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).

Sunday, October 31, 2010


I've accidentally deleted or misfiled the email address/contact details for a publicist from Scribe who wanted some information (the email I seem to have lost was sent to all contributors).

Can someone please forward me the email so I can respond to it? I'd like to help out but have been kinda stymied for the last week or so.


Some initial information on The Australian Book of Atheism

Over at Gladly, The Cross-Eyed Bear, Chrys Stevenson says:

Much excitement! I received my advance copy of “The Australian Book of Atheism” last night. Boy, it’s big! Even more exciting, we’ve just heard that it’s been reviewed in Bookseller + Publisher, the bible of the Australian book trade, and awarded a 5 star (out of 5 star) rating!

The book will be released into all good bookstores on 22 November (e.g. Booktopia, ABC Shops, Borders, Readings) and can also be pre-ordered from Embiggen Books [...].

I'm looking forward to receiving my author's copy of this collection - hopefully very soon if Chrys already has hers.

I have books to read

I'm reminded by Jerry Coyne's post over here. There's still some material that I really need to read as I'm completing and fine-tuning (like one of those cosmic designer-gods) my book on freedom of religion. In addition, I need to re-read the new Nicholas Agar book, Humanity's End, so I can get its arguments clearer in my mind for the sake of writing a formal review.

Over the next couple of months, I also need to read, or re-read, all of Thomas Pynchon's novels so I can write a talk about Pynchon early in the New Year. That's daunting because some of those books are HUGE, as well as being dense and complex. Back in the day, my original PhD was largely about Pynchon, but that was, well, back in the day. More specifically, it was a day a long, long time ago.

But my next reading task, over the next few evenings, will be the new Sam Harris book, The Moral Landscape. For various reasons, I need to get a good intellectual grip on this one.

Edmund Standing on academic theology

This piece by Edmund Standing (whose forays onto the internet I always enjoy) deserves more than a placeholder, though that's all I can give it right this moment. I did enjoy reading it - he excoriates post-this-post-that theology. Of course, a lot of post-this-post-that thinking has much to answer for, not just theology.


Postmodern theology can be seen to have really got underway in the early ’80s, and its early proponents seemed positively intoxicated by the ideas that at that time were the latest trend in Humanities thought. Carl A Raschke’s 1982 article ‘The Deconstruction of God’ offers a perfect example of this kind of writing. Raschke’s article is filled with hyperbole and an almost orgasmic celebration of deconstruction and the ‘death of God’, with claims that deconstruction is ‘the immolation of the transcendental signified’, ‘the dance of death upon the tomb of God’, and ‘the eschatology of the twenty-five-hundred-year epoch of logos’ (Raschke 1982: 26; 28; 31). Interestingly, all this talk of the ‘death of God’ was not, however, as in Nietzsche’s writings, an embrace of atheism. On the contrary, rational thought was under attack as much as the notion of God. Raschke claimed that ‘[d]econstruction is the revelation of the inner vacuity of the much touted “modern” outlook’  and that  ‘the idols of the secular marketplace have a tinny ring’ (2-3).

Farewell, Elena Dementieva

One of the professional atheletes who has given me most enjoyment, Russian tennis player Elena Dementieva, has announced her retirement at the current tour championships going on at the moment in Doha. Dementieva has one of the most colourful games among the women on the tour, with huge groundstrokes but generally a rather weak and erratic serve. The latter actually improved a lot in the last two or three seasons, and for awhile there she looked like the most likely challenger to Serena Williams as the best player on the tour. Although she never won a Grand Slam event, she made a couple of finals and she did win the Olympic Gold Medal in 2008, defeating Williams on the way to the final, where she prevailed over Dinara Safina.

Dementieva also had a great rivalry with my favourite player on the women's circuit for many years, the French amazon Amelie Mauresmo (who retired a year or so ago, but not before winning a couple of Grand Slam titles). Farewell, Elena!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Twelve Worldviews?

John Shook's The God Debates (see previous post) has some interesting discussion in the final chapter of twelve worldviews that he sees as in competition for future influence. To be honest, I can't take such an elaborate taxonomy entirely seriously: it's inevitably too neat to match up perfectly with the messy contours of the real world. At the same time, there are some insightful ideas in Shook's discussion. For example, he is at pains to distinguish a number of conservative religious positions, rather than implying that there is just one way to be a religious conservative (so some people don't count) or that all religious conservatives are the same (so we don't appreciate the differences among those who do).

He also distinguishes a number of naturalistic positions - "Stoic Materialism", "Secular Humanism", and "Nihilistic Rationalism" - and a number of positions that do not figure prominently in public debate, even though many individuals find them attractive: these include various Romantic, Transcendentalist, and mystical positions. He attempts to identify which positions are most strongly opposed to each other (even offering a circle of positions to show this, as well as drawing out some similarities). Thus, he opposes Secular Humanism most strongly to Theocratic Covenantalism, the sort of religious position that demands subservience to God from whole groups of people (whereas other evangelical or fundamentalist positions may require only the free acceptance of God's grace by individuals).

In the end, he speculates on how there might be a grand and more constructive dialogue among people, Eastern and Western, adhering to a range of these positions, while counterbalancing what he appears to see as the more dangerous ones.

Some of this seems to me a bit too touchy-feely, but Shook is surely correct that we do need to have dialogue for the foreseeable future. We can't put all our efforts into simply wiping out certain positions (though it may be that some positions deserve to be marginalised). He suggests that, "We should be thinking about a planetary ethics to grapple with our planetary dilemmas."

That's probably right. Many of our problems now go far beyond survival of small human societies or even large, complex nations and empires. Issues of planet-wide climate change, the proliferation of massively destructive weaponry, and the burden of global poverty and disease, require global responses. That may involve discussions with people who have radically opposed views of the world. At the same time, we must not forget that there are many problems whose solution is made more difficult by the persistence of various kinds of anti-rationalism.

I'll give Shook the last word, quoting from the final paragraph of his book:

At this stage of our deliberations ... we leave Western theology and atheology where we found it at our start: at the inauguration of a truly global dialogue. Have our god debates prepared us for this next, grander conversation?

Currently reading: The God Debates by John Shook

The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide For Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between) is a clear, accessible, up-to-date account of philosophical wrangles about the existence of God. Though Shook spends much of the book alluding to theology, most of the text actually relates to traditional arguments from Christian apologetics and analytic philosophy of religion. Shook reorganises the arguments in an interesting way, but he covers all the familiar ones, such as versions of the ontological, cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments. To his credit, he takes on more esoteric arguments such as the claim that we must presuppose the existence of God if we are to engage in reasoning and scientific inquiry.

The book is packaged as if it took a neutral stance, but the general direction is clearly one of scepticism towards religious arguments. While Shook introduces a wide range of arguments from various kinds of philosophers and theologians, he ultimately finds all the theistic arguments unpersuasive, and shows (unsurprisingly when you know his background) a strong leaning to atheism and philosophical naturalism. Along the way, however, he gives the religious arguments a pretty good run, and is certainly more comprehensive than most in dealing with their variants.

As a relatively short and introductory book, The God Debates sometimes seems to sacrifice depth in exchange for breadth of coverage. I imagine that people who are deeply immersed in various aspects of these arguments will find a certain thinness and imprecision to some of the discussions. In my own case, I was especially interested in moral arguments for the existence of God, which Shook does actually cover  well over quite a few pages. All the same, the book could have done with a more rigorous discussion of what is meant by "objective" morality, "absolute" morality, "relativism", and so on. Although it introduces definitions for all these terms, so it is not likely to mislead anyone significantly, they are used in somewhat non-standard and imprecise senses.

For example, Shook introduces a notion of "cultural objectivity", by which he simply means that certain culture-based moral norms really do (objectively) exist. That, however, is not what people who make out forms of the "moral argument" really want, at least not typically, and arguably it's not what the ordinary, non-philosophical folk want either. Part of the trouble is that what is wanted may be something rather inchoate and poorly understood, some kind of "objective" or inescapable bindingness that transcends social norms, desires, or whatever we, individually or collectively, might actually value. Shook uses the word "absolute" to cover this, and denies that any moral requirements are absolute in this sense. On that I agree with him, but the trouble is that the word "absolute" is often used in moral philosophy with a different meaning - applying to contextually inflexible moral rules such as "Don't lie!"

Absolutism in this latter sense may be contrasted with substantive moral positions (usually consequentialist ones) that tell us that, for example, that whether or not it is wrong to lie will depend on the circumstances. The relevant circumstances will be not so much whether our society has a rule against lying as whether, in a particular context, telling a lie will have good or bad consequences or other characteristics that are supposed to be more important than such surface-level rules that could be taught easily to children.

