About Me

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

Monday, January 31, 2011

Dammit, I now think that I don't understand Pynchon

This is a bit of a problem, since I'm giving a talk tomorrow night on Pynchon's fiction. I've been reimmersing myself in it for some time now, reading those books that I hadn't previously read and re-reading as many as I could find time for of the others. I think I now have a good feel for what's in Pynchon's eight published books, and I'm certainly well geared up for conversation about them. My feel for some is, alas, better than for others (in particular, I've only read Mason & Dixon once, and didn't follow it anywhere near as well as I'd like). Still, there are likely to be few people in the audience, if any, with a better grasp than mine of Pynchon's oeuvre.

And yet ... I'm now confused by this overall body of work. Although I enjoyed much of it and was astonished by almost all of it (Pynchon is one of the most impressive stylists working in the English language, and he produces tour de force passage after tour de force passage), I'm not at all sure that I have a clear idea, after all this, of how Pynchon has developed as a writer or of just where he's at now, mentally.

I can see many things there: his fear and anger when it comes to rapacious governments and corporations; his loathing of exercises of control, surveillance, and exploitation; his general sense of the ruthlessness of elites (by which he certainly does not mean artists and the intellectual classes - he has in mind the world's semi-hereditary power elites based on social position and wealth); his sympathy for all those whose interests are passed over when power plays itself out in the world.

But there's all this other stuff as well, all the satire that seems to cut in a different direction: the sense that we are pattern-making beings who see connections and conspiracies that aren't really there; the feeling of all moral authority being leached away, rendering all judgments, even his own, problematic (which, in a sense they are); the ongoing unease and alienation that seems so ubiquitous in Pynchon as to be corrosive. How does all this fit together?

Help! Actually, I'll doubtless use the talk to raise some of these questions, not only about Pynchon but about contemporary literature more generally. But what do you think should be said in a relatively brief talk on Pynchon for a group with (I suspect) very mixed levels of knowledge of the man's work? I'm open to any suggestions.

Carey on Age of X

The first Age of X book, Age of X: Alpha, has now appeared (though I haven't seen it yet myself). Here's Mike Carey talking about it. This alternative X-Men reality still sounds cool, at least to me. (Spoilers, for those who may be worried about them.)

And it's Djokovic!

Whether or not Murray was tired from his battle with Ferrer or whatever, Djokovic was clearly the better player on the night and deserved to win. His defense was incredible and he pulled of some sensational winners.

I started off neutral in my preferences, but as the match went on it became clear that only an injury to Djokovic, or perhaps some kind of major choke, could save Murray - these were not things that I wanted to happen, so I started rooting for Djokovic. But commisserations to all my friends who were hoping the Scotsman would come through for them.

Great atmosphere in the Rod Laver Arena last night.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sean Carroll on The Moral Landscape

Sean Carroll has a fairly brief post over here. He and I are pretty much on the same page, although I should repeat that I don't see the metric problem as the deepest problem. Even if we had a metric and had only practical problems with measuring well-being, there would still be the question of whether it would be a requirement of reason or some such thing that we must act so as to maximise universal well-being.

Or, alternatively, is the claim "You must do X as it maximises universal well-being" just a fact about the world analogous to empirical claims such as "There is currently no rhinoceros in this room"? It doesn't seem to be a logically true claim or an empirical claim, so what is it?

If you say, "Well it's a moral claim" that just seems to show that moral claims are not claims about matters of fact or reason, so how is it binding on us that we must actually act in accordance with them? In very many circumstances it may be a good idea to do so, even by our own lights, but that will depend on just what our own desires, values, etc., actually are.

I don't believe that someone (Alice, say) who acts, on some occasion, in a way that fails to maximise well-being is necessarily mistaken about any matter of fact or acting in a way that is self-defeating or irrational in any other sense that Alice need bother about. We can cheat and redefine rationality in a way that is already moralised, but that will get us nowhere because Alice can just refuse to accept our concept of rationality (why should she accept it if she is not already committed to our idea of morality?).

Sean is correct to insist that the metric problem is not merely a practical one, but one of principle. But the crucial issue goes even deeper than this and would remain even if the metric problem could be solved somehow (by some super-duper neuroscience, or whatever).

I've seen many attempts to get around the problem with morality - that it cannot possibly be everything that it is widely thought to be (action guiding, intrinsically prescriptive, objectively correct, etc.). In my experience, this is like trying to get rid of the bump in the carpet. The bump always pops up somewhere else. We have to live with it.

(Harris has since published a reply to his critics, which is on my "to-read" list. I'm sure it'll be interesting.)

Murray or Djokovic, which of these?

I'm off to the Rod Laver Arena tonight to see this. I actually have no idea who is going to come through here. Unlike most of the population, I'm quite pleased to see a final with neither Federer nor Nadal, but I have no particular preference among the two players who are left standing. I hope we get a tough, high-level match that goes for five sets, whoever wins.

Last night I was rooting for Li Na, though I have absolutely nothing against Kim Clijsters. On the contrary, she seems like a genuinely nice person, as well as an elite player on the tour. I expected her to come through in the end, as she did, but a victory for Li Na would have been great for the game in many ways.

Where's Professor Chaos when you need him?

In the post that I linked to yesterday, Steve Leiva sez:
Last summer while attending one of KJAZ’s fabulous and free outdoor concerts at the Hollywood-Highland complex here in Los Angeles, something happened that put in perspective for me exactly why we need heroes in our popular entertainment—whether super or just extremely competent in fast cars. My wife and I were listening to the fine music of the Downtown Jazz Project when four young women sitting directly behind us began to talk loud enough for us to have joined in the joy of one anticipating her upcoming wedding, and commensurate with another about the vicious politics at her office. Despite this being an outdoor concert where people may feel freer to chit and chat than they would if they were in a concert hall, I found the women to be exceedingly rude and discourteous.
He then goes on to share his pet fantasies about how various action heroes or superheroes would have handled the situation.

I could have done with the help of a supervillain at the tennis last night. The women's singles and men's doubles finals were both enthralling, but the pleasure was diminished to a degree by the bloke a few seats up who insisted on blathering away at the top of his voice even during points. Where's Professor Chaos when you need him?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Leiva on heroes and superheroes

Nice post by Steve Leiva. (Though, as always, this doesn't mean I'm in total agreement. In particular, I find villains who are absolutely evil rather boring. I like villains who are more sympathetic than that. Preferably they should have some kind of understandable motivation that tempts us to root for them and applaud their various victories and escapes; and they certainly should have a certain allure ... perhaps from a veneer of wit or charm or nobility. Think of The Master in Dr. Who; or Ozymandias in Watchmen; think of the Marvel big two villains, Dr. Doom and Magneto; or, to some extent, of Darth Vader, who is largely based on Dr. Doom; and perhaps also the villainous characters in E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros.)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Myers and Asma debate Asma's views

For those not following the earlier thread, here are the links, both at Pharyngula:


and Asma (with a brief reply by Myers and a long Pharyngula-style thread).

It's an interesting discussion, and I think good points are made on both sides.

I don't entirely go along with PZ Myers on this one, to the extent that I understand his viewpoint, because I don't share his (apparent?) view that the truth is always what most or ultimately matters. There may well be situations where other values can come in conflict with truth and may, in the particular circumstances, be more important. If that is denying a foundation of the Gnu Atheism, so be it (I doubt that it is, though: to the extent that there is such a thing as a "New Atheist" movement, it's probably quite diverse and has no party line on a topic such as this).

I'm interested in scrutinising the truth claims of religion primarily because these particular truth claims are important to me. If some religion or other can give me the sorts of things that religions typically claim to - eternal bliss, or whatever - it's worth checking how much credibility these claims really have. All the more so if they are likely to be false and buying into them can be a good way of ruining your one and only life. Furthermore, devoting some time to these questions is a service to others.

I've also come to believe that widespread social acceptance of the authority of various religions does a lot of harm. Therefore, I think there is some urgency in challenging that authority in a forthright, high-profile way, not just in our own thoughts or in private conversations or obscure journals. But I don't necessarily think that all religions are equally harmful in all contexts, and given my particular motivation I do think it's worthwhile making distinctions and setting priorities, and in discussing publicly and frankly which distinctions and priorities are important. Despite its sensationalist title (and remember, these are usually chosen by sub-editors and should not have too much influence on how we read what follows), I thought that Asma's original piece was mainly about doing that. Whether or not we actually agree with its content - something I hope to return to, since the thread over on the other post has some cogent criticisms of Asma - I think it makes a contribution to an important discussion about priorities, etc. Even if people make mistakes in the process of this discussion, their contributions may be of value.

