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, February 28, 2011

What can you say?

Jason Streitfeld has an in-depth post on the question of what people of reason ought to say in the public square. For the moment, at least, I just want to say that it's healthy for this to be brought out into the open. What should be said in an academic journal? What should be said in, say, The New Republic? What should be said in, say, USA Today?

Jason is right to stress that there is something offensive about the view Jean Kazez has been putting: i.e., that there are some things that should not be said to a popular audience. That is, Jean's views is likely to cause offence, and the taking of offence is understandable and not unreasonable by our ordinary standards of how a reasonable person reacts. But he's also correct that this does not make her wrong. While taking offence at Jean's claim may be understandable, inevitable, even reasonable, there's still a question as to whether, on reflection, it is justified to remain offended (and as it happens, I don't feel offended at all).

It's possible that Jean is, herself, offering a disconcerting truth about the capacity of most people to understand difficult concepts, and about how difficult concepts can be distorted and simplified before they are acted on. Even if she's wrong about this in when the concepts in question relate to such things as moral error theory and science/religion, I welcome an open, honest debate. I think one of the things that was annoying about an earlier phase of all this discussion of accommodationism and related issues was Chris Mooney's unwillingness to engage in any substantial way.

Enough for now. Check out Jason's analysis and see what you think. This, in particular, needed to be said:
For atheists like me, there is one issue that matters most in all of this: the role of religious authority in society. I'm not saying atheists are concerned with this issue above all else. Not at all. They might be more concerned about global warming, say, or human rights violations in third-world countries. What I am saying is that, for many atheists, atheism is first and foremost about the rejection of religious authority. Public atheism is first and foremost about putting religious authority in its proper place. For us, to be a public atheist just is to deny that there is any objectively valid moral authority which religions could claim and to deny that religious authority is similar to, equal to, or in any methodological or philosophical sense compatible with scientific authority. If we cannot argue these points in public, then we cannot be public atheists in the way that is meaningful to us.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Consolidated review extracts for 50 Voices of Disbelief

I've just been looking at the consolidated set of review extracts for 50 Voices of Disbelief on Amazon's page for the book (the Wiley-Blackwell folks do a good job of keeping this up to date). Hey, even I'm impressed.

The international cast of contributors includes many well-known names, from a diversity of fields-notably philosophy (about a third of the writers are philosophers) science, journalism, politics and science fiction. By no means do they agree on everything, but the unifying themes of rejection of conventional religions and acceptance of secular humanism shine through brightly. A descriptive list of contributors and an excellent index complement the essays, many of which are accompanied by useful endnotes and references." (Quadrant, September 2010)

"It was mostly fascinating reading, in particular, those articles that abstained from using dull polemics and cynicism. Some of the articles-most notably from Nicholas Everitt, Thomas W. Clark, Michael Shermer, Peter Tatchell, Michael Tooley, and Udo Schüklenk-can indeed be used in undergraduate courses concerned with the existence of God in philosophy, ethics, and theology. I recommend this volume especially for all those who need to grasp a general and easy introduction into atheistic reasoning." (Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2010)

"I recommend this volume especially for all those who need to grasp a general and easy introduction into atheistic reasoning." (Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2010)

“The essays in this book reveal a great concern for our human plight, a concern that is the equal of religious impulses; they raise a richness of issues that are too often ignored, including the ultimate fear of the theists that perhaps in time it may well be possible to settle the question of God’s existence. The fifty voices in this book have spoken out with more than a small amount of courage. What emerges from thinking about these essays is a realization of what human reason is up against, within ourselves.” (Free Inquiry, August/September 2010)

"Good writing and clear thinking don't always go hand in hand. It's a pleasure, then, to find both in a recent book about going it alone -- no deus ex machina for us, please -- titled 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. In one volume, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk, you'll find idiosyncratic essays by a range of atheists from science fiction authors and philosophers to scientists and activists." (Psychology Today, Creating in Flow Blog, May 2010)

"Many of the pieces in this book are full of superior contempt for the intellectual inadequacy of theism. Tatchell is forthright in his criticism of religion, but he never sneers. The essays in this book are all clearly argued, and will reassure the already faithful that they are neither daft nor deluded." (Church Times, April 2010)

"The contemporary relevance,and timeliness of this book is unsurpassed. It is ... an account of various well known non-believers [and] personal viewpoints, directed at a popular audience. Very approachable at all levels, containing a wide range of stories, anecdotes and personal statements about why each of the authors considers themselves to be a non believer. Overall, this book is well suited for a mainstream audience, interested in questioning the power that religion holds over our lives. It [also] has good references ... which will also serve to guide the reader if further information is wanted. Thus, I recommend this book to anyone (regardless of their views concerning religion) interested in understanding why different people hold certain views concerning religion." (Metapsychology, April 2010)

"By turns witty, serious, engaging and information, it is always human and deeply honest, and immensely rewarding to read." (Times Higher Education Supplement, December 2009)