As a substantive moral position, an absolutism of moral rules such as "Don't lie!" - a crude kind of deontological position - strikes me, and probably most people these days, as highly implausible. But what about the idea that there are moral requirements that are "absolutely" or objectively inescapable? That seems to me to be a mirage, and Shook appears to agree. Terminology aside, though, he does a pretty good of explaining why it's a mirage. Perhaps more could be said as to why we don't need these absolutely and/or objectively inescapable moral requirements. In my experience, this is a difficult concept to explain even to hardened atheists and naturalists, and it would have been useful if Shook, who is very lucid, had had more of a go at it.

It may be that problems like this don't seriously undermine the book's argument, but even slightly more discussion of such points would have beefed up its credibility and usefulness.

The last chapters, where Shook does actually discuss some theology, are fascinating, and I was particularly taken by the very last one, where he identifies a total of twelve (!) worldviews that are on offer in current societies. Even these could be sub-divided because, for example, Shook does not distinguish between Christianity and Islam. He is more concerned to distinguish between, say, Evangelical Fundamentalism of any kind (a form of religion that sees its holy book as genuine revelation, rejects contrary conclusions derived from reason, and shows hostility toward rival worldviews) and Liberal Modernism. Although Shook discusses Evangelical Fundamentalism in Christian terms, there could be versions of religions other than Christianity that meet his description of this worldview. The same applies to Liberal Modernism - there could be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc., forms of this.

People come with many ways of looking at the world, distinguishable in a number of important dimensions. I doubt that Shook's particular taxonomy, or any such taxonomy can capture everything that's important. Nonetheless, these sorts of taxonomies can be illuminating, often bringing out distinctions that we are inclined to ignore in everyday thinking, where we are often tempted reach for binary oppositions or other very simple schemes. Shook has done us a service with his scheme, in which he tries for some nuanced distinctions not only between different types of religion but also between different kinds of philosophical naturalist positions. This chapter alone is enough to provoke a lot of thought.

In all, this is a lucid, concise, up-to-date, yet comprehensive account of intellectual debates about the existence of God. It is easy enough to be used by senior high school students, and could certainly be useful in undergraduate courses in philosophy of religion. It's not the be-all-end-all of the subject, has its thinner passages, and should not be cited as an unchallengeable authority. But again ... The God Debates is an accessible, thoughtful, cogent book. Shook has filled an important gap.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The floating timeline in action

For any of y'all out there who share my little obsession with continuity and such, here's an example of the Marvel Universe floating timeline in action.

Captain America was a WWII superhero who was then revived in the Silver Age of comics in the 1960s. The idea was that he'd been preserved for a couple of decades in a block of ice, enabling him to appear in stories that were then contemporary.

But Marvel uses this floating timeline thing, which requires it to retcon events - sometimes silently, sometimes explicitly. Marvel is currently operating on the basis that the key initiating events within its main "616" continuity - those of Fantastic Four # 1, when Reed Richards and his team first journeyed into space - happened 13 years ago. That means all the other early events of the Silver Age must (for the moment) be thought of as happening in about, say, 1998. If Marvel maintains the gap at 13 years, to keep  its characters relatively young, the starting date will keep changing.

It seems that they're now talking about Captain America being in suspended animation for half a century (it should be about, hmm, 53 at this stage, shouldn't it? But who's counting when you need to keep a floating timeline going?) and having fresh memories of 60 years ago.

I'm not actually so interested as to go out and buy this Captain America mini-series about how he copes with waking up in our day, but presumably the events will be depicted rather differently from what Marvel did back in the '60s.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I've read John Shook's book (2)

Back on 12 October, I promised a full review of John Shook's The God Debates "in a couple of days". Ulp. A couple of days passed ... and then another couple of weeks. I super-promise that I'll get to it soon.

Meanwhile, Ophelia Benson is also reading it, and she's also positive about it.

Once again this is a very nice, readable and accessible book that, as I wrote last time, is more about philosophy of religion than theology except near the end. "... and it does provide a nice, readable, potted introduction to the field, including some good discussion of the more avant-garde and slippery arguments that might get trotted out against you in an actual debate with a well-prepared believer who has been reading Plantinga and the like."

Vampire squid giving you a problem?

This may be your solution (from X-Men vs Vampires # 2) to vampire squid infestation. Someone had better warn PZ about it.

The real enemies of reason?

Just a placeholder for the moment, but I think this latest rather-old-but-recently-come-to-my atttention attack on Dawkins in the Gruniad is not only unfair and misplaced but rather bizarre. Hasn't the author, Dan Hind, ever heard of the idea of a division of labour?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wilders trial collapses

For those who missed this, the case will have to start all over as a result of blatant (and frankly incredible) judicial impropriety. What a farce this has all been, whatever you think of Wilders. I wonder whether the authorities will have the good sense to let it drop now. The only person who is getting any benefit at this stage is Wilders.

Skiffy and Mimesis

Skiffy and Mimesis , Damien Broderick's second volume of "best of" material from ASFR (Second Series) , is now available, and I have an author's copy in my hot little hand.

This is the follow-up to Chained to the Alien. Between them, these books get about 30,000 words of my sf criticism from the 1980s and 1990s back into print.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A nice interview with Mike Carey

For lovers of X-Men and/or Mike Carey's work, there's a nice interview over here about Carey's current projects, including what is happening in X-Men Legacy (including the "Collision" arc, which is now drawing to a close). Some good times coming with this, it seems:

"X-Men: Legacy" #241 hits stores this week and brings the "Collision" arc to a close. "What I wanted to do in the final issue was to make sure that each of those conflicts comes to not necessarily a resolution, but a head, so all of the major characters in this story get their moment in the spotlight. It's a relevant moment; a moment where they have to make a choice to confront something - whether it's within themselves or between themselves and the people around them. Those moments definitely move their stories and this story a long way forward," Carey revealed. "The plot of the issue will involve both a rescue mission and some fighting with the Children of the Vault. However, seeing as the Children of the Vault are several thousand strong and they're going up against a team of a half of dozen X-Men, things are not going to be resolved by a fight. There has to be another dimension to it. There will still be plenty of action though."

"Legacy" #242 hits stores in November, kicking off a new two-part arc titled "Fables of the Reconstruction," which will be drawn by Paul Davidson ("New Mutants"). "In retrospect, this is a story that I probably should have done before 'Collision' because it follows on and picks up some of the dangling threads of 'Second Coming.' In 'Second Coming,' we saw San Francisco get pretty comprehensively trashed by the battle between the Nimrods and the X-Men. 'Fables of the Reconstruction' is about the ongoing rebuilding of the city. It's being conducted by the civil authorities, but Cyclops is very keen to make sure that the X-Men play their part. There's a sense in which he feels responsible for it, at least in part, but also he realizes that this is a way of reaching out to the human community and showing them that the X-Men don't take their commitment to the area they live in lightly.

"Cyclops puts together a team who are directed to help with the rebuilding," Carey continued. "It's a team of real power house characters: Psylocke, Magneto, Colossus, Omega Sentinel, Danger, Hellion and Random. Rogue and Hope go along also. But things don't go quite according to plan and we end up with a very, very tense and dangerous situation between some of the members of that group."

My view on that Islamic memorial centre thingie in New York

I don't think I've actually blogged on this, though I've stated my view elsewhere.

If it conforms to the same neutral laws of general application (zoning regulations, health and safety requirements, or whatever) as anything else that might occupy the same space, whether it's an art gallery, a cinema, a restaurant, or whatever, then there should really be no issue. It should go ahead, and that's the end of the story as far as I'm concerned. To me, this is a no-brainer. If this issue even rates a mention in The Book, which it may not, the above is what I'll say.

But you are free to disagree with me about it. That's the important thing.

What you can't say about Islam - the backlash against Elizabeth Moon

Here is the thoughtful, rather temperately-worded blog piece by Elizabeth Moon that led to her being disinvited as a guest of honour at the feminist science fiction convention, Wiscon 35 (to be held in May next year in Madison, Wisconsin). Moon is actually much less temperate about people like me, i.e. baby boomers, than she is about Muslims (I have no idea what her opening sentences are all about, but do read on). However, her remarks on Muslims in America were apparently considered so inflammatory that she was no longer a viable guest of honour for a relatively small convention held in a relatively small American city.