Stepping back somewhat, yes, I'm interested in truth. But that alone would not have motivated me to be a forthright public critic of religion. What actually motivated me to become such a thing also motivates me to make distinctions, set priorities, wonder whether I'm making and setting the right ones, want to talk to others about it, and so on.

Stepping back even further, truths about the world are, by and large, very useful to us in achieving our goals, whatever they are. On this, I'm with PZ. In most cases, we can't know in advance which truths will prove useful, so it's generally difficult to justify pursuing some truths and not others (though there actually are some that I consider better not pursued - usually truths about ourselves as individuals that could tie us in knots if we worried about them and became too self-conscious).

I'm fairly ruthless in my own pursuit of the truth - it has taken me to philosophical positions that even many atheists find unpalatable - but truth is not the only value and nor do I assume that it must prevail in all circumstances. Perhaps PZ also thinks this, but some passages in his post suggest not and that we don't have the same motivation here. If so, that's cool with me. I'm happy if people have social goals that are similar to mine without sharing the totality of my underlying values and motivations.

Condensed version of my Moral Landscape review

A condensed and slightly rejigged version of my Journal of Evolution and Technology review of The Moral Landscape has now appeared as a featured article at the ABC's Religion and Ethics Portal (yes, I wish this had a different name, such as "Philosophy, Ethics, and Religion", but I suppose "Religion and Ethics" attracts more viewers) under the title "Moral Scepticism versus Sam Harris's Moral Realism".

This is only a third of the length of the original, so some arguments and nuances are inevitably lost. It did, however, also give me a chance to sharpen up some points (and certainly some phrasing). Do have a look and feel free to involve yourself in any debate that arises over there.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Inherent Vice (2009)

I'm giving this a second read, and am enjoying it more this time. The story is told by someone who is describing these events (taking place at the start of the 1970s, not long after the Sharon Tate murders) from a vantage many years later, but it usually depicts only what the main character, hippie private eye Doc Sportello, sees, hears, otherwise senses, and experiences and thinks. We get an impression of the weirdness of California in that era, but it's mainly from the zany vividness with which it's described - and partly it's just the never-ending cascade of novelties that even Doc is struck by, at a time of extremely rapid social experimentation and change. To Doc, though, it's pretty much all "groovy" except for the depredations of big business and the Nixon regime.

Doc is just that laid back and cool ... though as the story unfolds we also gradually get a sense of how audacious, resourceful, and gritty he actually is.

Although it can do with more than one reading, Inherent Vice must be Pynchon's most accessible novel, and in many ways the most likeable. I'm looking forward to a better understanding, this time round, of what actually happens.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Asma on New Atheism

This piece by Stephen T. Asma is critical of the "New Atheism", but it's one of the most thoughtful critiques so far (probably the most impressive I've seen since the material by Philip Kitcher that we discussed some weeks ago now).

In a bullet-biting mode, Asma makes strong claims for the pragmatic value even of some untrue claims about the world. At the least, it's worth considering his account of the attractions of animism and similar belief systems to people in developing countries - and his preference for these over the more familiar (to us) kinds of monotheism.

Michael Fassbender interview re X-Men: First Class

It sounds as if Fassbender is getting right into the spirit of things. I like the remark about keeping Charlie-boy out of his head.

Some scepticism about the Singularity

From Kyle Munkittrick. Also a pretty good thread in response to it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution - print edition appearing

Press release  below. The anthology was released as an e-book last year and will now also appear as a standard book in printed format.

Apart from poems and stories by the people mentioned in the press release (and many others), this book also contains my longish essay/article "Science and the Sea of Faith", which I'm quite proud of - I think this is one of my better pieces, and it explores a number of the issues that we often discuss here. Unfortunately (for you) it's not available on the Internet. Oh noes, you'll have to buy the book to read the article! But maybe you'll also like the rest of the book.
The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution
What does evolution mean? Marking the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species, The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution is bursting with stories, poetry, and full-page artwork about the meaning of evolution. From science fiction and fantasy, to comedy and horror, to fairy tales and literary fiction, this anthology has a story for everyone.

An international lineup of more than 40 contributors includes Sean Williams, Brian Stableford, Patricia Russo, Carlos Hernandez, Jetse de Vries, Christopher Green, Bruce Boston, and Emily Ballou. Dark, whimsical, and shot through with wonder, The Tangled Bank explores the universe Charles Darwin revealed.

Available now as an e-book, and in print on 12th Feb 2011. To get your copy, visit http://thetangledbank.com/.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I have some proofs

... of some shortish pieces that I wrote, or was otherwise involved in, for the journal Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature. These are to go in a collection of the "best of" the journal. I hope they stand up okay years later.

Unpalatable truths

I seem to spend a lot of time defending three propositions that many people find unpalatable. Put as innocuously as I can manage, they are that:

1. No gods exist.

2. We don't have free will - at least in the sense that's believed by many people (let's put a question mark over compatibilism, which is, well, compatible with what I'm saying here).

3. There's something about morality that is, as we say, not objective (even though the crude kinds of relativism and subjectivism don't hold up).

This view of the world runs up against a lot of what passes for common sense (though a lot of what passes for common sense is, I submit, probably not even coherent and certainly not well-evidenced).

I'd like to start a conversation about unpalatable truths. In particular, it's going to be difficult enough convincing people to give up their religious beliefs, let alone also asking them to become moral sceptics (or "skeptics", since most of my readers seem to be American). Atheism sounds scary to many, but moral scepticism sounds even worse. I'd like to see Richard Garner's Beyond Morality get more readers, since it shows how moral scepticism may not be as scary in its practical results as it sounds ... and the book is quite accessible to educated readers who don't necessarily have a background in philosophy. I don't agree with every single claim in Garner's book, but it's probably the best introduction Out There to sceptical thought in this area, where "best" takes into account accessibility.

I'm not going to stop defending these unpalatable truths (which is what they seem to me to be), because, well, that's kind of what I do as a philosopher: I try to get to the bottom of issues like this. But it really is going to be an unpalatable view of the world for most people, and it raises once again the question of what tactics we should adopt if we're trying to win hearts and minds and to change the world. Should we really be pushing our total view of the world, no matter how unpalatable, at any political cost? As I say, I intend to continue doing so, but it's at least not obvious that this is the best thing to do. (Relativise "best" to whatever values or goals you find salient here, as per earlier discussions.  I won't say this each time.)

New X-Men movie in June

There's been some scattered publicity about the new X-Men movie, X-Men: First Class, which is coming our way in June. This could be either a cool reinterpretation or a travesty - from what's being said, it will be a radical reinterpretation of the franchise, cool or not, complete with a young Professor X who still has his hair. (Hmm, I'm not sure whether that's going to work for such an iconic character.)

OTOH, some of the ideas do seem on the ball thematically. It will be set during the early 1960s at the time of the American civil rights movement, and the analogy with human/mutant relations will come through clearly. We'll see Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost, the look of the movie will be classic James Bondish, and the narrative will focus on how Professor X and Magneto came to be enemies after originally being friends. Thus, it will be a prequel to the first three X-Men movies, which are set 40 years later.

Fans of the comics who want movies to reflect comic-book continuity will be disappointed by some dramatic departures, but it sounds as if it may have something to offer fans of the overall dramatic intentions of the franchise. A lot of the early buzz is about January Jones playing Emma Frost. I can also totally see Michael Fassbender playing a younger version of Magneto than Ian McKellen's.

The above is what I've gleaned here and there. I don't have one good link that makes all the above clear, though you can obviously google as appropriate. Anyway, I'll provide some links in later posts as the movie gets a bit closer and we see more publicity material.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A holiday

Yay, I have a holiday over the next 10 days or so! Well, amongst it I have to put together and deliver a talk on Thomas Pynchon. But otherwise, I'll be spending time at the second week of the Australian Open (even though my favoured players have been falling like flies) and catching up with some very dear friends in Melbourne.

Blogging will be more intermittent, but it won't be a total blog break.

I also catch up on some of the comments that have been coming, and I'll be writing some posts that address at least a couple of them. Tom Clark, for one, has raised some interesting and important issues over the last few days.

Adam Roberts on Robert Jordan

Even if you're a big fan of Robert Jordan, you'll get something out of this, including some amusement but also some food for thought on what it is we do when we discuss the merits of literary works.

For maximum enjoyment, you need to dip into the reviews of the individual books.

H/T Damien Broderick.

One more thing, though, for now

I must raise this one before (a) becoming more intermittent for a week or so, and (b) moving to some other subjects for a while. It's relevant to the "counting grains of sand" issue that we were discussing the other day.