"Carefully considered statements … .Contributions range from rigorous philosophical arguments to highly personal, even whimsical, accounts of how each of these notable thinkers have come to reject religion in their lives. Likely to have broad appeal." (Australian Atheist, November 2009)

"I am strongly recommending it as a present for anyone who has an interest in atheism/theism from either side of the debate. It's just a great read, from great authors." (Stephen Law Blogspot, October 2009)

"It’s a very good book, and I recommend it for all of us godless ones — or those who are considering abjuring the divine. It’s far more than just a collection of stories about 'How I came to give up God.' Many of the writers describe the philosophical and empirical considerations that led them to atheism. Indeed, the book can be considered a kind of philosophical handbook for atheists." (Why Evolution is True Blog, October 2009)

"Wow! A book about atheism and it’s not written by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett or Harris! So this book is welcome partly because it helps break that knee-jerk reaction. But it’s also welcome because many of its contributors advance interesting ideas. There’s plenty to choose from. And one advantage of a collection like this is that you can dip into it wherever you want. There is something for everyone. And there is the opportunity to discover new ideas." (Open Parachute, October 2009)

"For many who have spent some time involved in any form of engagement in these matters, the names should appear familiar: from the great AC Grayling to the revolutionary Maryam Namazie. Finally, in one book we can hear their stories – if not about themselves, then about the aspects of religion or lack thereof they find most important. If all these contributors were speakers at a convention, it would be sold out many times over." (Butterflies and Wheels, October 2009)

"In their excellent collection of essays exploring and defending the philosophical stance of atheism, Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk had an inclusive vision. Contributors to the book range from those with science-fiction backgrounds to modern-day philosophy." (Kirkus Reviews, October 2009)

"In more than 50 brief statements organized by Blackford and philosopher Schüklenk ... contributors share views—their routes toward nonbelief and their feelings about the place of religion in the world ... including James (the Amazing) Randi, a well-known magician and debunker of spurious psychic phenomena. Considering the popularity of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great, and Sam Harris's The End of Faith, [these] memoirs and observations will be of interest to disbelievers." (Library Journal, October 2009)

Sunday supervillainy - Supervillains and Philosophy

At the suggestion of one of this site's frequent commenters, I read Supervillains and Philosophy, a collection of essays edited by Ben Dyer.

I've gotta say upfront that the book was a lot of fun. But I've also gotta say that I can't really recommend it to others - unless your mind is warped in a way very similar to mine.

Books like this, which take some aspect of popular culture and then add "and philosophy" to the title can work in two ways. They can examine the philosophical assumptions that seem to be implicit in cultural practices, perhaps challenging them, or exploring the cultural significance of what is going on. Often we get essays like this, from people playing the role of philosophically-informed cultural critic.

More often, however, the idea is to use whatever aspect of popular culture it might be (supervillains today, American sitcoms tomorrow) as a way of illustrating philosophical issues, or as a springboard to philosophical thinking.

Supervillains and Philosophy contains essays of both types, but as is usual with such books the emphasis is on the latter. The idea here is to use an amusing aspect of popular culture as way to introduce philosphical ideas; it's not to examine the cultural significance of supervillains or supervillain narratives.

Some books of this kind get into fairly sophisticated philosophical discussion, but that doesn't happen so much in this particular case. Although there are some good pieces that make deep points, most play around too much in the shallows. As an idiosyncratic matter, perhaps, I was especially unimpressed and annoyed by an essay on metaethics that ends up endorsing moral objectivism after offering very weak criticisms of what it calls "moral nihilism" - essentially moral error theory. The latter is presented in a simplistic form, and it is criticised largely for being counter-intuitive, i.e. it goes against all the objectivist assumptions that seem to be built into our moral thinking and discourse. But of course, that's exactly what error theorists claim; they argue that our moral thinking and discourse are riddled with objectivist assumptions that are untrue.

The only objection to moral objectivism that is discussed is that moral objectivists are likely to be inflexible and intolerant. Obviously, that's a weak objection. Moral objectivism may, indeed, have some psychological connection with inflexibility, etc., and I think that this is worth more exploration, but it's hardly a fatal philosophical flaw. It's possible to have a very flexible moral system, such as some kind of consequentialist system, while also claiming that whatever the system prescribes is objectively binding. So the author easily disposes of the only objection to moral objectivism that is actually identified. But of course the actual philosophical objections made by "moral nihilists" are far more subtle and penetrating.

Since the book aims to introduce philosophical ideas to people who are not philosophically trained, this sort of misrepresentation of the state of play in an important area of philosophy is quite serious. I would hesitate to give the book as a gift to someone who might appreciate it, thanks to this sort of thing.

There is also a certain amount of poor editing, such as the frequent use of the word "lead" for "led", and there are even examples of dubious or incorrect scholarship. E.g., at one point, it is claimed that the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants first appeared, or were first given that name, in a newspaper article that the characters read in Strange Tales v. 1 #120, when it's well-known, at least to me, that they first appeared a month or two earlier in X-Men v. 1 #4. To be, as it were, super fair, I'm not sure whether or not they originally referred to themselves by that name, but the name was certainly splashed all over the cover of X-Men # 4.