Shame on Wiscon. If you were thinking of going to Wiscon 35, I urge you to find something else to do that weekend. The Wiscon organisers, of course, have (and should have) the legal right to decide whom they consider an acceptable guest of honour; conversely, you have the right to decide where to spend your money. Don't spend it on a committee that commits acts of bastardry such disinviting a guest because of something fairly moderate that she said in a blog post.

More generally, it is frightening how much it seems you now have to watch what you say in public if you don't want to be ostracised. Judge for yourself. Read the entire post by Moon, to get it in context ... but these are apparently the paragraphs that have made her persona non grata:

When an Islamic group decided to build a memorial center at/near the site of the 9/11 attack, they should have been able to predict that this would upset a lot of people. Not only were the attackers Islamic--and not only did the Islamic world in general show indecent glee about the attack, but this was only the last of many attacks on citizens and installations of this country which Islamic groups proudly claimed credit for. That some Muslims died in the attacks is immaterial--does not wipe out the long, long chain of Islamic hostility. It would have been one thing to have the Muslim victims' names placed with the others, and identified there as Muslims--but to use that site to proselytize for the religion that lies behind so many attacks on the innocent (I cannot forget the Jewish man in a wheelchair pushed over the side of the ship to drown, or Maj. Nadal's attack on soldiers at Fort Hood) was bound to raise a stink. It is hard to believe that those making the application did not know that--did not anticipate it--and were not, in a way, probing to see if they could start a controversy. If they did not know, then they did not know enough about the culture into which they had moved. Though I am not angry about it, and have not spoken out in opposition, I do think it was a rude and tactless thing to propose (and, if carried out, to do.)

I know--I do not dispute--that many Muslims had nothing to do with the attacks, did not approve of them, would have stopped them if they could. I do not dispute that there are moderate, even liberal, Muslims, that many Muslims have all the virtues of civilized persons and are admirable in all those ways. I am totally, 100%, appalled at those who want to burn the Koran (which, by the way, I have read in English translation, with the same attention I've given to other holy books) or throw paint on mosques or beat up Muslims. But Muslims fail to recognize how much forbearance they've had. Schools in my area held consciousness-raising sessions for kids about not teasing children in Muslim-defined clothing...but not about not teasing Jewish children or racial minorities. More law enforcement was dedicated to protecting mosques than synagogues--and synagogues are still targeted for vandalism. What I heard, in my area, after 9/11, was not condemnation by local mosques of the attack--but an immediate cry for protection even before anything happened. Our church, and many others (not, obviously all) already had in place a "peace and reconciliation" program that urged us to understand, forgive, pray for, not just innocent Muslims but the attackers themselves. It sponsored a talk by a Muslim from a local mosque--but the talk was all about how wonderful Islam was--totally ignoring the historical roots of Islamic violence.

I can easily imagine how Muslims would react to my excusing the Crusades on the basis of Islamic aggression from 600 to 1000 C.E....(for instance, excusing the building of a church on the site of a mosque in Cordoba after the Reconquista by reminding them of the mosque built on the site of an important early Christian church in Antioch.) So I don't give that lecture to the innocent Muslims I come in contact with. I would appreciate the same courtesy in return (and don't get it.) The same with other points of Islam that I find appalling (especially as a free woman) and totally against those basic principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution...I feel that I personally (and many others) lean over backwards to put up with these things, to let Muslims believe stuff that unfits them for citizenship, on the grounds of their personal freedom. It would be helpful to have them understand what they're demanding of me and others--how much more they're asking than giving. It would be helpful for them to show more understanding of the responsibilities of citizenship in a non-Muslim country. (And the same is true for many others, of course. Libertarians, survivalists, Tea-Partyers, fundamentalist Christians, anyone else whose goals benefit only their own group. There's been a huge decline in the understanding of good citizenship overall.)

Now, we could have an interesting discussion about whether Moon's comments are correct, or the best emphasis, or open to counterexamples, or whatever. It's not that I agree with them, myself, or think they are the most helpful thing to say in the circumstances. My own emphasis would probably have been rather different. But that's not the point.

Whether we agree with them or not, I find it extraordinary that her remarks would lead to her no longer being welcome as a guest of honour at a science fiction convention. If Moon's remarks now count as hate speech, such as to make the speaker unacceptable at venues such as Wiscon, many of us are in deep trouble. As I think of all the things I've said in public that are far more provocative than this, I wonder just how anodyne we need to keep our public comments these days, at least if they are about Islam or Muslims, if we are not to lose our speaking platforms.

Forthright atheists are often accused of being prepared to speak out against the wrongs of Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism, but not those of Islam. To a large extent, those accusations are false: we could find many examples where leading atheists do criticise Islam, and particularly political Islam. Still, many of us concentrate on what we know best, which is often Christianity. Furthermore, there's an intimidation factor: let's acknowledge it, radical Islamists have done a good job of muting the critique of Islam simply by demonstrating a propensity to extreme violence - think of what happened to Theo van Gogh and the current situation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who must be heavily guarded wherever she goes. The intimidation factor is raised to an even higher level if it's reaching the point where comments such as those of Elizabeth Moon can make you unwanted by convention organisers in Madison, Wisconsin. To borrow a phrase, Wiscon is not helping.

In all this, the convention organisers have done a disservice to the free flow of ideas about matters of public interest. They have also treated Elizabeth Moon with outrageous rudeness - there is no indication that she did anything to provoke what has happened to her, except use her blog to express some opinions. The Wiscon organisers ought to feel some rage.

H/T Damien Broderick

Monday, October 25, 2010

Boudry, Blancke, and Braeckman on methodological naturalism

This important paper (well, I've actually linked here to a publicly-available late draft that contains a few typos) in Foundations of Science merits careful reading. Authored by Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Josef Braeckman, it deals - very well, in my opinion - with the capacity of science to investigate the supernatural. It's refreshing to read something like this, which goes a long way towards setting the record straight.

Of course, science cannot investigate the supernatural if we define "the supernatural" as "whatever cannot be investigated by science"! But once we define the supernatural in some other plausible way it is by no means apparent that science can't investigate it, just as it can investigate things that no longer exist (such as dinosaurs), things that are very distant (such as the moons of Jupiter), and things that are very small (such as atomic nuclei). None of the latter can be perceived directly with our senses, but they can interact with our senses in other ways - by leaving traces on the world that we can perceive, by interacting with scientific instruments to create images that we can perceive, by affecting experimental apparatus in predictable ways, and so on. In the end, we can use distinctively scientific means to investigate many things that interact with our senses only indirectly. Depending on the situtation, we can sometimes establish a lot about those things. We do, in fact, know a lot about the moons of Jupiter, dinosaurs, and atomic nuclei, even though none of these things have ever been directly observed with our senses (the moons of Jupiter have been observed via scientific instruments such as telescopes, and we have various reasons to think that these are reliable, but they have not been observed by unaugmented human eyes).

For example, let's take a toy definition of the domain of "the supernatural": imagine that it relates to the existence, characteristics, and activities of disembodied intelligences. Can science investigate this domain? In principle, yes, at least sometimes.

If a disembodied intelligence such as a spirit or a demon is said to exist and to interact with the world in a certain more-or-less regular way (perhaps because this being has a particular power set and particular psychological dispositions), we can go and look for corroborating evidence. Of course, we may be caught short if we're told that this intelligence is capricious or is hiding or works in mysterious ways, or whatever, so that its existence ends up being compatible with any observations at all. People who posit capricious, etc., disembodied intelligences as explanations for phenomena are in fact making their claims immune to scientific investigation (and they are certainly not doing science, themselves!). But what makes their claims immune is reliance on the capricious, etc., nature of these beings, not the fact that they are said to be disembodied.

Hypotheses that refer to capricious intelligences or to intelligences that are described so vaguely that we can't get a handle on them at all, or to beings that are described in internally contradictory ways, are non-starters. And, indeed, there are many reasons why it is difficult to settle the truth of supernatural claims by scientific investigation. But that doesn't mean that all hypotheses about beings or intelligences or principles that meet some intuitively plausible definition of the supernatural are non-starters in principle. The practical difficulty in testing many of the claims made by, for example, Intelligent Design theorists is that they use immunization strategies. Again, that is a hallmark of non-science or pseudoscience (or at the very least science that is so fundamentally flawed that there can be no rational pedagogical purpose in teaching it to children).

Boudry and his colleagues make astute remarks about all this:

However, we have to be careful not to misconstrue the immunizing strategies and ad hoc amendments of creationists as intrinsic problems with supernatural claims. It is true that IDC proponents are guilty of immunization strategies, but as far as we can see, this unwillingness to take empirical risks is just an indication of the dismal state of their research programme. After all, resorting to immunization strategies is a typical feature of pseudo-science, supernatural or otherwise (Boudry and Braeckman 2010).