On pages 71-73 of The Moral Landscape, Sam briefly discusses the work of Derek Parfit. Quite properly, he notes on page 71 (and explains over the page in more detail) that Parfit has shown how consequentialist theories of morality lead to "troubling paradoxes" whether we are concerned to maximise total units of welfare (or whatever) or average units. He (Sam) refers to this as one of the "practical difficulties for consequentialism", but it's not just a practical difficulty. It's a challenge to the very coherence, or at least the intuitiveness when probed, of consequentialism - or at least of any kind of consequentialism that claims we are objectively required to maximise something (I have a consequentialist approach myself, in a broader sense).

Unless Parfit's paradoxes can be solved, consequentialism, in the relevant sense, is in deep conceptual-theoretical, not just practical trouble. Sam does not claim to be able to solve them and doesn't offer any good grounds for trust that they can be solved.

Perhaps they can be. (My own "solution" is to deny that there are objectively binding moral principles and that we are trying to maximise anything; to base our decisions on a plurality of values; and generally to take a pluralistic approach to how we ought to act. I have an article about this in a fairly recent issue of The Journal of Medical Ethics, where I apply it to the life extension debate).

But in the end, he concedes that summation of "welfare" cannot be our only metric (while saying that at the extremes there must be some kind of metric - this is just starting to get good, and is as close as he comes to addressing the metric problem).

But he then fobs off the problem by remarking how certain moral questions are difficult to solve in practice, and that nothing untoward follows from the practical difficulty or impossibility of knowing the consequences of our thoughts and actions. So, it's as if this were just another case of not being able, in practice, to count the grains of sand on the beach.

Unfortunately, it's not like that. The paradoxes from Parfit, which Sam cannot solve, any more than I can without cheating, are not about the practical difficulty of knowing the consequences of our actions or of counting well-being units. They go far deeper. To treat them as if they are about practical difficulties is, alas, to make an elementary error.

Once again, I feel I'm being hard on someone whom I admire and consider an ally. However, I do wonder why he was satisfied with this passage, or why the people whom he consulted let it through in this form. It's probably better that I don't speculate here - it's presumably just an honest error, after all. But this passage provides an opportunity for the book to go to the next level ... and it actually starts to get there before dealing with the problem as if it were merely about knowing the practical results of our actions (something that Parfit is not on about at all, as TML itself makes clear).

The following section is also interesting, but, whatever else it does, it doesn't address the questions raised by Parfit (among other things it argues that perhaps we should continue to accept that people will be biased towards loved ones, etc., as they may actually end up working to maximise global well-being; it's a kind of rule-utilitarian argument, but not one that addresses the deep problems about maximising).

Oh well, shall we talk about something else for now?

A bit more on Harris

I really, really don't want this blog seeming to become a sort of anti-Sam-Harris blog. I actually have a lot of admiration for Sam, and indeed a certain amount of gratitude to him for his absolutely crucial contribution to opening up public debate on religion. He was as instrumental as anyone in creating an environment where it is now much easier for critics of religion to have their say and obtain an audience. Indeed, his efforts, along with those of Richard Dawkins and a few others, did much to make books like 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists possible.

I do think that Gnu Atheism should not be hitched to the dubious (as I see them) philosophical positions of moral realism and utilitarianism (or anything that too closely resembles it). Also, as I mentioned again recently, this blog was always meant to defend certain philosophical positions, including a form of moral scepticism, in the sense in which J.L. Mackie considered himself a moral sceptic.

Because Harris is currently defending philosophical positions in metaethics and normative theory that I don't agree with, and which run counter to my own views on these things, I guess I'll go on addressing some of his arguments. For better or worse, most of my readers are more likely to encounter these arguments in a book like The Moral Landscape than in philosophical journals or books from academic presses, so I'm more likely to criticise the formulations we see from Harris. But I don't want this to seem like some kind of vendetta or a feud between us or something (I certainly hope it doesn't look that way to him). As far I'm concerned, we're allies. When you step back, we're trying to achieve similar goals. Our agendas overlap to a very great extent.

I'm tending to think that I'll still come back to some of the arguments in the book, several of which get repeated in the recent post at Why Evolution is True, but without kind of continuing line by line through that post. The post doesn't have a lot that's new, and the book has more detailed and definitive versions of the arguments. I do want to address the idea that we are no less able to make objectively binding first-order thin moral judgments than we are able to get objectively true theoretical claims via scientific inquiry. Harris has been making this claim, or something like it, for some time now, and I didn't mention it in the JET review of the book. To be honest, I don't think it's a good argument, or even superficially plausible, and I couldn't deal with everything even in 6000+ words. Nonetheless, I think it's worth saying something about it, partly because the argument does raise interesting questions about the nature of science, and partly because Harris seems to put a lot of weight on it.

With a period of intermittent blogging coming up, I probably won't be able to get to this issue for a couple of weeks, but it seemed worthwhile signalling that I still intend to ... and to say something more general about all this.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A shout-out to Jason Streitfeld

Jason has commented here a fair bit, and has sometimes been quite critical of my views on certain points. That's okay: I'm quite happy for people to express disagreement (as opposed to making personal comments on my allegedly bad character, inadequate life experience, or whatever; I'm not really interested in debating those kinds of issues).

I've been looking at Jason's blog, Specter of Reason, and I'm here to tell y'all that it's pretty interesting. Jason has an unusual but provocative take on some of the recurrent issues that I write about here: atheism, the sources (if any) of moral authority, and so on. You might like to take a look (and Jason might like to post more regularly and frequently).

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A loose end

I said in the previous post that this is not a valid argument: "The case I make in the book is that morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice)."

I do agree that the phenomenon of morality would not exist if conscious minds did not exist, if that's what's meant by what comes before the first semi-colon. That's because I think that the concept of the phenomenon of morality involves social regulation of the conduct of creatures that are at least conscious (they probably need to be self-conscious as well, and and maybe have other cognitive characteristics).

We observe societies with various norms of behaviour that are enforced by attitudes of praise, blame, ostracism, etc., and we recognise this phenomenon as "morality", and I expect we would not recognise it as morality if it involved regulation of things that are not conscious. Even when we apply moral standards to the behaviour of business corporations, which are not literally conscious, I doubt that we'd think we were applying moral standards if not for the fact that directors, business executives, shareholders, and so on are conscious.

In all, I accept:

P1. If conscious minds did not exist, the phenomenon of morality would not exist.

Harris may want something stronger than this, but I don't see how he's entitled to help himself to it. I also accept:

P2. All conscious minds are natural phenomena.

From P2. we can conclude that if there were no natural phenomena there would be no conscious minds.

The conclusion that then follows from all this is actually:

C. If no natural phenomena existed the phenomenon of morality would not exist.

That is hardly a surprising conclusion. I'm sure it's true. Note, however, that we are talking about morality as a social phenomenon. It does not follow that "moral truths" exist in the sense that moral realists typically mean. To try to demonstrate that will require a different argument, probably one with far more controversial premises.

Doubtless there are truths about the phenomenon of morality. But one of those truths about the phenomenon may be that human beings and human societies often claim falsely that their moral norms are objectively binding (in the sense discussed in the metaethical literature). It may, indeed, be one of the truths about the phenomenon of morality that moral norms are never objectively binding in the relevant sense. That is, roughly: they are never binding, on pain of irrationality, on the people concerned, irrespective of their actual desires. Whatever bindingness they do have does not transcend the relevant desires and institutions.

Arguments to the effect that the phenomenon of morality would not exist without the existence of natural phenomena, or that it is itself a natural phenomenon, or that it can be studied in some sense that we might call "scientific", go nowhere near establishing moral realism. All of the metaethical issues that divide realists of various kinds from anti-realists of various kinds are left open by all this. We're looking at a very bad argument.

Harris defends himself - on the need for a metric of "well-being"

I'm going to have to deal with this reply by Sam Harris in installments because, as reported, I'm short of time this week. The problem is that I'll need to use a lot of words and take a lot of my time to deal with each of the points made  - oh my! - by Harris in response to Jerry Coyne's post on my review of Harris's The Moral Landscape. As I see it, there are difficult concepts here, and they take a fair bit of explanation in each case before I can even describe just where the difference seems to lie. Towards the end, for example, Harris repeats a dodgy analogy with science that he also uses in the book to shore up his argument, and I can't see how I can show why it is dodgy without writing a long post to tease out the problems. But that's for another time.

Note before we go on that Harris is replying to the issues in play as they are summarised by Jerry, rather than to the detail of the argument over in my review. That's fine as far as it goes, as long as we're all clear. Further, some of the points that he's responding to are more Jerry's than mine, or at least reflect Jerry's formulation.