So again, a bit of fun, but you'd be better off putting your hard-earned loot towards, oh, I dunno, maybe this book. :D

Darrick Lim on gnasty gnu atheists

Here's a nice, long post on the subject. Enjoy! I pretty much agree with its sentiments, so I don't need to say a lot more. It has some especially pointed discussion of the mighty snark hunter.

Stop the tsunami of executions

Go here for more.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is the execution capital of the world. Already in 2011, it has executed at least 86 people after unfair trials and forced confessions under torture - three times last year's rate. It is the worst rise in executions since the regime's massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

There has been one execution every 8 hours and at least 8 of those executed have been political prisoners. Some of those killed by the state include: Zahra Bahrami, 45 year old Dutch/Iranian national who was arrested during protests last year, Ali Ghorabat for apostasy and Jafar Kazemi and Mohammad Ali Haj Aghaie for enmity against god. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani still faces execution.

We, the undersigned, demand an immediate end to this state-sponsored murder that aims to intimidate the protest movement in Iran and call on the United Nations and governments to exert pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran for an immediate and unconditional halt to executions. A regime that slaughters its citizens must face diplomatic isolation.

Signed by: Shahla Abghari, University Professor, Human Rights and Women Rights Activist, USA; Nazanin Afshin-Jam, President & Co Founder of Stop Child Executions, Canada; Mina Ahadi, Spokesperson, International Committee against Stoning & Execution, Germany; Sayeed Ahmad, Coordinator, Ain o Salish Kendra, Bangladesh; Association Fenomena Kraljevo, Serbia; Russell Blackford, Writer and Philosopher, Australia; Caroline Brancher, UFAL, France; Helle Merete Brix, Journalist, Denmark; Roy W Brown, International Representative, International Humanist and Ethical Union; Richard Dawkins, Scientist, UK; Patty Debonitas, Spokesperson, Iran Solidarity, UK; Sanal Edamaruku, President, Rationalist International, India; Sonja Eggerickx, President, International Humanist and Ethical Union, Belgium; Caroline Fourest, Writer and Columnist, France; A. C. Grayling, Writer and Philosopher, UK; Rahila Gupta, Activist and Writer, UK; Maria Hagberg, Chairperson, Network Against Honour-Related Violence, Sweden; Trefor Jenkins, Professor Emeritus / Honorary Professorial Research Fellow, South Africa; Hope Knutsson, President, Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, Iceland; Nevena Kostic, Women for Peace, Serbia; Hartmut Krauss, Social Scientist, Germany; Harold Kroto, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, USA; Terry Liddle, Freethought History Research Group, UK; Anne-Marie Lizin, Honorary Speaker of the Belgian Senate, Belgium; Marieme Helie Lucas, Founder, Secularism Is A Women's Issue, France; Ed McArthur, Freethought History Research Group, UK; Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson, One Law For All Campaign, Equal Rights Now – Organisation against Women’s Discrimination in Iran, and Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, UK; Salman Rushdie, Writer, USA; Daniel Salvatore Schiffer, Philosopher and Writer, Belgium; Terry Sanderson, President, National Secular Society, London, UK; Michael Schmidt-Salomon, Spokesperson of the Giordano Bruno Foundation, Germany; Udo Schuklenk, Professor of Philosophy and Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics, Canada; Siba Shakib, Filmmaker and Writer, USA; Joan Smith, Writer and Activist, London, UK; Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director, American Humanist Association, USA; Annie Sugier, President, Ligue du Droit International des Femmes, France; Peter Tatchell, Human Rights Campaigner, UK; Giti Thadani, Writer and Filmmaker, India; Michele Vianes, President, Regards de Femmes, France; Eli Vieira, President, Secular Humanist League of Brazil, Brazil; and Women in Black, Belgrade, Serbia.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

What's your explosive idea?

What's your terrible truth - your explosive idea? More formally, what would you put forward as a proposition that is, you believe, true, but too dangerous to present to the general public? Or if that sounds too elitist, at least something that you'd want to present to the public very carefully, so as not to give misleading impressions that might be disastrous when they play out?

This has become an issue in my little corner of the blogosphere over the last few days, and I am open to the idea that such truths exist. At my prompting, Jean Kazez offered some on her long blog thread - in addition to truths (if such they are) relating to moral error theory.

I'm open to the idea that some truths should at least be handled carefully. Among them are truths that debunk or deflate the authority of moral judgments. If I were to write a book that is my equivalent of, say, The Moral Landscape, I'd be presenting anti-realist truths about the nature of morality, and these might be more disconcerting than realist claims. But I'd be doing so carefully - not just writing, "All yoar morals iz rong" or "Ur moraliteh sux."