Thus, if only they chose to do so, IDC proponents could easily equip an alleged supernatural Designer with specific attributes and intentions in such a way that the design hypothesis would yield unexpected predictions and is not “compatible with any and all observations of the natural world”, as Scott claims (Scott 2004, 20; Richter 2002, 21). For example, if one supposes that the Designer is benevolent and has created the universe with good purpose, as almost any theist does, one is confronted with the problem of evil and suffering in the world (Hume 2007 [1779]; Kitcher 2007, 130). As Reed Richter pointed out, in response to Scott’s defence of IMN, “‘[s]upernatural’ does not automatically imply arbitrary, capricious action as Scott implies”

Do consider the whole article, which contains plenty of detail to chew on. It won't escape long-term readers that Boudry and his colleagues are putting essentially the same view that I have long argued for (see here for example). They are giving it a more formal and concerted defence, and hopefully their argument will carry more weight than my occasional blog posts on the subject.

Of course science has learned over the years that explaining natural phenomena in terms of the actions of supernatural ones (e.g. disembodied intelligences) is not fruitful - that is because of the very poor track record of such hypotheses. The procedures of science now strongly discourage supernatural hypotheses, and a scientist resorting to them would, quite rightly, not be taken seriously. This is the practice of methodological naturalism.

But that does not mean that scientists must, in principle, have nothing to say if others advance claims about supernatural phenomena. If the claims are not sufficiently immunized, scientific investigation may even be able to show that they are false.

H/T to Jerry Coyne who has some interesting stuff of his own to say.

The Potential Wedding Album - supporting same-sex marriage

This classy site - The Potential Wedding Album - supports same-sex marriage as a legal option here in Australia. You might want to have a look and give it your support and/or pass on the link. Successive federal governments in Australia have not only failed to provide for same-sex marriage; they have gone out of their way to discourage "too-marriage-like" legal statuses even in state and territory jurisdictions. All this is simply pandering to social conservatism, in my view. As long as we are going to have such a legal status as "marriage" in our society - maybe we shouldn't, but that change won't happen any time soon - I see no rational basis for restricting it to straight couples. The restriction is socially unnecessary, and it's gratuitously insulting to gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals. It casts them as second-class citizens with second-class relationships.

It's time to move on and get rid of this offensive restriction.

Cushman on the scientific investigation of morality

Fiery Cushman (what a wonderful name) has a solid article in New Scientist about the scientific investigation of morality - such as why there is a moral taboo against incest. Much of what is contained here is not all that new, but it gathers some of the findings in a nice, clear package.

The article concludes:

As we come to a scientific understanding of morality, society is not going to descend into anarchy. Instead, we may be able to shape our moral thinking towards nobler ends. Which norms of fairness foster economic prosperity? What are the appropriate limits on assisting a patient's end-of-life decisions? By recognising morality as a property of the mind, we gain a magical power of control over its future.

I'm fairly much on-side with this, but of course it raises the question of how we judge what counts as a "noble" end. Our concepts of what is or is not "noble" must themselves have some kind of evolutionary or cultural genealogy. I'm not suggesting that that totally debunks them. We can certainly engage in rational reflection on what we consider to be noble in the sense that Cushman has in mind, and we may reach various answers. We may even converge on an answer if we reflect and discuss in good faith (but what if we don't?). Nonetheless, there's a problem that should be acknowledged. Once you think that our conception of what is morally good can be altered to track our concept of what are "nobler ends", there's then a further realisation that our conception of what count as noble, nobler, and noblest ends can also be altered.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Edgar Dahl questions the received wisdom on sex selection

In The Journal of Evolution and Technology, Edgar Dahl challenges the usual panic wisdom about sex-selection technology. Dahl's "Gendercide? A Commentary on The Economist's Report About the Wordwide War on Baby Girls" makes a series of points that suggest the issue of gender ratios in the developing world has been blown out of proportion and that a more liberal approach could be adopted to the problem than has been seen in, for example, India. Dahl's final point questions the extent of cultural preference for boys in such countries:

Seventh, and finally, technology might not be the problem but the solution to high sex ratios and sex discrimination. As pointed out in the article, the sex ratios of first born children in China are “within the bounds of normality.” The same applies to India. It is only the sex ratio for the second, third or fourth child that is severely distorted. This means that first-born daughters are not discriminated against. Or, as Monica Das Gupta put it: they are “treated the same as their brothers.” Consequently, the article goes on to say: “The rule seems to be that parents will joyfully embrace a daughter as their first child. But they will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that subsequent children are sons.” Given that Indian and Chinese parents have strong religious and economic incentives for having boys, their preferences are entirely rational.

What to do? Dahl suggests that sex-selection technology should not be entirely banned, but should, rather, be legal for couples who already have at least one daughter. This involves some intervention by the state to reduce the scale of the problem but imposes only a minimal restriction of the parents' freedom. They cannot use the technology for a first child, or for the second child if the first child is a son. But a family with one or more girls can thereafter use the technology if they so wish.

Perhaps there are other approaches, and JET welcomes good articles on topics such as this. Leaving aside the situation in Asia, I must say that I find bans on sex selection technology in developed countries incomprehensible. The research to date suggests no reason to think this technology would lead to a skewing of sex ratios in, say, Australia. On that basis, it seems apparent to me that the wishes of parents should prevail.

Early reviews of The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape , by Sam Harris has now been out long enough to attract some reviews. Here's a disclaimer - I haven't yet read the book (although I did go and buy a copy, which is calling to me from the shelf over to my left), so I can't comment much on the reviews. Not much.

Here's Kwame Anthony Appiah in The New York Times.

A review by Troy Jollimore for Barnes and Noble.

And a review by John Horgan in Scientific American.

All three make some points that sound plausible, based on what I know of the views that Harris has been expressing. But I'll need to read the book for myself. Horgan makes a point that struck Jerry Coyne as silly - and I agree with Jerry on this. You can't argue, as Horgan more or less does: lots of scientists have acted in ways that we all now regard as immoral; therefore questions of morality cannot be scientific questions (or questions with scientific answers). Surely Harris is not arguing that the actual scientists of any particular era are moral exemplars. He is saying something like the following:

P1. All questions about morality are questions about what actions make sentient beings happy.
P2. All questions about what actions make sentient beings happy are empirical questions.
P3. All empirical questions are open to study by science and have scientific answers.
C. All questions about morality are open to study by science and have scientific answers.

This is a valid argument, so it is sound and leads to a correct conclusion as long as its premises are true. Premises P1. through to P3. are pretty damn controversial, and I doubt that P1. is true without qualification even if the others are, but you can't dismiss the argument simply by claiming that various actual scientists have acted immorally. You need to explain which premise is false, and why.

Even if it's true that all ethical questions have scientific answers, it doesn't follow that the scientists concerned had those answers (or that anyone yet has those answers). Even if the scientists concerned did have the answers - which is vanishingly unlikely - it's not obvious that they'd have understood their application in specific circumstances or that they'd be motivated to apply the answers to their own circumstances. Note that if the Harris sort of argument goes through - or rather, if its premises are true - this tends to imply a theory in which morality is not the sort of thing that intrinsically motivates people. Horgan can't help himself to the absurd idea that "All questions about morality have scientific answers" entails the plainly false and absurd "All scientists are morally exemplary" or "All scientific theories, once believed, have morally good consequences."

So, I put no weight on this line of argument from Horgan. But I do fear that Harris ends up begging some of the most important questions about what morality really is. We shall see: I'll comment on the book here, when I've read it, and I'll be writing a more substantial review for The Journal of Evolution and Technology.

... and Embiggen Books wil give you a good price

On The Australian Book of Atheism, that is.