That said, Jerry and I are, I think, largely in agreement in our criticisms of the Harris book. If we do disagree anywhere, it will probably be on something fairly subtle, or where Jerry raises a problem of his own that isn't part of my critique. E.g., Jerry raises an issue about trolley cases that I don't deal with directly in my review. I'm not saying I necessarily disagree with him here - I'd need to think about it, and the trolley cases may, for all I know, cause Harris difficulties - but it's simply not something that I relied on in pointing out that there are complexities that The Moral Landscape skates over, and sometimes gets wrong.

The metric for "well-being"

The first point that Harris deals with, however, is made by me as well as by Jerry. This is a problem with any talk that relates to maximising the well-being of conscious creatures or comparing the respective effects of two different strategies (two different actions, say, or two different systems of laws and customs) on their well-being. It's not the deepest problem with the book, but it's a genuine one that Harris needs to deal with somehow. It's this: We cannot make objectively binding comparisons of well-being unless we have a metric for well-being. We need to know what "well-being" actually is, and it needs to be something that comes in units of some kind, so comparisons can be made.

Harris just repeats a point that he makes in the book:
This is simply not a problem for my thesis (recall my “answers in practice vs. answers in principle” argument). There is a difference between how we verify the truth of a proposition and what makes a proposition true. How many breaths did I take last Tuesday? I don’t know, and there is no way to find out. But there is a correct, numerical answer to this question (and you can bet the farm that it falls between 5 and 5 million).
I thought he might try to put an argument that there actually is a metric for "well-being", discoverable perhaps via research in neuroscience. That would be something of a leap of faith, though, especially without a very clear definition of "well-being". Instead, he gives an answer that misses the point of the criticism. Alas, it simply is a problem for his overall argument.

His example of how many breaths he took last Tuesday would do for my purposes, but let's first take another example that brings out some extra complexities. We can ask how many grains of sand there are on a particular beach. This might be difficult to answer precisely, partly because we need to know how far down the "beach" goes and partly because the boundaries of the beach on the map are somewhat vague: it will shade into whatever environment lies behind it, it will vary between high tide and low tide, and so on. All in all, we are going to have to agree on a thin line around the beach, thin enough so that each grain of sand falls on one side or the other, plus some kind of two dimensional boundary beneath. Only at that stage can we be sure what we are even measuring.

Once we've done that, however, we have a metric - probably. I'm assuming that we have a clear enough agreed understanding of what a "grain of sand" is to avoid disputes in particular cases. If that's so, our metric is "grain of sand" and there will be an objectively correct answer as to how many grains of sand there are on the beach (as defined by our boundaries) at a particular time. The answer might, theoretically, be, oh, let's say, 125 billion grains of sand. This figure can vary enormously among larger and smaller beaches.

Similarly, if we can agree on what the precise boundaries of "Tuesday" were (this will include working out which timezone we are going to use), and if we can agree on what is an inhalation strong enough to count as a breath, and on how we will count any incomplete breaths at the ends of the day, then theoretically there is an objectively correct answer, let's say 16,000, to the number of breaths that Harris took last Tuesday.

He is also correct that it is difficult - for all practical purposes impossible - to count the number of grains of sand on a particular beach or the number of breaths taken by a particular person on a particular day. That, however, is not because of the lack of metric. In these cases, we do have a metric: we know what counts as a "grain of sand" and what counts as a "breath". It's precisely because we have a metric in each case that there is an objectively correct answer, even if it's not possible for us to establish the answer in practice.

But the point about well-being was not that it is difficult - or, in practice, impossible - to count the number of units of "well-being". It's that we simply don't have a unit at all. If I decide to apply for a particular job, rather than deciding not to, we can't compare the respective number of units of well-being that are contributed to conscious creatures by these different causes of action, and it's not simply or only because of practical difficulties in counting, as with the number of grains of sand on the beach or the number of breaths taken by Sam Harris on a particular day. The problem, rather, is that we don't even know what we are supposed to count. The mere practical difficulties of counting might also cause a problem for Harris at some point in his discussion, but it is not what was raised. The problem is that we don't know what we're counting at all. We don't even have agreement on what "well-being" actually is.

Likewise, it's not good enough for Harris to say:
These are all interesting questions. Some might admit of clear answers, while others might be impossible to resolve. But this is not my problem. The case I make in the book is that morality entirely depends on the existence of conscious minds; minds are natural phenomena; and, therefore, moral truths exist (and can be determined by science in principle, if not always in practice). The fact that we can easily come up with questions that are hard or impossible to answer does not challenge my thesis.
However, if some of the issues in question are impossible to resolve - and not just because of practical difficulties in counting - it certainly does challenge the thesis of moral objectivism, to which Harris appears to be committed. He could defuse the whole issue here if he simply abandoned moral objectivism, which I believe he could do quite readily. (Leave aside that the argument in this quote is not, as it stands, logically valid.)

One suspicion here (I don't put it beyond that at this stage) is that well-being is not simply one thing. It may be a combination of things, and reasonable people may disagree about the relative importance of those things. Harris seems clear that it is not simply pleasure, but if not what is it? Is it pleasure minus pain (and can these be placed on the same scale?)? Is it some set of goods that a person possesses, such the ability to do certain things? Is it some sort of summation of a number of things that people tend to care about, measurable in different units if they are measurable at all?

There will be no objectively correct answer  - not even one that we can't discover in practice - as to what course of action produces more well-being units unless well-being actually has a metric. If it does, there will be deeper questions as to why we should feel bound to act so as to maximise these well-being units, whatever they are, but if it doesn't ... well, we can't even get that far.

Making judgments of merit

Note that we can still make judgments about the merits of moral systems, systems of laws, particular acts, people's characters, and so on. Moreover, those judgments need not be just arbitrary. In any actual discussion we may have, not just anything can count as a "good" act or a "good" system of customs and laws, or a "good" set of dispositions of character. Harris is quite right to attack people (none of whom seem to be found in philosophy departments, but it's rumoured that anthropology departments are well stocked with them) who see all this as just arbitrary. But he doesn't have to make claims to the effect that one course of action or whatever is objectively the correct one, or that one is always objectively superior to all others (except in the rare event of a precise tie). We don't think like that about other value judgments - not usually - so it's something of a psychological puzzle why so many people want to think like that about morality.

Consider how we judge the merits of motor-cars. I can't imagine that many people think that judgments of the respective merits of two similar cars are the sort of thing that can be just plain true or false, as if my 2009 Honda Civic is worth 1000 car-merit units while the price-equivalent Mazda is worth only 990 car-merit units. That is not how it works.

Rather, we can take account of data about such matters as performance (which can be broken up into many other sub-components, such as maximum speed, acceleration in a range of circumstances, towing power, stability when cornering, braking, and others), fuel economy, comfort, how easy the car is to drive (and maybe how "fun" it is to drive), various aspects of styling, reliability, and doubtless others. These are not arbitrary considerations for beings like us to take into account: they reflect stable desires that are widespread among human beings, given the kinds of beings that we are and the kinds of circumstances in which we find ourselves. Not just anything can count as a "good" car: we'd raise our eyes if someone recommended an uncomfortable, unreliable car that guzzles fuel while failing to accelerate, cornering with little stability, and braking dangerously.

And yet, I may judge my Honda to be of greater merit while you do likewise with the Mazda ... and neither of us is "just wrong" or being irrational. We may be placing different weights on different things. You might be putting more weight on some aspect of performance while I am putting more weight on reliability - or vice versa. My judgment of which is the better car will reflect my desires and values, while your judgment will reflect yours. Neither of us is going to be so naive as to insist that the Honda or the Mazda just is the better car of the two, as if one racked up more car-merit units on some scale that we are both bound objectively bound to apply.

Most of our judgments about the merits of things - knives, cars, friends, sunsets, or whatever you care to name - are like this. They are not simply arbitrary, so that just anything can count as a good knife (presumably we all want such things as sharpness, or at least the ability to be sharpened, and sturdiness), but nor must we all agree on pain of being just wrong ... objectively wrong like the person who produces the wrong figure for the number of grains of sand on the local beach.

Simple things and complex things

Once we see that judgments of the merits of relatively simple things, such as knives and cars, are like this, why do so many people struggle with the idea that judgments of the merits of much more complex things, such as people (with their complex psychologies) or systems of laws, are even less likely to be just right or just wrong? Admittedly, not just anyone will count as a "good" person, but we fool ourselves if we think that there are person-goodness units that we can use to decide as matter of objective fact that one person just is "better" than another. It's not because it's difficult in practice to conduct a count or do a sum, but because there are no such units.

But that doesn't entail that there are no non-arbitrary reasons to prefer a person who is honest, considerate, kind, non-violent, cooperative, and hard-working to someone with all the opposite qualities. Given widespread facts about human beings and our situation, these are not just arbitrary factors to take into account.