On the other hand, human societies have had to absorb many ideas that were once considered dangerous, even explosive. These range from heliocentrism to the well-supported claim that our species descended from apelike creatures, to the unavailability of divine punishment and reward to ensure that cosmic justice is done, to the revelation that most of us constantly over-estimate our own talents and abilities (not to mention such things as the gniceness of our friends, relative to other people). So far, we've survived as a species, and even developed increasingly peaceful and healthy societies in the privileged West, despite the widespread promulgation of these various claims, all of which I believe to be true.

Again, what's your explosive idea? And why?

Jerry Coyne wins an award

I see that Jerry Coyne has won an "Emperor Has No Clothes Award" for his outspoken atheism. Congratulations, Jerry. Very timely, too, given the subject matter under discussion here over the last several days.

Friday, February 25, 2011

More on how I've confused Massimo

Okay, I've now read this thread, which is pretty interesting. As far as I can work out, Massimo's complaint is that my review of The Moral Landscape in JET contained numerous points of disagreement with Harris but also praised him/the book.

Massimo evidently agrees with much, or at least some, of my critique. In particular, he and I agree that Harris has failed to derive "ought" statements without using any "ought" premises (and without using unhelpful logical tricks or the method that was well-known to David Hume of deriving hypothetical imperatives from the combination of reason and desire). Since Harris relies throughout on a great big "ought" that he essentially just presupposes (something like, "We ought to maximise the well-being of conscious creatures"), he has no claim to have gone beyond Hume here.

Massimo's problem seems to be that I'd have all these disagreements while also finding anything to praise. That's fair enough in itself, I suppose, but I could have done without the imputation of intellectual dishonesty. Surely I am entitled, in good faith, to put criticisms that are not totally remote from Massimo's without having to be thoroughly damning at the cost of having my intellectual honesty called into question. This remark on the thread, in particular, is uncalled-for, and I hope that Massimo will have the courtesy to retract it:
Instead, I thing what we are seeing here is an example of herd mentality. Harris is one of the New Atheists, the New Atheism is good (for some people), so we are not going to criticize anything a NA says too strongly. Not a good example of critical thinking, or even intellectual honesty, quite frankly.

Since I've recently spent a fair bit of time rather relentlessly arguing about the problems with the book, as I see them, I find this a really left-field comment. A few points need to be made here:

First, as a reviewer I tend to assume that I am dealing with books that are worthwhile and to look for their strengths and weaknesses. So maybe I'm congenitally less inclined than most to give out entirely damning reviews. I like to think - but of course I may be wrong - that I produce more interesting reviews as a result of taking this attitude. That's not to say that I never find it necessary to rubbish a book. Sometimes that happens, but this was far from being one of those times.

Second, I did say quite a lot about the strengths of The Moral Landscape. E.g., I praised its general lucidity, its clear presentations of complex ideas, the fact that, passage by passage, much of it is impressive and persuasive, and its strong, timely plea that we not adopt a quietist attitude towards the value systems of other cultures. I mentioned the book's discussions of crude relativism and libertarian free will, which I basically agree with, and I supported its general approach of using science to inform policy debates. All of this is stated pretty straightforwardly in the early part of the review where I not only praise the book but also spell out specifically what I'm praising it for.

Furthermore, as I said in a couple of recent interviews, Harris is making an important point: we'd do better (by standards of "better" that most of my readers will share) to judge moral norms and systems of moral norms by their consequences for those who follow them, and for those who are affected by the actions of those who follow them, rather than by looking for their grounding in an authoritative source (such as religion or cultural tradition).

I should add that I don't actually think that Harris does any damage to any more sophisticated moral relativist theories such as those which we've seen over the years from Gilbert Harman, Neil Levy, Stephen Finlay, David B. Wong, and others. The kind of relativism that Harris shoots down is a crude one that is - I agree again with Massimo - rather silly when you think it through. Still, that is the kind of "relativism" that people, including philosophers, usually have in mind. Or so it seems to me. There was no real reason for Harris to devote time to attacking the views of, say, Harman, which are unlikely to be doing any social and political harm.

Third, it's true that I'm not a great fan of slapping the label "scientism" on views that I disagree with. I think this is an approach that is more prejudicial than probative. Massimo thinks that some kind of tendency to scientism lies behind aspects of The Moral Landscape that he and I both criticise. Fine, but I'd prefer to isolate points on which I disagree and to explain why.

One problem about "scientism" as an accusation is that a reason has to be given as to why scientism is a bad thing. If it's defined in such a way that it's a bad thing - e.g. as "an improper or overreaching reliance on science" - then of course no one will own up to it. Scientism, so defined, is not a position by which anyone actually self-describes. If it's defined in some other way that many of us will nonetheless agree is a bad thing - e.g. believing that the methods of science, narrowly conceived, are the only methods of rational inquiry and must be used to approach all questions - again, few serious thinkers will self-describe as adherents to this form of "scientism". Maybe someone will turn up here and make a comment accepting this as a description of their epistemological position, but Harris has not done so.

If, on the other hand, "scientism" just means something like "having a high regard for the authority of science" then it's not obvious that scientism is a bad thing.