The Australian atheism book - complete line-up

Here is the complete line-up for The Australian Book of Atheism. I'm not sure whether the titles of essays are final and exact in all cases, but I'm sure they're close enough to give you picture.
1. Chrys Stevenson, Felons, Ratbags, Commies and Left-Wing Loonies

2. Max Wallace, The Constitution, Belief and the State

3. Alex Stewart, Religion and the Law in Australia

4. Robyn Williams, A Part-time Atheist

5. Colette Livermore, Atheism: an explanation for the believer

6. Tanya Levin, Above Rubies

7. Lee Rhiannon, Growing up Atheist

8. David Horton, Agnostics are Nowhere Men

9. Tim Minchin, Storm

10. Hugh Wilson, Public Education in Queensland

11. Peter Ellerton, Theology is Not Philosophy

12. Professor Graham Oppy, Evolution vs Creationism in Australian Schools

13. Graeme Lindenmayer, Intelligent Design as a Scientific Theory

14. Kylie Sturgess, Atheism 2.0

15. Martin Bridgstock, Religion, Fundamentalism & Science

16. Philip Nitschke, Atheism & Euthanasia

17. Alex McCullie, Progressive Christianity: A Secular Response

18. Leslie Cannold, Abortion in Australia

19. Jane Caro, Why Gods are Man-Made

20. Karen Stollznow, Spiritualism & Pseudoscience

21. Rosslyn Ives, Life, Dying & Death

22. Ian Hunter, Prayers in Australian Parliament

22. Lyn Allison, Ever Wondered Why God is a Bloke?

23. Michael Bachelard, Politics and The Exclusive Brethren

24. Russell Blackford, Free Speech

26. John Wilkins, The Role of Secularism in Protecting Religion

27. Warren Bonett, Why a Book on Atheist Thought in Australia?

27.Robin Craig, Good without God

28. Ian Robinson, Atheism as a Spiritual Path

29. Peter Woolcock, Atheism & the Meaning of Life

31. Tamas Pataki, Religion & Violence

32. Adam Hamlin, The Neurobiology of Religious Experience

33. Rosemary Lyndall Wemm, The Neurology of Belief

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Publicity material for The Australian Book of Atheism

I've received in the post a whole batch of postcards advertising The Australian Book of Atheism, edited by Warren Bonett, appearing from Scribe on 22 November. This contains, among many other goodies, an article par moi, on the subject of freedom of speech. Think of it as a great Christmas present (an even better one would be this book combined with 50 Voices of Disbelief ... but you could guess that).

While prominent international thinkers have made significant contributions to the general conversation on belief and religion, Australians have been less heard.

The Australian Book of Atheism is the first collection to explore atheism from an Australian viewpoint. Bringing together essays from 33 of the nation’s pre-eminent atheist, rationalist, humanist, and sceptical thinkers, it canvasses a range of opinions on religion and secularism in Australia.

With other authors such as Graham Oppy and John Wilkins, this is going to be a strong collection.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ethics trial concludes - on a high note!

The trial of secular ethics classes in NSW schools, as an optional alternative to scripture classes, has now concluded. The trial involved ten primary schools and about 500 students. We can read the whole report here. There'll be further public consultation, which will doubtless involve more attempts by the churches to torpedo the whole thing. Meanwhile, the Minister says:

The independent evaluation found high levels of engagement among students when discussing ethical issues and that it enabled them to discuss and understand the principles of ethical decision-making.

It also found that the course met the aim of introducing students to the language and nature of ethics and ethical issues.

Overall it's a positive report which makes a number of recommendations to be considered if the course is approved.

I look forward to reading the report and to a positive outcome in implementing its recommendations.


New "world's longest cat"

Via Jerry Coyne. What a lovely kitty cat!

"Collision" story arc coming to a close

Marvel has posted a preview of the final instalment of the current X-Men Legacy story arc, "Collision". I've loved this arc so far, and particularly the way writer Mike Carey and artist Clay Mann are working with the main characters.

Judging from the five pages of preview, the last chapter is going to be a lot of fun - a bunch of bad guys called the Children of the Vault managed to get the drop on Rogue and Magneto, defeat them quickly, and kidnap them. Why? Well, that's a long story. Anyway, they're in the process of executing Rogue and using Magneto as, well, part of their city's power supply (sticking him in a machine that drains off his power for their use).

But then there's a glitch, and suddenly our heroes are free and the tables are turned. Rogue and Mags aren't stuck in there with 3000, or whatever, enemies. Their 3000, or whatever, enemies are stuck in there with them. I'm going to enjoy this when it's released next week. Oh, and "BRAKOOOM" is such a cool sound effect.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Currently reading: Philip Kitcher's "Militant Modern Atheism" (Part 7)

This post is intended to be the last in the series, and it will focus on a reply to Kitcher by Daniel Dennett - made available by Dennett via Jerry Coyne, over at Why Evolution is True.

Having re-read Dennett's response, I actually wonder whether he and Kitcher disagree about anything of substance. The issue that gets a fair bit of discussion is one that I haven't even mentioned, because I think it's something of a red herring. It's the question of whether we should look at the world's religions as the by-products of cognitive biases, in which case we may be inclined to doubt that they have any value, or as memes which have persisted because, historically, they produced social benefits, in which case we may be inclined to think that they still produce social benefits. Kitcher sees things more in the latter way, and he thinks that some of the strength of "New Atheist" opposition to religion comes from seeing things in the former way.

It strikes me that both stories may be correct. It may be that we come to have religious thoughts as a result of cognitive biases ... but once these thoughts are in play the ones that persist do so partly because they produce social benefits. While more work needs to be done on this, such a synthesis appears to me perfectly coherent and prima facie plausible. Kitcher may be correct that (some?) "New Atheists" are reinforced in their hostility to religion by their use of a "cognitive biases" model. But both writers admit freely that neither model can be proved to the exclusion of the other. (Nor is either able to exclude the kind of synthesis I've sketched in this paragraph.) It's all very speculative.

If reliance on a "cognitive biases" model - to the exclusion of a "social benefits" model - were an important part of New Atheist critique, then New Atheism would be in trouble. Kitcher is correct to point this out and to suggest that the cognitive biases is not proved. But Dennett is also, surely, correct to point out that what matters for current debates is not whether particular religions had social benefits at the time they developed and became entrenched; what matters is whether, on balance, they have social benefits now.

In the end, I don't think that the truth of any particular theory of the origin and persistence of religion plays a critical role in motivating New Atheist critique. It may be worthwhile getting a better idea of these things, but the New Atheists can fall back on other good reasons for arguing against the truth claims and moral authority of religion. Conversely, to be fair to Kitcher, I don't think this issue is critical to his argument either. As long as he can show that some forms of religion as they exist now are innocuous, and even beneficial for individuals and communities, he has worthwhile points to make.

So yes, let's study the origin and persistence of religion(s), but let's not think that this, in itself, will be decisive of how we should respond to religion now.

Dennett concedes the point that religion provides many people with a sense of meaning and that it may be difficult to replace this for everybody:

I discuss this in Breaking the Spell (pp286-92), where I note that religion has the unparalleled capacity to give people a chance to be, in Kitcher’s good phrase, important participants in the world they were born into.

But he questions how much of this is worth the current downside of religion:

But as I go on to discuss there, nobody has yet estimated what price we should be prepared to pay—in xenophobia, violence, the glorification of unreason, the spreading of patent falsehood—for that wonderful sense of importance religion gives to many people who would otherwise lead lives without drama, without a point. 

Then comes an important passage in Dennett's response:

Kitcher wants to preserve religions (at least for the foreseeable future, I gather) but I think it would be better to work constructively on secular institutions that can provide alternative structures of meaning for everyone. Still, we might accomplish this most practically by encouraging existing religious institutions to evolve into . . . . former religions. Some have already done so, but they are not yet competing very well in the marketplace of allegiances. Who knows what the near future will bring? Religions have changed more in the last century than in the last millennium, and perhaps they will change more in the next decade than in that last century.

By this stage, I'm really not sure that they are disagreeing about anything of substance. I'm sure that Kitcher would join Dennett in seeing merit in working "on secular institutions that can provide alternative structures of meaning for everyone" ... though, for myself, I'm a little unsure just what form those structures would take. Presumably they would involve such things as good healthcare for all and the widespread availability of education (things that I support) - but what else? Philosophers can offer secular philosophies, but presumably we are talking about more than that. In any event, there's room here for plenty of debate about intellectual and political goals. As I've said in previous posts, that might lead to some fine-tuning of "New Atheist" efforts, but it can't, logically, lead to us abandoning the ongoing critiques of religion. And nor does Kitcher say that it should.

I expect that reading and absorbing Kitcher's ideas will, in fact, have effects on how I act. I certainly don't think his contribution was a waste of time, or that it was a waste of time trying to understand the concepts and arguments that he's introduced into the debate. But I don't see any reason for dramatic changes or for repudiation of the "New Atheist" work so far. I get the feeling that Kitcher thinks the practical implications are more dramatic than are apparent to me, although I do get the idea that we should not end delusions and break spells come what may. But is anyone really doing that? If so, perhaps they do need to take a more surgical approach to what they're doing, but I certainly don't see the two obvious targets of Kitcher's criticisms - Dennett and Dawkins - as doing anything so reckless.