We can make perfectly rational judgments about the merits of systems of law, political platforms, individual actions, and people whom we meet or see in public life. In each case, we can use criteria that are not arbitrary for beings like us to use. In some cases, all the criteria will point in the same direction. But there remains room in a very large class of cases for people to disagree in their judgments of merit without either being just objectively wrong.

I doubt that Harris would lose much if he took all this into account. He could still make rational criticisms of religious morality and of crude, quietist forms of moral relativism, which seem to be his main targets, without being saddled with a naive kind of moral realism (and getting bogged down defending it).

He needs, however, to get a better sense of the points that are actually being made against him. In this example, we're not merely complaining about the practical difficulty in measuring well-being, like measuring breaths or grains of sand. The problem to be faced is whether well-being is the sort of thing that has a metric at all.

Turkle takes a more pessimistic turn

Meanwhile, Sherry Turkle has a new book out. Here's an interesting article about it in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Turkle has previously been enthusiastic about new technologies, including social networking; it seems that she's having some second thoughts. This ties in nicely with our discussion the other day of David Levy's Love and Sex with Robots (the article reveals some rather deep disagreements between Turkle and Levy).

My general bias is that I'm tired of the nay-sayers and doomsayers about new technology. But that doesn't mean that everything in the electronic garden is rosy. I'm not going to go around calling for legal prohibitions left, right, and centre, but we do need to put some thought into the implications of new technologies and how they are used.

From my own viewpoint, computer technology and all that goes with it have been unalloyed goods. Without this stuff, we'd live in much more insular worlds - I know I would. I'd have been hamstrung over the last 15 years or so without the internet. I'm certainly not going to minimise the enormous gains. But Turkle makes clear that that's not her point, either.

A placeholder

Jerry Coyne let me know that Sam Harris sent him a reply to my review of his book. This reply has been published over at Why Evolution is True.

As I said yesterday, I'm having a frantic week - and I'll be pretty solidly away from my computer all next week - so I don't know when or how I'm going to be able to respond to this, or even think about it. Meanwhile, in fairness to Harris you might want to see what he has to say. I'll get back to it when I can; I'll try to get to it in the next couple of days, but we'll see.

I'll still have enough computer access throughout to pop in and moderate the blog, so don't stop commenting here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Anyone for tennis?

As some of you probably know, I'm a fan of professional tennis. The last two weeks of January are when I try to take a bit of time off to relax, enjoy some sunshine, and follow events at the Australian Open. This year, I'll be going down to Melbourne for some of it, and even intend to go to the women's and men's finals in the Rod Laver Arena the weekend after next (we already have tickets!).

However, I am absolutely frantic this week with one thing and another. Partly it's because I'll be away for a chunk of time and need to sort out a lot of stuff first. Partly it's just a mix of other personal and professional things that have come up.

I did, however, manage to watch the Hewitt-Nalbandian match last night (with Nalbandian winning 9-7 in the fifth set). I'll have to work out who to root for on the men's side of the tournament, with Hewitt eliminated. I'm afraid that I never root for Federer or Nadal - nothing against either gentleman, mind you; just a propensity to root for someone who is a relative underdog. I do miss Safin.

Maybe it's Tsonga, after he survived a first-round scare last night. I have plenty of options on the women's side of things.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

No religion - Media release by the Atheist Foundation of Australia

From here:

As the next Australian Census approaches (9 August 2011), the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) is preparing for one of its biggest and most important projects. The AFA is campaigning to encourage individuals and families to think about the importance and impact of their answer to this leading Census question: “What is the person’s religion?”

“Unfortunately, because of the wording, many people will select the religion of their baptism or initiation at youth, despite not being a religious person at all,” said David Nicholls, President of the Atheist Foundation.

The AFA will be unveiling billboards across the nation in major cities stating “Census 2011: Not religious now? Mark ‘No religion’ and take religion out of politics.”

“It is time the Australian community questioned whether they hold religious beliefs or not. How they answer this question in the Census will influence decisions by Australian governments. Often the transfer of taxpayer money to religious organisations is justified on the basis of the Census results, as are special concessions and exemptions including the right to discriminate against some groups.

“This very sentiment has hit a sore spot in NSW with a decision handed down last week to allow the Wesley Mission, and thus Christianity, to discriminate against homosexual people on the basis of religion,” David Nicholls said.

Along with the AFA, organisations across the globe are campaigning for the same at Census time. Most outstanding is the British Humanist Association’s campaign titled “If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so!”

The AFA also wants to draw attention to how misleading the official figures can be. Twenty percent of the population are aged under 14 years, and the representation of them in these Census figures is important. “As Professor Richard Dawkins rightly points out, children are not little Buddhists, Muslims or Christians; they are only parroting parents, peers and culture. Furthermore, a parent will be filling in this form on their behalf and also for older children.

“The highest number of non-religious people are placed in the demographic between adolescence and middle age, where they are able to think critically and rationally about the world around us and the myths that have been haunting us for generations.

“The figures for godless individuals in the New Zealand Census this year are expected to reach or pass the 50 percent mark, and good on them, but it should be us. It will be a first for any western democracy and is an indication of the steep upward trend in Atheism and Agnosticism of the last decade,” he said.

Donations can be made via the following methods.

Cheques/Money Orders to -

Atheist Foundation Of Australia Inc

Private Mail Bag 6

Maitland SA 5573

Direct Deposit

Commonwealth Bank

Atheist Foundation Of Australia

BSB 065503

Acc No. 10120389

Coyne on Blackford on Harris

Jerry Coyne has now joined this discussion. He has reservations, but largely agrees with my take on The Moral Landscape.

Tim Dean and others on Blackford on Harris

My review of The Moral Landscape is already attracting a fair bit of interest in the blogosphere. I haven't even tried to keep track of it all, but here is a piece by Tim Dean.

The discussion right here on this blog has also been interesting, with the views ranging from what I think is agreement with the general Harris position on what morality is all about to a view that (I hope this isn't too much of a parody) I was far too soft on Harris and that his book is a setback for good philosophy. I do think that aspects of the Harris approach (to debate and to Western philosophy itself) have caused a bit of a backlash from philosophers, though that's not so much the case with me. I've been defending a form of moral scepticism for a long time now, and certainly right from the start as far as this blog goes.

The current discussion is all welcome, of course. And this raises a general point about disagreement among allies. I'm not a great fan of people who spend a lot of time and effort trying to undermine the social objectives of others with whom they're more or less in agreement, or who insistently tell them "Ur doin it rong!" That doesn't mean that we can't publicly disagree with each other on important issues, whether it's metaethics or foreign policy. We may be allies, but we're not clones of each other, and it wouldn't be healthy if we tried to be.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Even more religious idiocy

What can you even say about crap like this? As an (atheistic) Anglican still in good official standing until they catch up with me, I suppose I could say it's "our" gain to be rid of these bigots. But still ...


Currently reading: Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon

This book is a lot of fun. Currently, it's mainly a revenge narrative set in the Wild West, but there are other strands as well. I think, though, that someone needs to tell me what I'm supposed to get out of it, as I'll be talking about Pynchon at a gig in Melbourne in just a couple of weeks.

(In defence of my apparent hubris, remember that my original PhD thesis was largely about Pynchon, but that was a good few books ago, back in the 80s.)

X-Men family tree

Two points here:

1. Even I can't follow all of this tangle.

2. But I know enough to know that this is a simplified version. E.g. where is Quicksilver's daughter, Luna, who in turn is also the daughter of Crystal ... and so related to the whole royal family of the Inhumans? (Not to mention that Crystal is now married to Ronan the Accuser, giving the House of M an indirect connection to the Kree ... aarrgghh!)

Do robots love and suffer if they say they do?

Love and Sex with Robots by David Levy is very sanguine about the idea that we may, in the near future, not only use lifelike robots as sex toys but actually fall in love with them - quite literally. Now I suppose it's possible that we could create robots that are just as much conscious, intelligent beings as we are, and if so I don't see any obvious reason why they couldn't be appropriate objects of love and partners in sex. I don't think, for example, that all sex should be procreative. There may or may not be other reasons to avoid creating conscious artificial beings - hey, we've all seen the Terminator movies (some of us ... ahem ... have even written material for the Terminator franchise) - but the inappropriateness of falling in love with conscious robots isn't one of them. Well, at least it's not high on my list.