I'd prefer to get by in these discussions without throwing around a label like "scientism". I tend to distrust people who use it, which is not to say that I'm accusing Massimo of bad faith in using it. He presumably thinks he can sense a general "scientism" distorting the way Harris approaches things. Who knows, maybe he'll turn out to be right ... but as I say, a claim like this is more prejudicial than probative, and it's also somewhat speculative. Better, in a case like this, to look at the ideas and forget the labels.

Or if Massimo really wants to devote himself to some kind of campaign against the evils of "scientism", he can at least not complain if I don't want to sign up and join in.

Update: Now see my (pleasing) exchange with Massimo Pigliucci in the comments below.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The hunting of the snark

And here's the latest wisdom about something or other from the mighty snark hunter, Jeremy Stangroom. Lots of goodies today!

I've confused Massimo Pigliucci

Here's another piece that I haven't yet read - apparently I've confused Massimo Pigliucci in some way. Oh well, something else for you to enjoy (and for me to absorb tomorrow or whenever).

A review of Richard Garner's Beyond Morality

This is over at Blue Ridge. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, so I can't comment on its substance or even summarise the argument. It certainly looks as if a lot of thought has gone in, judging only from a quick glance through.

I'll be away for a day or so, so it can be something to read while I'm gone. Keep discussing - I'll approve comments as quickly as I can.

H/T Marshall Pease (the reviewer).

Jerry and Ophelia on SingTFU

Jerry and Ophelia have threads on all this here and here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Even more meta

Here's a post by Bruce Everett about going meta. It's too late, alas, to avoid the meta arguments now - although it's still my preference to debate ideas, rather than to debate ideas about what ideas we should promulgate and how, and whether or not someone should have promulgated idea X, and whether ...

Anyway, stuff has happened and we're up to our necks in meta whether we like it or not. But we can at least recognise our situation.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jean Kazez on Gnude Clothes and shutting up

Over on her blog, In Living Color, Jean Kazez replies to my recent post, "The Emperor's Gnude Clothes". Now, a debate like this can go very meta, or meta-meta, very quickly. I doubt that we can get to the bottom of why people find some incidents salient, while other people consider them pretty much unimportant. I'm not all that interested in berating Kazez, but the discussion has led her to some positions that ought to raise eyebrows at least slightly.

Before we get to that, she says that her own original story was about how a certain kind of courage in revealing falsehood and credulity can degenerate into contempt. Her original story, as you may recall, was this:
Other kids were impressed with the brave girl. They started saying the same thing--"The emperor has no clothes! The emperor has no clothes!" Soon just saying he had no clothes lost its appeal. They shouted louder and louder, and called the emperor a fatty and laughed uproariously.

Some of the adults said: "Children. You're right he's naked. The brave girl was perfectly right to say so. But you've gotten carried away. It's time to think this through. Maybe the emperor actually enjoys being naked. Maybe he really doesn't know he's naked, and he can't figure it out when you're yelling at him. Maybe when he looks at you, your clothes look ridiculous to him, too! Control yourselves, think about how you're communicating!"

This made the children very, very angry. They wanted to believe they were just like that first brave girl. They didn't want to see themselves as rude and insulting. So the children went after the adults who had chided them, and called them names, and derided the whole idea of Communicative Restraint and Politeness, which they called crap for short.
Now let's look at this for a minute. The children begin shouting, calling the emperor "a fatty", and laughing uproariously. When some adults ask them to control themselves, they call the adults names and they deride "the whole idea of Communicative Restraint and Politeness". This is pretty clearly a story about how the children go beyond saying bravely that the emperor has no clothes to (1) behaving in an uncivil manner (being rude and insulting, shouting, and engaging in uproarious mocking laughter), and (2) deriding the very idea that they should be civil.

If this is intended to be a metaphor for the New Atheist (sort of) movement - once it goes beyond the four horsemen of the apocalypse to the lower levels of the infantry of the apocalypse, or perhaps the pedestrians of the apocalypse - it's rather strained to say the least. The suggestion is that some group of people who are analogous to the children in the story are not merely being forthright but are engaging in something equivalent to rudeness, shouting, in-your-face laughter, and so on, that they reject all ideas of politeness and communicative restraint, and that they actually call ideas of civility some equivalent of "crap".

That may be how things appear to Jean, but as I suggested in my response and my further thoughts over the past few days, it's not how things seem to me at all. There are several points to be made here. First, there is always going to be a level of very robust debate on the internet, so it's always possible to find examples of people who really are behaving very rudely and perhaps rejecting ideas of politeness. But that's not something unique to people with New Atheist sympathies. You'll find people behaving like this when discussing the merits of political parties, sports teams, movies, comic-book artists, or whatever else people get passionate about. So it's hardly fair saying that the New Atheism encourages incivility any more than these other things. The most that can be said is that the subject of religion is now debated on the internet in a way that was not common a decade ago, so inevitably it attracts the same kind of very robust arguments as, say, sport or politics. Inevitably, some people will let off steam on their own blogs, and we'll see even more robust expression from anonymous commenters.