Dennett concludes, on a conciliatory note:

Kitcher and I agree on so much. We agree that “Public reason must the thoroughly secular” (p12) We agree that the belief model of religion is indefensible. We agree that the first spell must be broken—we have both broken it. We differ, apparently, only in our assessment of how to ease the people of the 21st century into a more reasonable and socially benign form of orientation. But even here, I think, we should both admit that we haven’t figured that out yet.

As I said, I'm not even sure they disagree on that much, as both seem happy to work on alternatives to whatever benefits are provided by religion and both seem happy for criticisms of supernaturalist doctrine to be published. The difference may be more one of emphasis and priorities, though, once again, obviously something is worrying Kitcher about the "New Atheist" approach, and it's not just that he thinks the strongest arguments are not getting enough play.

In all, this ongoing discussion seems to me to be worthwhile and potentially illuminating. At this stage, though, I can't see any reason for anyone to make dramatic behavioural changes or to engage in mea culpas about the past. The discussion will continue, since Kitcher has more to say, but I'll take that up at a future time.

Lorne Gunter on Wilders

Over at The National Post (whatever that is). Sample:
... if one uses the reverse test, no court would ever prosecute Mr. Wilders for saying similar things about Christianity and the Bible. Why, then, should courts, governments or human rights commissions accept Muslims’ outrage or hurt feelings as the trigger for prosecutions and investigations, when those institutions (rightly) would never dream of doing the same to protect Christians, Jews or others from offence?

Last week, Dutch prosecutors asked the judges hearing Mr. Wilders’ case to acquit him. This appears to be good news, but it may prove otherwise.

Two years ago, the Dutch courts overruled prosecutors and implemented charges against Mr. Wilders after prosecutors refused to bring another case against him. And this week, judges whittled Mr. Wilders’ witness list down to three, from 18, while at the same time adding to the witness list against him the Muslims groups that initiated the complaints that led to his arrest.

If there is any justice in the Netherlands, or enough backbone to defend Western civilization, Mr. Wilders will go free.

I'm still scratching my head as to why this is not a straightforward freedom of speech case, however, exactly, we try to draw the boundaries of free speech. It's still beyond me what Wilders has said that could merit criminal prosecution. As Gunter is saying, I want the right to say similar things about Christian fundamentalism or other belief systems that I think merit harsh criticism.

My copy of Sentinels arrives

I've just received my copy of Sentinels, an anthology of stories and essays from Hadley Rille Books, edited by Gregory Benford and George Zebrowski. The book honours Arthur C. Clarke, and includes an interview with him, conducted by Zebrowski before his (Clarke's) death, along with contributions by Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, James Gunn, Pat Cadigan, Frederick Pohl, Pamela Sargent, Damien Broderick, Joan Slonczewski, Russell Blackford ... you get the idea.

The cover uses a beautiful Chesley Bonestell illustration, and the whole book is beautifully packaged. It's always nice, as an author, to get something like this to hold in your hand and admire. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mumbai University caves in to extremists

Mumbai University has removed a novel from its literature syllabus in response to demands and threats by extremists from a group called "Shiv Sena" - which apparently promotes the interests of the Marathi People. The novel is Rohinton Mistry's award-winning (and Booker listed) Such a Long Journey, first published in 1992. The university withdrew the book following a book-burning and a threat against the author's life. You might ask, "What was the university supposed to do?" Well, maybe, but this back-down seems to have happened at a point when there was little or no reason to fear for the safety of staff or students. I'm open to hearing more about the circumstances, but it doesn't sound good.

Currently reading: Philip Kitcher's "Militant Modern Atheism" (Part 6)

In previous posts, I've explored Philip Kitcher's idea, which is, I think, largely true, that religious folks come in a range from the true, full-on religious believers, whose goals and values are genuinely shaped by their supernatural beliefs, through to the mythically self-conscious, who are much more like cultural Christians or Jews, or Muslims, or whatever. Perhaps calling them "cultural X's" is too strong, as they are not entirely secular - they use religious writings, take part in ceremonies, and so on. But they have no supernatural beliefs. They find this-worldly benefit in participating in "their" respective sets of traditions and practices. They have no problem with the idea that people much like themselves benefit from participating in other traditions and practices, if that's their heritage.

For secular people, and especially for atheists who see their atheism as part of their identity, participation in a religious tradition may appear alien, though some of us may actually be happy to do it in a slight way, such as attending Carols by Candlelight. We may be able to take aesthetic pleasure in some of the religious legacy of our culture. But in any event, we shouldn't see the mythically self-conscious people as suffering from anything like a delusion or as wishing to impose ideas that make no sense without supernatural support.

Kitcher goes further, though. Although he argues against supernatural doctrines, he wants us to take a fairly soft approach to people whom he'd class as doctrinally indefinite or doctrinally entangled. Other things being equal, he says, it would be better if they moved to being mythically self-conscious, but, he adds, "things are not always equal." He elaborates:

Under some circumstances, the only psychologically and socially available ways of supporting a life that has any sense of worthy goals at which it aims, or any capacity for working with others to attain those goals, involve participating in traditions that cloud the messages Dawkins and Dennett want to deliver. Secular thinkers can regret that fact, but they should see it as a stimulus, not to break spells and abolish delusions, come what may, but to work towards an intellectually articulated and socially realized version of secular humanism that will permit satisfying orientations for the many people whose opportunities are currently limited.

So, he asks for a degree of tolerance even of the doctrinally entangled, and certainly, a fortiori, for the doctrinally indefinite. As to the former:

Within the actual social environments in which contemporary people grow up, doctrinal entanglement can be expected to persist, not because the arguments directed against the doctrines are incomplete or because the people who hang on to belief in transcendent entities are too stubborn or too stupid, but because enlightened secularism has not yet succeeded in finding surrogates for institutions and ideas that religious traditions have honed over centuries or millennia. Until those surrogates are widely available, we need respect and tolerance for the doctrinally-entangled. True enough, it would be better if their religion evolved to a state of mythical self-consciousness, but the costs for them — and sometimes for important social causes — that would attend the simple removal of false belief outweigh the benefits. Only those who approach these issues with the conviction that these matters are, from beginning to end, purely epistemic, who suppose that the belief model fits all religious lives, who think an evolutionary account will show how we’ve been had, will insist on breaking spells and ending delusions come what may.

This is rather vague, so it's a bit different to be sure of exactly Kitcher wants us to do. He goes on to talk about extending "secular tolerance" to the doctrinally entangled, but that's a slightly odd thing to say. As I understand secular tolerance, it means a lack of persecution by the state. But surely secular tolerance in this sense should even be extended to the full-on religious believers! Or at least it should be if no special circumstances apply - so long, for example, as they're not acting in a way that is dangerous to us or cruel to their children, or whatever. If Kitcher thinks that secular tolerance should not be extended to full-on religious believers but it should be to other categories, surely he must mean something else by secular tolerance, but I'm not sure what. Does he just mean that we are entitled to express a degree of hostility towards full-on religious belief, but that we shouldn't do so towards people with more attenuated beliefs?

So, there's something not entirely satisfactory about Kitcher's analysis at this point. I agree with this much of it, though. First, it's important to do positive work to offer non-religious philosophies of life and to make them accessible to ordinary people. I deliberately say "philosophies", not "philosophy", because I think the last thing we need is a new comprehensive system that could end up becoming a new totalitarianism. I'd like to see the development of a range of views that have in common that they embrace political liberalism and what I understand (above) by "secular tolerance". Obviously a lot of this work was already going on before the "New Atheism" appeared, and the New Atheism is partly a reaction to the efforts by many conservative religious people to oppose politically liberal viewpoints. There was a sense, a few years ago, that "enough is enough" and it was time to go on the attack, questioning the fundamentals of the conservative religious worldviews themselves.

So, I agree with Kitcher that it's important to do this work. But I think he underestimates how much how much it was already being done (e.g. by Peter Singer), and why it became important to do something more in popular debate, i.e. to attack religious doctrine more directly. Putting this another way, if Kitcher is asking us to do "something more" in the sense of developing positive ethical and political philosophies, he's kind of getting things back to front. That's what we were already doing, and we were not making that much headway. The "something more" that was required was a more aggressive attack on the fundamentals of our opponents' positions, something we'd been treating as taboo during the 1990s (and for which, to be honest, there may not have been much of a market).