Moreover, I'm disinclined to see carbon as a magic element. Assuming, as I do, that consciousness supervenes causally on the functioning of certain complex material things, such as human brains (and, I don't doubt, the brains of many other animals), there's still a question as to exactly what is required for consciousness. I'm betting that it's going to be to do with structure and functioning rather than the actual material involved, so, in principle, there could be conscious things made of other sorts of stuff than carbon compounds. If so, it seems possible in principle, however difficult it may be in practice, to make robots that are conscious, even though they will be made of different materials from our brains. (Once again, forget for the moment whether it's a good idea all things considered.)

The problem is, Levy isn't talking about robots of such intricacy as to match our brains and to possess whatever sort of structure and functioning we eventually decide (though how?) is necessary for consciousness. The robots he's talking about will pass the Turing Test for practical purposes - they will be programmed to profess feelings, including feelings of love, with such plausibility that it will be natural for ordinary people to believe them. Fine, I don't necessarily care if people are willingly deceiving themselves ... though it can become a complicated argument. But I'm aghast at the idea that we should accept that the feelings are real as long as they seem so.

Again, it might turn out that we can't create a robot that can pass the Turing Test, administered by someone truly expert, without that robot actually having the consciousness it professes to have (it will need to talk about its feelings and experiences if it's probed by even a moderately sophisticated interlocutor). That might turn out to be correct, I suppose, because a robot that can maintain a probing conversation with an expert interlocutor will have to very sophisticated and complex indeed. It will need to use language in highly novel and complex ways, and to discuss deep emotional responses to things that it can't know about in advance.

But Levy isn't talking about a machine that has some kind of structural equivalent to our tens of billions of neurons, connected intricately. From his description, he could be talking about something much simpler. Programmers will be able to use other methods to fool us, taking advantage of our tendencies to anthropomorphise. In that case, we could end up creating robots that are not conscious at all but give a very good impression of actually having the feelings they report. They might not stand up to interrogation by an expert, but they might sound sincere to the rest of us. After all, think how uncommunicative real people can often be. Surely uber-skilled programmers of love-and-sex robots could do better than that.

The mere ability of future programmers to fool us, in relevant situations, that we're dealing something with real feelings does not entail that feelings are really present, and I'm somewhat surprised at the suggestion that we will and should blithely act as if it does. If I'm right on this, a lot of Levy's book is far more problematic than he acknowledges or apparently realises. He's suggesting we fall in love with things that give a plausible appearance of loving us back but have no actual feelings for us or anything else. And when it's put that way, I doubt that it's what many of us want.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

New review of The Australian Book of Atheism

This piece over in The Australian newspaper is worth a read, even though it is by someone who might be expected to be out of the sympathy with the book. The almost mandatory attack on Richard Dawkins for his supposed stridency is annoying, but it gets much better after that, so do read on. It concludes:
This book offers much in understanding local nuances in the present global upsurge of atheist voices. And it shows, if you'll excuse the religious allusion, that atheism is indeed a very broad church.
Quite so. There's no party line here. We're not the Vatican or the Supreme Soviet.

Review of The Moral Landscape

I have reviewed The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris over here. Many of my criticisms of Sam's metaethics will be familiar to readers of this blog, though I've taken the trouble to lay out more of my positive views on metaethics than I'd do here, where I inevitably have far less room on any one occasion.

All the same, I feel that the review only scratches the surface of some issues. There are many arguments in the book that could have been dealt with separately, but even allowing myself the indulgence of 6,500 words I couldn't get to them.

I seriously plan to write a book on this subject, because too many people assume that the only alternatives are a very crude moral relativism or a naive moral realism, such as Harris espouses. It would be good to develop a book that's accessible to a general educated audience and which explains why that is not the case. Harris could have argued from much weaker premises that would have been acceptable to error theorists and sophisticated relativists (and, no doubt, to sophisticated non-cognitivists). His attempt to defend a naive realist position in metaethics ends up causing a lot of distraction. That said, it's good that a popular author has at least opened up this discussion. It will now be easier for others to write books for a non-specialist audience (too much of what's available on metaethics is almost impenetrable even for philosophers who are not specialists).

Don't kind of hold your breath waiting for me to write the book I keep threatening to write, though. It'll have to be in a queue behind some other projects.

As I say in the review, the most interesting things I can say about The Moral Landscape all relate to points where Harris and I disagree. That doesn't mean that I think it's a comprehensively bad book, or that it's a bad book at all. I do think it shows that Harris has blind spots, just as theists often do when they seem unable to imagine how someone else lacks their strong theistic intuitions. Harris is inclined to dismiss the arguments of people who lack his strong moral realist intuitions, and there seems to be a similar inability to "let go" to that which we see from religious people. But it's still a very worthwhile book with a take-home message that's worth repeating. Thus, from early in the review I say:
I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it highly. Though it contains much technical material, from neuroscience as well as philosophy, Harris makes it all accessible. He has an enviable gift for vivid phrasing and clear exposition of difficult concepts, and he undoubtedly has much to teach us. Almost anyone could benefit from reading The Moral Landscape. In that sense, I need go no further. Is this book worth obtaining and reading? Emphatically yes.
I conclude the review as follows:
In the end, Harris provides a compelling argument for selective intolerance toward harsh moral traditions. He argues via a kind of moral realism, linked to a form of utilitarian ethic, but I submit that these are not doing the real work. To reach a similar conclusion, we can rely on much weaker premises. It’s enough that we have a non-arbitrary conception of what morality is for, and what sorts of things we can rationally and realistically want moral traditions to do. Where they divert from that conception, moral traditions merit our critique and opposition. These should be every bit as severe, absolutely as passionate, as Harris evidently wants, but that does not commit us to his total picture of morality's landscape.

Like it or not, morality is a much trickier phenomenon.

Currently reading: Love and Sex with Robots by David Levy

This is a fascinating book, even more than it sounds. Levy has gone to a lot of effort to study the psychology of sexual attraction and the social history of sex, in an attempt to understand how readily human beings will fall in love with lifelike robots and (literally) embrace them as sexual partners. There are lots of things to learn from Levy, many of them tangential to the main theme - not least, he provides some good information on how to make people fall in love with you. I.e. he discusses what psychologists have learned about the process. But the book's analysis is flawed by a very crude behaviorist view of consciousness.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Eric MacDonald on Pakistan and liberal religion

This comment that Eric made over at Ophelia's place is worth a bit of extra attention. I'm going to take the liberty of lifting the whole thing:
Pakistan was fucked up from the start. As a kid I watched it happening. As someone said earlier, the partition of India was a tragedy, and it is unfolding with the desperate inevitability of all tragedy. I hold out no hope for the region. Religion, you know, really does poison everything.

I thought, years ago, that liberal religion was a possibililty, and that the traditions that I thought so valuable were worth preserving, and liberal religion would provide the way. I really no longer think this is possible. I am reading of Philip Kitcher’s three papers in which he explores this, but I think it is too late. There is no way to save the aesthetic traditions of religion from the belief traditions before the belief traditions themselves have brought about catastrophe.

I may, of course, be wrong, but at the moment that is the way my thought is trending. There might have been a liberal understanding that could have made Pakistan both secular and in that marginal sense Islamic, as England, for example, is secular and Christian. But Islam will not be moulded to secular realities, and neither, we must admit, will Christianity. Time to say goodbye to religious traditions, and try to make something better. Kitcher thinks there are not enough of the kind of secular institutional realities that can provide the kind of surrogate community that might replace the loss of religious institutions, and that a transition to secularism cannot work until there are. That may be so, and it may be a pipe dream anyway. But I don’t think, given the time table that religions seem to be on, that there will be time to create them before we are in the midst of some kind of religious cataclysm. Perhaps I am just a apocalyptist manqué?
There's a lot in this, and I don't expect you to agree with it all. I really, really hope Eric is not completely right, because things are grim if he is. But I do think we need to think about this.

I supported Jerry's anger a couple of posts back. Let me now say this. I'm not angry at all religious people. Really, I'm not. I totally understand the views of Philip Kitcher that Eric refers to (Udo Schuklenk and I published one of the three essays that Eric mentions, and I still think it's a brilliant piece). I'm not angry at my liberal religious friends any more than I'm angry at anyone else whose worldview differs from mine, but who is a good person by my standards. I'm definitely not into indiscriminate anger.

My main feeling about liberal religion is not that it's harmful or wicked, or even that it's wrong (we may all think things that will eventually turn out to be wrong; that goes with the human situation). It's that it's fighting a losing battle, at least over any timeframe that I can comprehend. Sure, lots of people turn away from organised religion to something more personal or vague or New Agey, while retaining a residual belief in God or a supernatural world. But I'm like Eric. alas: looking at the scene across the world, I can't see the liberal religion that I even feel some fondness for actually prevailing. In some locations it may, but not in the larger scheme of things. It's not really my target, and it only bugs me if it tries, in a misguided spirit of niceness, to shut me up. More strength to the arms of some of the genuine religious liberals.