Second, a great deal of what we've seen has not been "adults" telling the uncivil "children" to please show some communicative restraint. In the case of the debate around Jerry Coyne's "Seeing and Believing" piece in The New Republic, what we saw was someone showing all the appropriate communicative restraint, and basically being told that the content of what he said was not acceptable. He should not have questioned beliefs, criticised certain kinds of believers, or supported the view that there's no God. The "adults" (in this case Barbara Forrest and Chris Mooney) were not telling him to be civil - they were telling not to say these things even in the civil way that he did. More generally, a great deal of the criticism of the New Atheists goes beyond disagreement and beyond tut-tutting about actual incivility (by normal standards of civility) to involve complaints that these people say the things they do at all - or at least that they say them to a wide audience. When, like Cordelia in my version of the story, they express annoyance, they are then attacked further for their "stridency", and so on. Inevitably this escalates the situation.

Now, I'm not going to go to a lot of trouble to document the preceding paragraph. I dealt with some of it last time, as far as the original incident goes. I'm mainly reporting how it seems to those of us on my side of the fence, why the Kazez story seems very unfair, and why it is unlikely to change anyone's behaviour. Simply put, people in my position don't actually feel as if we've shown no communicative restraint, been especially uncivil ... or lacked reasonable justification on those occasions when we have, in fact, expressed annoyance. I'm sure that what I'm saying here will ring true for many readers, or gel with their experience. That's the reality that Jean and others are confronted with.

Third, a great deal that has happened has had a context. If people who don't believe they have been especially uncivil are chided not to be "a dick", or if lies are told about people like them behaving in public in outrageously uncivil ways, and if stories are told that suggest they are uncivil in the manner of the children in Jean's story, it produces certain emotions. To be blunt, it creates anger and ill-will. At a minimum, it looks as if the people (the so-called "adults") saying these things are insensitive to the feelings and grievances of the "children" they are telling to Be Moar Civil. The result is that the children are likely to express annoyance and anger ... and again the whole thing escalates. In such circumstances there will inevitably be genuine examples of uncivil conduct on both sides of the debate. But that happens in any debate - once again, whether it concerns political parties, sports teams, comic-book artists, or whatever you want to name.

One lesson to be learned from all this is that there's a danger in going meta. Once you move away from debating the truth or falsity of ideas to discussing other people's behaviour, what should or should not be said, and so on, you almost inevitably add to whatever degree of incivility was around in the first place. That's not to say that going meta is never appropriate. But people who decide to go meta should be aware of the likely outcome - an escalation of ill-feeling, and even feelings of injustice and moralistic anger - and take this into account. If you do decide to go meta, you'd be advised to show a lot of explicit humility and trepidation. If you then use the annoyed responses of others as evidence of their inherent uncivil tendencies, you'd better be aware that this will be seen by them as further unfairness or injustice ... and will provoke even more annoyance.

In the current Gnu Wars, a lot of ill-feeling was created by the bogus Tom Johnson story, which was used as evidence of Gnu Atheist types engaging in extreme and foolish kinds of public incivility. As this escalated, it became very ill-advised of Phil Plait to go meta in a vague way that seemed to accuse others of being "dicks" - without giving examples. In some other context, what he said may have been quite sensible. In the historical context that he was actually involved in, going meta in this sort of way - and defending it with no real show of humility and understanding of how others felt - was an incredibly dangerous thing to do. I'm not going to say that it was, itself, a dickish thing to do. I just think it was an extremely naive way to act in the volatile circumstances that had arisen at the time, in which any attempt to go meta this way would quite predictably have caused hurt and anger.

Jean offers other examples of supposed incivility, but these are to a couple of posts by Ophelia Benson that don't actually seem uncivil at all. In each case she responds in a way that is forthright, but not out of place on her own blog, to other people going meta in ways that understandably annoyed her. That's not to say that I necessarily feel the same annoyance towards Julian Baggini, for example, that Ophelia does - for a start, she has had personal dealings that she refers to briefly and which I have obviously not had. The whole thing can soon get complicated. But the kind of meta-comment by Julian that Ophelia quotes will inevitably produce annoyance, and it's no use then using a reasonably civil expression of that annoyance - or even a not-so-civil one if that's how you perceive it - as evidence for the initial complaints about incivility.

There's a lot more to say about all of this, but I should comment just very briefly that Jean makes clear that she does actually support arguments for certain things not being said in "the public square" - by which she apparently means not being said in books, journals, etc., aimed at a broad, educated audience. These things should be discussed in academic journals, philosophy classes and seminars, and the like, she thinks, but they should not be said more widely. She gives, as an example, her view that I should not be defending moral error theory in the public square. She also supports the view that Jerry Coyne's stance in his New Republic piece was "unwise".