Still, many people have become involved in these debates for the first time, and it's perhaps worthwhile reminding them that atheism is not much of an end in itself, that aggressive, popular atheism is an add-on to the task of developing this-worldly ethical and political philosophies. In doing the "something more" of the New Atheism, we shouldn't stop doing the other stuff that was being done, and perhaps it actually is time for some extra focus on that.

Kitcher is also, I think, hinting that the real game in America is organising to take that country down a path more like that of the social democracies of Europe. If that's what he's getting at, I agree. The US will probably become significantly more secularised only when its less advantaged demographics have greater economic security. So there's some advantage in putting energy into such causes as universal healthcare, and perhaps showing some compassionate understanding that economically insecure people are likely to cling to religion.

That, however, is not a reason to stop challenging supernatural belief. Perhaps Kitcher thinks we should do so in a more compassionate way, given the circumstances of many believers. I can see some point in saying that. On the other hand, even in more secular societies than the US there is still a widespread sense that religious leaders have some kind of moral expertise, and this sense of things needs to be challenged. It's not so much a matter of kicking or mocking the ordinary believers, which is probably not such a good idea, as of stripping away the aura of authority enjoyed by the leaders and their organisations. And that does require pointing out that they have no supernatural source of authority. And that requires, in some cases, pointing out the absurdity of some of their supernaturalist claims.

All in all, if Kitcher's analysis is going to lead to any changes in our behaviour, then the changes may be rather subtle. It may involve a careful thinking about where our priorities are, who and what our scorn and indignation should best be reserved for, and so on. It's not immediately obvious to me what Dawkins and Dennett should be doing differently, though, even if Kitcher's analysis is totally correct. Again, maybe they should be doing something a bit differently - it's worth thinking about. But Kitcher seems to want some fairly dramatic change in tactics, and it's not clear to me exactly what it would be.

All this analysis cuts more than one way. For example, the mythically self-conscious and doctrinally-indefinite folks could learn something from it. They could understand that they are not automatically allies of their doctrinally-entangled or true-believing co-religionists. In particular, mythically self-conscious people from various faiths have more in common with each other than with true-believing co-religionists of their respective faiths. They may also have more in common with thoughtful secular people than with true-believing co-religionists: although they may find it valuable, for themselves, to be steeped in a religious tradition, they have no actual supernatural beliefs, so their actual worldviews are more like those of secular people than like those of true religious believers.

What's more, the mythically self-conscious and doctrinally indefinite should face up to the fact that they do not exhaust the categories of religious people. They are not even the majority. When "New Atheists" attack supernatural beliefs, they are not attacking a straw man. On the contrary, they are attacking orthodox, traditional, popular, and resurgent beliefs. It's no use Karen Armstrong, for example, complaining that the religion being attacked by Dawkins or Dennett is not her religion or not real religion. It may well not be her doctrinally-indefinite religion, but it is certainly real religion. It's here, it's popular, if anything it's growing, and it's socially and politically influential. She should concede this without hedging.

Kitcher represents the "New Atheists" as addressing reasonable religious people, which can probably be translated as the mythically self-conscious and doctrinally-indefinite religious participants, as follows:

[The New Atheists] can challenge those who believe in ‘reasonable religion’ to specify more clearly just what commitments such types of religion entail — to declare in public what has been abandoned, and to stick to the declaration. They can demand that those who profess a more enlightened religion no longer provide cover for fanatics who take a simplistic view of the scriptures they share with the sophisticated.

Kitcher seems to think that there's something inadequate about making this challenge, but I don't see why. If the mythically self-conscious and doctrinally-indefinite religious folks accepted all of Kitcher's analysis, why would they not conclude that the "challenge" Kitcher mentions is fair enough? Instead of defending religion and claiming that its essence is something this-worldly, such as compassion, why not agree that there's a lot of supernaturalist religion around, that it is false and often dangerous, and that it merits rebuttal? Why shouldn't they resolve that they'll "no longer provide cover for fanatics who take a simplistic view of the scriptures they share with the sophisticated"? The real moral of the analysis may be that the mythically self-conscious and doctrinally-indefinite religious practitioners should be more honest - and less hostile towards outspoken atheists.
There's doubtless a lot more to say about these issues, and I'll need at least one more post to comment on Dennett's reply to Kitcher. I continue to think that Kitcher has given us useful concepts, terminology, and insights. Exactly what we should all be doing with them is another matter. His paper is really addressed to fellow atheists/secular people, but it could make useful reading for others as well. In particular, the mythically self-conscious and docrinally-indefinite folk might also see things a bit differently if they took the analysis to heart. Outspoken atheists should not be looked upon as their enemies.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Kate Harding on bullying

If you read Seanan McGuire's post, it may have led you to this impassioned post by Kate Harding. The long thread that follows has some especially interesting discussion.

Does the original post overstate? Does it go too far with some of its rhetoric? Well, maybe. Yes ... and maybe not. I'd rather some passion be expressed than that this not be taken seriously. Kudos to Harding and McGuire for speaking up in such a forthright way about such a touchy issue. They've made a new fan, in my case, even though I haven't actually read their books or listened to McGuire's music, or whatever.

I'll now be watching out for them.

Seanan McGuire on bullying at school

Please do read this wrenching post by Seanan McGuire. Speaking for myself, I never experienced bullying on the scale that she describes, though she does say: "I was rarely the target of violence." Now that is not actually my experience: when I was at school I experienced plenty of violence. But even if McGuire was never or seldom (surely even one time is too many!) actually beaten up ... well, some of the things she describes, such as being pushed into traffic, are terrifying and horribly dangerous. And perhaps more importantly, it sounds as if the cruelty that she faced was absolutely fucking relentless, driving her to multiple suicide attempts.

Reading her article, I feel quite fortunate - I never faced anything so relentless that it made me feel suicidal. But then again, that's a stupid response. Notice that even McGuire says, "In a way, I was one of the lucky ones." But she wasn't of course. There's nothing "lucky" about what she describes, and it's worth pausing to note the self-deprecation of people who've experienced bullying: always bending over backwards to say that others had it worse. I reckon we ought to stop this. Compared to me, she did in fact have it worse, and doubtless we could find worse experiences still. But that shouldn't be the point. Even the degree of brutality that I experienced in school, and even the less-relentless-than-McGuire's level of harassment and intimidation that I put up with so many of those days in primary school and the first several years of high school, are the sort of thing that no child should have to endure and which our society should absolutely not tolerate.

There's doubtless some explanation for how each bully turns out that way, but there are many calls on our concern and understanding. If I have to pioritise, I want to see understanding and assistance given to kids who are bullied for being "different", in whatever way it may be, and usually without giving anything even remotely like provocation. Adults must be approachable, supportive, and decisive.

McGuire asks us to break the cycle. She concludes:

We've known for a long time that school bullying was out of control, but every time it gets "uncovered" again, people react like it's some sort of shock. Kids can be mean? HORRORS! Kids bully other kids? HORRORS!


Everyone at my high school knew that bullying happened. If you were a bully, you knew. If you were bullied, you knew. If you were neither of the above, you tried not to align yourself too closely with the bullied, because there was a chance the big red target we all had painted on our backs might rub off. No one in the American [or any other - RB] school system is ignorant of bullying. But still, we take the word of the bullies over the word of the bullied. Still, we allow for the mistreatment and marginalization of anyone labeled "different."

And still, kids are dying over it.

This whole situation hurts my heart. Please, please, speak out against bullying. Break the cycle. Humanity will always have the potential to be cruel, but isn't the world already difficult enough? No one should die for the crime of being different. No one should learn the lessons so many of us were forced to learn.

No one else should die because we didn't stand up and say "enough" to the bullies of the world. The fact that I have to write "no one else," and not "no one," just shows how bad the situation has become.

Please. Break the cycle, before it's too late for someone else.


Frankly, I'm at a loss to know how to do that, apart from pointing you to her post. It's not as if I have kids in my life whom I'm in a position to listen to and protect - I'm not a schoolteacher, and the children who occupy a place in my life are either grown up now or a long way away. Perhaps there's something more concrete that you can do. If not, just passing on McGuire's post might help.

"The Velvet Revolution" online

You can now read Jenny's story "The Velvet Revolution" as part of Cosmos magazine's online content. Go and have some fun. It's a lovely story, especially for cat lovers.

(I'm puzzled, though, that the only comment so far complains that the story doesn't offer a H/T to Cordwainer Smith, when it clearly does. There are very explicit allusions to Smith's writing.)