I wish I were wrong, and I'm open to argument, but I just don't think liberal religion is going to be the solution to our problems.

Latest issue of JET now complete

The latest issue of The Journal of Evolution and Technology is now complete. At this stage, we'll now be hunkering down to plan what JET does in 2011. Stay tuned!!

Jerry Coyne is angry - and rightly so

I'll come back to this great post by Jerry Coyne, but for now:
I’m angry that these scams (that’s what I’ll call them) have such horrible effects on the world. I’m angry that millions of Catholic kids get permanently traumatized with visions of hell, and permanently riddled with guilt about “sins” like masturbation. I’m angry that priests, under cover of their own superior wisdom and spirituality, sexually victimize their flocks. I’m angry that mullahs are calling for their followers to kill innocent people, while other more “liberal” mullahs refrain from calls for murder but don’t decry those murders when they occur. I’m angry that thousands of Africans will die because the Pope and his priests won’t sanction condoms for their flock. I’m angry that many religions see, and treat, women as second-class citizens, stoning them, swathing them in burkas, or making them sit behind screens in the synagogue and purify themselves in ritual baths during menstruation. I’m angry at the stupid dogmatism that’s behind creationism, and behind the idea that even if evolution might have happened, God did it all. I’m angry at the faithful who dispute global warming, or environmental depredation, because they think God gave us stewardship over the earth. I’m angry at those people who oppose abortion or stem-cell research because of the absolutely stupid idea that a ball of cells is equivalent to a sentient person. I’m angry at the faithful who, on religious grounds, prevent suffering and terminally ill people from deciding to end their own lives. I’m angry that one of the greatest pleasures of being human, the act of sex, is subject to insane restrictions and prohibitions by many faiths — especially when it’s between two people of the same gender.

And I’m angry that religious people try to suppress freedom of speech when it deals with religion, trying to prevent us from calling attention to all this damage.

What is the proper response to all this religiously-inspired nonsense? Anger, of course. No, you don’t have to be a red-faced, sputtering jerk when confronting the faithful, but controlled anger is without doubt the right response to a form of superstition that wreaks uncountable harms on humanity. And not “transitory” anger, either — permanent anger.

Nor need anger turn you into a sour, embittered, and ineffective person. I’ve met the Big Four atheists — Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens — and they’re all delightful people, with not a trace of bitterness. They turn on the anger only when it’s appropriate. I’d rather have a beer with any of them than with a “non-angry” accommodationist like Chris Mooney. Really, in the end it’s the accommodationists who are angry — at us! They pretend to be oh-so-nice people, but underneath are deeply angry and aggressive because we’re not listening to them.
I'm also pissed off, though not in a deep, permanent way, just in a kind of pissed off way, whenever people of reason (but not others) are held to ridiculous and literal-minded standards of propriety. I'm pissed off whenever there's a fuss over the meaning of a word like "delusion", "bogus", or "scam", with no sensitivity to what is actually being conveyed to reasonable people in the relevant context. Whether or not religions are literally "scams", whatever the literal meaning of that word actually is, they're certainly bogus. Is that better?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

'If Only We Were Smarter" - Philippe Verdoux on big brains - IEET countdown # 13

Ready for a bit of pessimism? Verdoux argues that getting smarter won't help us solve our problems - in fact it makes things worse. (I wonder whether he's read Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos; he'd like it.)

Vatican condemns Nobel Prize to Robert Edwards - IEET countdown # 20

This piece, by little me, was first published right here. Apparently it got a lot of hits over at IEET, coming in at # 20 on the institute's most-clicked list for 2010 (one of three of my contributions to make the list).

The Vatican regularly calls for moral condemnations and legal prohibitions, based on its understanding of transcendent purposes acting in the universe. Very well, it is entitled to do that – I respect its freedom of speech. But when it does so, we are entitled to reply by asking whether its understandings have any truth to them. Does its God even exist? Is its tradition of moral teaching divinely guided, or is it all too human and flawed? Why shouldn’t we condemn the Vatican, in our turn, when its bizarre worldview stands in the way of ordinary human happiness and reasonable aspirations?

Dvorsky on Kurzweil - IEET countdown # 21

This discussion of Kurzweil and the postulated technological Singularity is worth reading even if, like me, you're a bit sceptical about the whole thing.

George Dvorsky makes the important point that the concept of the Singularity predates the relevant writings of Ray Kurzweil, should not be confused with Kurzweil's particular views, and does not stand or fall with them. Dvorsky provides an accessible summary of the other important thinkers who have contributed to the concept and its development over time.

Whether you're a sceptic or a true believer, and however you want to argue the toss when the subject of the Singularity arises in conversation - as it does, right? - you'll be much better informed on the subject if you read Dvorsky.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Munkittrick on how to make sex better - IEET countdown # 25

How could I not refer y'all to an item on this topic. So, go and read Kyle Munkittrick's advice on how to make sex better.

Warning: it's rather big-picture advice, not a recipe book of new things for you to do at home. You'll have to go elsewhere for that, alas.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On reviewing Sam Harris

I've written a long review of The Moral Landscape for The Journal of Evolution and Technology, and it will soon appear there, the Glitch Gods willing.

I feel that this is something of a masochistic act. I agree with Harris on a lot of things in this book and elsewhere, particularly when we get down to the practical level. In fact most people who are critical of Harris will find my views even more appalling than his! At the same time, I won't endear myself to fans of Harris, since I have a lot to say that's critical of his fundamental views on metaethics and normative theory. In the end, alas, I'm probably not going to endear myself to anyone.

Even Mackie-style moral error theorists - the group with whom I most identify - will probably think that some of my views are subtly, or not-so-subtly, heretical.

So, if I knew what was good for me ... I'd probably leave well alone. "What have I done?" I ask myself.

On the other hand, The Moral Landscape is an important book and merits close examination - and not just from people who are totally out of sympathy with Harris. Also, the book is written for a popular audience: many of the people who read it will probably want to take Sam's word for various criticisms of philosophical positions that actually have a lot more going for them than he conveys. Because it's a very polemical book, he is not into examining the strengths of positions that he disagrees with - he sometimes tends to treat opponents with scorn, and someone who reads the book and likes it, without reading contrary views, may think the scorn is justified even where it really isn't.

I suppose, too, that I want to do what I can to make one very important point. It's not necessary to adopt the theoretical positions that Sam Harris does - a kind of commonsense realism about the status of moral claims, combined with something like utilitarianism - to be critical of cruel moral traditions, horrible practices such as female genital mutilation, and the like. Although I don't consider myself a moral relativist, it's not even the case that all relativist positions lack the required resources. There is, of course, a crude and popular form of moral relativism that wants us to tolerate just about everything, no matter how harmful. One more rebuttal of it, especially by a popular author, can't be a bad thing. To be fair, though, we should acknowledge that there are some much more sophisticated moral relativist theories around. Some of them are fairly close to my own metaethical position - in the end, many of the sophisticated metaethical positions are going to have a lot in common.

(This also applies to legal philosophy: it's often observed that the most sophisticated and plausible kinds of natural law theory and the most sophisticated/plausible kinds of legal positivism don't look all that different from each other.)

Anyway, for better or worse the review is done. There are many arguments that I haven't tackled - I have answers in my head to lots of the book's specific passages, especially in the long endnotes, but there was no room to include them without (1) unbalancing the review even further, and (2) making it even longer than the 6,500 words that it reached. Doubtless there will be more opportunities for me to wrestle with the issues, perhaps at even greater length.

For better or worse, as I say, the review is done; and I'll provide a link soon.

One take on free will

The author of this piece sent me the link, so I pass it on. I'd be happier with the piece if not for the passing mention of "engrams" (is Scientology lurking behind it somewhere?). [Edit: The author assures me that he does not support Scientology and points out that the term predates Hubbard. Fair enough.] It also seems to be touting for hypnotherapy or something. Hmmm.

In any event, I'm not really convinced by the analysis, even though the author is, like me a compatibilist. I don't see it all as a kind of struggle between the conscious will and the subconscious mind. There are many things that we do without conscious thought but were free to do.

However, I agree on one important point: determinism should not be confused with fatalism. The author's words on this, near the end, are just fine with me.

It does seem that some folks think that fatalism follows if we throw out libertarian free will, but that's not true at all. There are other possibilities. Sam Harris is actually quite good on this, even though he rejects compatibilism. Harris would agree that we're not in a position where the future will unfold the same way no matter what choices I (or you) might make. Fatalism is not true.

