think Critically About Their Religious Beliefs — Michael Tooley

Human Self-Determination, Biomedical Progress, and God — Udo Schuklenk

Boycott Kelloggs

See this wonderful open letter to Kelloggs by Joe Rogan. It's funny, but it has a serious point. Boycott Kelloggs for as a long as you can tear yourself away from its addictive products.