Now that's a large topic. But I just want to highlight how surprising, if refreshingly honest, it is. Jean says that she's not telling people in the second person to "Shut up," but regardless of whether she issues a command in the second person or merely says, "Russell should not say X or Y in the public square," the effect is much the same. It's being put that certain things should not be said except to a specialised audience of philosophers and philosophy students. Among those things are claims about the incompatibility of science and religion (though she is less confident about this than about promulgating moral error theory).

Now, I'm not someone who defends telling the truth at all costs. If the proverbial Nazi death-squad comes knocking on my door looking for Jews and homosexuals whose location I happen to know ... believe me, I'll do whatever I can to keep my knowledge secret and to mislead the Nazis as well as I'm able. There are many such examples, some of them much more everyday. I'm not committed in a fanatical way to telling the truth.

Perhaps there are utilitarian (or similar) reasons not to say certain things too widely, or even reasons to go out and tell the Folk noble lies that, if believed, will make the world a better place (based on some standard of "better" that most of us would subscribe to, such as having less pain and suffering). I can't rule any of that out, and certainly not in the space of a blog post. But it shouldn't be surprising that many people on the Gnu Atheist side of the debate get the impression that a lot of this ongoing conflict is not really about incivility. Some part of it, at least, really is about whether certain things should be said at all, even in a civil way, out there in the public square. Even if we're not addressed in the second person and directly told, "Shut up!" there are some things that at least some of our opponents just don't want us to say. This comes to much the same thing when we're part of the audience to which it's communicated.

And it produces a reaction.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Currently reading: Shari'a in the West, ed. Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney

This collection is a "must read" if you're interested in issues to do with the apparent clash between Western secularism and the demands of Islam. I use the word "apparent" deliberately - this "clash" may prove to be an illusion. "Apparent" does not, however, entail "illusory". Perhaps, in the end, the clash will turn out to be a real one: it may yet be a case of "Seems, madam? Nay, it is."

I'm very open to the idea that secular societies can accommodate Islam just as they accommodate many other religions. I hope that's how things turn out. It's going to come down to whether Muslim leaders and organisations are content to live in societies in which Islam is not persecuted, as opposed to societies in which Islamic law and morality are given some kind of legal status that can be enforced against others - whether against the populace as a whole or "merely" against those who have the good or not-so-good fortune to be born into predominately Muslim communities.

We need to talk about the issues very seriously, and to do so without the fear of being accused of "Islamophobia". The fact is that there are elements of Islamic doctrine, history, and practice that are in tension with secularism and liberalism. That tension needs to be understood and examined. I'm not calling for incivility towards Muslims - much less anything worse - but a degree of courage and intellectual honesty is needed as we move into this territory.

I'm only one third of my way through Shari'a in the West. It's a solid collection of essays, and I can already report that the standard is high and that I enjoy the diversity of viewpoints. There are some that I disagree with strongly, but that's okay: I'm happy to read the views of my intellectual opponents. (Hey, from time to time I actually change my mind on something if the case against me is strong enough; so, I suggest, should we all.) At this rate, I expect my understanding of the specific issues surrounding Islam to have deepened considerably by the time I'm finished.

My forthcoming book on religious freedom will deal with the role of Islam in modern secular states, but only as one issue among many (ranging from religious sexual morality to freedom of speech to the teaching of evolutionary theory ... but certainly including how we should respond to the burka). There's an important issue here, what with the aspirations of some Islamists and other Muslims to incorporate Sharia law into Western legal practice. We need to do a lot of more to come to grips with the implications.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Risks of ecstasy exaggerated

New research suggests that the effects of the drug ecstasy, or MDMA, are exaggerated - indeed, the real dangers of the drug in its pure form seem to be quite minimal.

As so often with paternalistic legislation, you have to ask whether harsh laws have actually increased the inherent dangers.

H/T James Bradley.

Review of The Australian Book of Atheism

A very detailed, thoughtful review by Bruce Everett over at Thinker's Podium. The favourable discussion of my own chapter in the book gives me a certain bias, of course. The review praises the book, but also raises interesting points - please consider having a look.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday supervillainy

Enjoy this cartoon from Penny Arcade. I gotta say, though, that Logan has a bit of nerve demanding an apology over this incident. Yes, Erik ripped the adamantium out of him in one of their fights, which actually seemed to me at the time like a cool way to get a knock-out victory. More importantly, Logan was trying to kill him at the time and had succeeded in wounding him with those metal claws of his. I'm crying foul.

Edit: And it's canon that Logan actually preferred not having the metal bonded to his bones ... it took a lot for him to decide later on to get it put back.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sometimes you've gotta laugh

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that I'd not be uncivil ... but added, "surely I should put in some snark near the end just so there's something to complain about."

So ... I did that, by saying the nicely dressed kid of indeterminate sex had a Colgate smile. This was a gentle but obvious reference to the widespread snark about the "Colgate Twins", i.e. the conspicuously good-looking Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. Apparently I've indulged in this sort of snark myself on three previous occasions, or something.