I get to deliberate and make choices, and they will have consequences. But the "I" here is not something spooky that created itself de novo, complete with desires, values, attitudes, and so on. I can deliberate and make choices, and my choices can reflect my own set of desires/values/attitudes, and the actions I then take can have effects (often including the effects that I intend!). But this "I", complete with its desires, values, and attitudes, is the product of a material process including its original genetic potential, its socialisation, and other influences.

I think it may have been Bertrand Russell who said, "I can do what I please but I can't please what I please." Not all the way down, I can't. Even if I manage to change my own set of desires, my inclination to do so was based on the desires I began with.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Feline theology

Back soon :)

Am currently writing what is likely to be a very, very long review of The Moral Landscape (yes, it'll eventually be available online). I feel that I'm only scratching the surface, no matter how much detail I go into. Really, my practical viewpoint isn't very far from that of Sam Harris. Where we do disagree, unfortunately, is on matters that are quite fundamental, yet rather subtle. I'm finding myself having to explain quite a lot of this stuff, but there will still be many arguments in the book that I don't have the time or space to deal with.

Anyway, that's where my brain has gone, just at the moment. It'll be back.

Pinker on the historical decline of violence

This has been around for some time, but is worth having a look at to keep some things in perspective. Not that it helps much if you live in some hell-hole where order has broken down or your freedom is suppressed ... and not that Western countries are magically immune to turning into hell-holes. It takes work, and a commitment to the values of peace and tolerance.

For all that, some things have been improving over time.

Steven Pinker is one of my favourite writers, and he's also a very good speaker.

H/T Kenneth Lipp

Sunday, January 09, 2011

James Hughes: "Liberal Democracy vs. Technocratic Absolutism" (IEET countdown # 26)

Leading transhumanist thinker James Hughes ventures into political philosophy in a deep and thorough discussion of democracy and its discontents. Although a bit inconclusive, this is an important piece.


A faith in the possibility of progress through liberal democracy is certainly difficult to sustain in the wake of the failure of a Democratic super-majority to pass health care reform in the United States, the collapse of meaningful climate change negotiations, the hand-wringing impotence of international institutions to intervene against genocide and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the persistence of myriad forms of popular ignorance and superstition. If I could convince myself that turning our fate over to the enlightened despotism of HAL or Khan Noonien Singh was the only way forward I also would be tempted. I am certainly looking forward to new forms of governance that satisfy my Enlightenment values better than do the existing forms of imperfect liberal democracy. For now, however, I think transhumanists need to focus on achieving our better world through liberal democracy.

The latest adventures of Felix

Fortunately for me, I slept right through a whole lot of this - and was unaware of the rest at the time. Jenny and Felix had an adventurous evening/night.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

A very short introduction to non-overlapping magisteria

I reserve the right to republish an old post now and then just because I like it (and because my newer readers may not have read it). Thus, this, from March 2009 ...

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.

Uthman Badar on religion (5): Secularism

All good things must come to an end, so this will be my final post on Badar's article. In a sense, it's the most important, because it deals with the concerns that led to my original article that provoked his response. My article attracted a very healthy 400+ comments, despite appearing on Christmas Eve. Badar's has now received over 1200. The response he's receiving is largely unfavourable, as far as I can tell without putting in a lot of time, but the total number of responses to these two pieces certainly suggests that they raise issues that worry a lot of folks out there in the wider public.

In my own piece, I noted that many religious individuals and organisations have reasons, from within their respective views of the world, not to accept secularism ... but rather to jockey for the power of the state and attempt to impose their views by political coercion. As I wrote:
Unfortunately, however, they often have good reasons, judged by their own lights, to oppose [...] a strict secularism. Some churches and sects do not distinguish sharply between guidance on individual salvation and the exercise of political power.

They may be sceptical about the independence of secular goals from religious ones, or about the distinction between personal goals and those of the state. They may be sceptical about the danger that liberal-minded people see when adherents of competing worldviews jostle to impose them by means of political power. Some religious groups do not accept the reality of continuing social pluralism. Instead, they look to a day when their views will prevail over others. 
If anyone doubted this, they only have to look at Badar's response, and perhaps find out something about the organisation that he represents, Hizb ut-Tahrir. Badar opposes secularism, with its functional separation of religion and state power, arguing that it has no rational basis, that it is nothing more than a compromise that settled problems in a particular time and place, and (if I understand him) that it need no be accepted by Islamist and other theocratic groups today. Unfortunately, similar views are very popular among the religious, though seldom advocated so explicitly. Many people will not give up their theocratic thinking without first giving up their actual religious views. Other folks will wonder what the fuss is about, mistakenly believing that democracy is essentially majority rule and that the majority should get to impose their religion on minorities.

Against that background, when so many religious organisations and leaders claim moral and even political authority, we ought to ask very pointedly where that authority could possibly come from. That will cause offence, but so be it. It also causes offence when religious organisations pronounce on matters of righteousness and sin. Offence is pretty much inevitable in these territories.
But what of the merits of Badar's arguments? Surprisingly enough, they have some merit to this limited extent: secularism does not purport to settle which of the many competing religions (if any) is actually true. There was no compromise reached at a particular point in history, introducing secularism in the West (the 1648 Peace of Westphalia did not go so far, and even the First Amendment to the US Constitution has its murky aspects, apart from applying in only one country). But there was something like the gradual, tacit emergence of a compromise after the Peace of Westphalia, as the various warring religions came to see it as wise to leave the question of which of them might be true essentially without a decision in the political sphere.
The general idea was that the state would concern itself with citizens' worldly interests and make its decisions on the basis of worldly considerations. It would not try to identify the correct religion, and liberalism gave this a natural extension: that the state would not try to identify the correct moral system, either, among the various competing rivals. The state's remit would be narrower than the identification and imposition of an entire worldview.
Islamists can point out two things at this stage of the discussion. First, this messy, more or less tacit, compromise did not purport to settle the correct worldview, religious or otherwise. That remains to be settled. And of course, they'll say that the true religion is Islam (and that this is demonstrable). Secondly, they'll say that Muslim organisations and leaders were not parties to a compromise reached among the warring Christian denominations of the West. They are not bound to honour the outcome.
So far, so good. But even if secularism were just a compromise, that would not make it irrational for us to continue to adopt such a compromise or to demand that Islamists accept it. There may still be many good reasons why the state should not attempt to identify the correct religion or impose its verdict on citizens. It seems apparent enough to me that overt attempts to do so can only lead to social disaster. That is not just a top-of-the-head intuition I have, but an educated assessment of how people respond when an alien view of the world is comprehensively forced on them. In some times and places, perhaps, dissenters can be suppressed, but we are far past that situation in the Western liberal democracies.
And in any event, secularism and liberalism are not merely compromises. They are based on a plausible view of the functions and limitations of the state. As a social institution, the state may be reasonably effective in enforcing a property regime, protecting us from internal violence and external enemies, and in some kinds of economic matters (including the implementation of policies that work against the harsher outcomes of economic competition). These areas of action may not be resolvable to a single description, but they at least bear a family resemblance:  generally speaking, the state functions to protect interests in the things of this world, or some of them. This can be refined further, but it's a plausible conception of the point of the state and its whole apparatus of power and authority.
What the state is not well designed or positioned to do is settle the truth about otherworldly claims. It is better (by plausible standards of "better") if it doesn't even try, and if it avoids being influenced by otherworldly doctrines when it makes decisions within its relatively narrow remit.
While a very powerful historical-cum-anthropological argument can be developed for this secular conception of the state, it's not a knock-down argument. It will not be persuasive to all comers, irrespective of their starting points. Many religious people will accept it, but others will reject it as incompatible with their fundamental theological premises - specifically, as incompatible with the teachings of their religions about the role of the state. Such people cannot be expected to embrace secularism unless they first put aside their religious views of the world.
In the upshot, many people can be persuaded that it is still rational to embrace secularism, even while remaining attached to their religious views of the world. This especially applies to mainline Protestant Christians (and, to some extent, progressive Evangelicals). It will apply to most atheists, agnostics, religious sceptics, and the like. Others won't be so persuaded. A secular conception of political power is not the official Vatican doctrine (though many Catholics doubtless accept it as individuals). Historically, it's quite foreign to Islam.
We need to make us much progress as we can in advocating secularism and liberalism, while also understanding that there are religious people, such as Islamists, who will never be brought to agree unless they first alter their more fundamental theological positions - which won't happen soon. We're fooling ourselves if we think that all religious people can embrace secularism (let alone a more full-blooded liberalism) from within their existing comprehensive views of the world. That's a problem faced by every Western liberal democracy, and we'll go wrong unless we see it clearly and factor it into our thinking.
Uthman Badar has done us a service, inasmuch as he reminds us of what we're up against.