And another thing (on Ruse vs Kitcher)

"Kitcher repudiates all claims to objective truth in religion as unacceptable fundamentalism," says Ruse. He objects that, according to Kitcher, the Archbishop of Canterbury is a fundamentalist for believing in the literal resurrection of Jesus. But, the implication goes, that's surely absurd.

I'm crying foul at this point. While the literal resurrection of Jesus may well be one of the "fundamentals" that gave fundamentalism its name, the kind of literal-minded scripturalism that is denoted by the word "fundamentalism" goes way beyond belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus. Kitcher never says otherwise.

In fairness, Kitcher does say some (overly?) subtle and potentially confusing things about fundamentalism. But it's a very uncharitable reading of Kitcher to claim that he thinks all genuine religious believers are fundamentalists. What could be said, perhaps, is that Kitcher, by using five categories, of which only one consists of religious believers, fails to make important distinctions about people in that category. But that's not the same as thinking that all people with supernatural beliefs can be fairly labeled as fundamentalists. I don't see anything in Kitcher's article to suggest that he thinks that or wants us to think it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A coda on Ruse and Kitcher

Ruse says that Christians can say:

We don't accept African medicine. Why should we accept African religion? As a non-believer you may not think much of these arguments, but the point is that the Christian does. And unless you are prepared to give Christians the possibility of such an argument here, as I am and Kitcher is not, then they are not going to be interested.

But why should Kitcher say something in which religious believers - people who have supernatural beliefs - are "interested"? Kitcher rejects supernatural beliefs. He argues against them. True, he is prepared to go a bit soft on people whom he sees as merely "doctrinally entangled" as long as the latter don't try to impose supernatural beliefs - or ideas that are based on them - on others. But it's not Kitcher's fundamental goal to accommodate supernatural beliefs, and nor should it be.

At the same time, the issue here is not about [giving] Christians the possibility of such an argument. Christians can say what they want. They have freedom of speech, and I don't see how Kitcher is trying to take it away from them. Admittedly, Kitcher doesn't think that Christians (of the genuinely believing kind) have good arguments, but neither does Ruse! So I can't work out what Ruse is trying to convey. Perhaps the point is that if you accept the NOMA principle you think that any religious views are just plain illegitimate from the beginning unless they are confined to morality and the meaning of life. But Kitcher doesn't accept the NOMA principle. He thinks that's there's supernatural religion around, that it's real religion, and that it's false. That's very different from Gould's NOMA position.

In the end, how much more is Ruse saying than, "Religion is false, but we shouldn't say so"? And is that really the sort of thing that can coherently be said to the public? I could say it at a dinner party to a bunch of fellow atheists, but once Ruse says it in the Huffington Post ... the game's up isn't it? Ruse is not only endorsing atheism but even the thrust of Kitcher's arguments for it.

These meta-debates about what we can say do get tricky ...

Not accommodationist enough - Ruse on Kitcher

As I've been discussing, Philip Kitcher has written an article that contains criticism (though also some praise) directed at the core "New Atheist" writers, particularly Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Michael Ruse has now written a piece for the Huffington Post basically criticising Kitcher for being insufficiently accommodationist.

As an aside, I've been tending not to use the term "accommodationist". When the term entered circulation, I thought it referred to a propensity to try to reconcile the worldviews of religion and science, as Ruse does (he's an atheist but seems to think that there's no knock-out blow for theism from the direction of science ... or something like that) and as theists such as Ken Miller do (e.g. by suggesting ways in which evolution could be consistent with Christianity). The debate was about whether science allows room for religion. The word now seems to have taken on a meaning where it applies only to atheists and just means something like "soft on religion". I thought that the original meaning, as I understood it, was one that we needed a word for. Unfortunately we now don't seem to have a word for that, given the way the meme has spread and mutated.

Be that as it may, Ruse and Kitcher are both atheists. Kitcher has made some rather mild and perhaps even useful criticisms of Dawkins and company. In doing so, he has introduced concepts and terminology that look quite handy. For his pains, he's being criticised by Ruse for not being accommodationist soft enough:

The simple fact is (let's stay with Christians to keep the discussion simple) Christians believe that God exists, that He was Creator, and that He came to earth in the form of Jesus for our eternal salvation, dying on the Cross and rising on the third day to make this possible. They believe that these claims are true, period. They do not believe them in order to give life to their moral beliefs. Contrary to Kitcher, though what he thinks is preferable is not relevant here, Christians believe that morality follows from these beliefs not that these beliefs prop up morality.

I remember vividly growing up as a Quaker in the years after the Second World War. Back in those days, it was not easy to justify pacifism. The war against Hitler had been a deeply justifiable war and to deny this, to belittle the deaths of the young men who had fought to defeat the Nazis, seemed to many to be simply wrong. The main answer we Quakers had -- and we thought it a pretty good answer -- was that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount told us to turn the other cheek. That was it. That was enough. Jesus was the Son of God and what he said was final.

I personally agree with much that Kitcher says. Without empirical proof, religious existence claims depend on faith, and the trouble with faith is that different people with different cultures have different faith insights. For Kitcher (and for me) that is an end to matters. But the point is that the believer thinks that faith works and gives true insights. The believer also has arguments about the relativity. A Christian might argue that others are wrong. We don't accept African medicine. Why should we accept African religion? As a non-believer you may not think much of these arguments, but the point is that the Christian does. And unless you are prepared to give Christians the possibility of such an argument here, as I am and Kitcher is not, then they are not going to be interested.

I applaud Kitcher's attempt to move forward on the science and religion front. But, I am sorry, I just don't think that what he offers will work.

Ironically, though, Ruse makes a fairly strong point here. He says: Contrary to Kitcher ...Christians believe that morality follows from these beliefs not that these beliefs prop up morality. That seems to have a ring of truth, and there's a grain of truth in it.

However, I'm with Kitcher here. Kitcher freely admits that the direction goes as Ruse says it does for the people he calls religious believers. His point is that many religious adherents are not religious believers in this sense, and I'm sure he's correct about that.

Now, perhaps Ruse could respond that the great majority of religious adherents really are full-on religious believers. In the developing world that may be true. On a world scale it is likely to be true. Likewise, it may be true in the US - I said there's a grain of truth, didn't I? Very many Americans seem to believe stuff that can only be explained by a very full-blooded religious belief. I think one of the criticisms that can be made of Kitcher is that he hasn't counted numbers, so you'd think maybe his five categories are about equally well populated. But that won't be so; in any actual society, some categories may be far more populated than others. In America, there are many millions of people who believe all sorts of supernatural stuff, much of it plainly and directly incompatible with science. Score one to Ruse.

Nonetheless, Ruse needs to get out more and mix with a wider range of religious adherents outside of North America. I'm sure he'll find that there are many who fit into Kitcher's mythically self-conscious, doctrinally indefinite, and doctrinally entangled categories. I'm tempted (though I'm going to resist the temptation) to make a nuisance of myself with my own religious friends, here in Australia, to try to nail down where they belong, but my strong sense of it is that many of them would fall into the doctrinally indefinite and mythically self-conscious categories. In countries such as Denmark and Sweden, it seems that the majority of religious adherents are mythically self-conscious - they have no supernatural beliefs, but still identify as "Christians". For them, Christianity is mainly a system of morality (and a fairly liberal one at that).

In the upshot, a lot of work needs to be done to get a better sociological grip on all this, but things are not as simple as Ruse says. Moreover, if they were, that would be all the more reason to take a harder stance, rather than a softer one. The point of Kitcher's analysis is not to accommodate the true believers but to get a better understanding of religious people who are not out-and-out believers, so we (i.e. atheists like Kitcher, Dawkins, and Dennett ... and me) can think about how we ought to relate to them. Ruse would more or less cut off that exercise before we start. He asks us to assume that all the religious people we are dealing with are out-and-out believers, and then "accommodate" them.

Ruse misunderstands Kitcher's analysis in various ways, but one big problem is that he associates it with Gould's NOMA theory. But Gould's NOMA theory has no place in it for Kitcher's category of the full-on religious believers. Gould seems to think that religion by its very nature only makes claims about morality and the meaning of life. Kitcher never says anything so obviously false, not to mention silly. He merely says that some religious adherents are driven primarily by goals and values, rather than by supernatural beliefs. But he also acknowledges that others do, indeed, have supernatural beliefs that are doing the driving, and he argues that those beliefs are false.

Whether or not Kitcher's actual recommendations - which I haven't yet got to - are good or bad, or a mix, he's advanced the debate. He's given us tools to think about some of these dynamics. It's interesting to see him getting taken to task for not being, um, soft enough.

Edit: Link fixed.