Sure enough, here's Jeremy Stangroom complaining, right on schedule. Apparently he was unable to construe my post in its entirety and get the little joke I made about how I'd deliberately give people like him something to complain about near the end in an otherwise-civil post. It even sent him off on a search of this blog for the word "Colgate".

Oh well, Jeremy seems to be going through some sort of identity crisis of late, poor chap, so there's no use in berating him too much. I guess he's mentally distracted. But I do think I should inject just a leeetle bit of snark here, all in fun of course. Let's be concise:

Hook. Line. Sinker.

"Someogne is gnasty on the intergnet"

Here's a little thought for the day. You probably have interests that are remote from anything discussed on this blog. Perhaps you're obsessed with competitive water-skiing. Maybe you're an aficianado of Serbian politics. Or spy novels. Or ancient Chinese history.

Some of these topics lend themselves to passion and conflict more than others. Sport and politics are especially effective at getting people to take sides and arouse themselves to frustration and anger. But when I surf around the net looking at forums on stray topics that might interest me I see flame wars provoked by all sorts of seemingly innocuous topics.

In fact, there are two very common phenomena on the internet. Get a bunch of like-minded people together to talk about some topic that interests them - and on which they agree because they are that like-minded - and they'll soon be egging each other on to increasingly extreme positions and increasingly fierce denunciations of all opponents. But get a forum where there's disagreement - over, say, the respective merits of two leading Korean movie-makers, or two competitive water-skiers, who are known to be rivals - and you'll soon see a flame war, complete with boasting, namecalling, dubious accusations about other people's motives and emotions, angry threats to leave the forum, and weird meta-arguments about the epistemic status of opinions ("My opinion is a good as yours; you can't say it's false!" "It's just a fact that Betty Foo is the greatest women's water-skiier of all time, and you can't deny it!" "Sorry, fuckwit, if I'd known you were that stupid, I'd have prefaced every comment with the words, 'In my opinion' (:rolleyes:)!").

Part of this is just human nature, and part of it is the effect of anonymity. When I see this happening, I often despair - it looks like there's a lot of frustration and anger Out There, waiting to be expressed in situations where it won't provoke any serious consequences (lost friendships, lost jobs, actual rather than virtual shouting, physical violence, etc., etc.). And there's certainly the phenomenon that human sympathy can be lost when you're not seeing/expecting to see someone's hurt facial expression or tone of voice. The intergnet can be a gnasty place, and this is not something I enjoy about it, though fortunately most people seem to be robust enough to deal with this without serious emotional hurt.

This, however, is why it's pretty pointless drawing conclusions from gnasty comments made by anonymous people in large online forums - on any subject. You'll very likely find that the biggest forums on competitive water-skiing and Korean movies are full of anger, exasperation, personality clashes, feuds, moderators banning people, moderators showing favoritism, and all the other features of the internet that can make it a less than friendly place.

No one should, however, conclude that fans of competitive water-skiing or Korean movies, or folks with particular opinions on these matters, are especially uncivil people.

Just saying.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"The Emperor's Gnude Clothes"

First, H/T to Ophelia Benson for bringing this up at Butterflies and Wheels - I wouldn't have seen it otherwise.

Jean Kazez has a post from a few weeks ago entitled "The Emperor's Gnu Clothes" . This is supposed to be a sequel to the original story in which a brave little girl speaks up and says that the emperor is naked. Kazez continues as follows:
Other kids were impressed with the brave girl. They started saying the same thing--"The emperor has no clothes! The emperor has no clothes!" Soon just saying he had no clothes lost its appeal. They shouted louder and louder, and called the emperor a fatty and laughed uproariously.

Some of the adults said: "Children. You're right he's naked. The brave girl was perfectly right to say so. But you've gotten carried away. It's time to think this through. Maybe the emperor actually enjoys being naked. Maybe he really doesn't know he's naked, and he can't figure it out when you're yelling at him. Maybe when he looks at you, your clothes look ridiculous to him, too! Control yourselves, think about how you're communicating!"

This made the children very, very angry. They wanted to believe they were just like that first brave girl. They didn't want to see themselves as rude and insulting. So the children went after the adults who had chided them, and called them names, and derided the whole idea of Communicative Restraint and Politeness, which they called crap for short.
Now, the thread makes it clear that the original brave little girl is, as Kazez thinks of it, someone like Richard Dawkins, standing up and saying unpopular things about the falsehood of religious claims. All the other children are apparently people who have thereafter taken the opportunity to engage in some kind of uncivil name calling, justifying themselves by deriding "the whole idea of Communicative Restraint and Politeness". Kazez keeps saying that her story is meant to provide a picture of "how a likeable sort of brave truthfulness can turn into something else." She adds (this is in an exchange with Ophelia), "I don't expect you to agree that this has happened in the new/gnu atheist movement, but that's how it seems to me."

Now, I don't wish to stoop to incivility myself ... so I won't. Well, surely I should put in some snark near the end just so there's something to complain about.

But I mainly want to say how puzzling I find the Kazez account. As far as I can see, the incivility is generally not coming from people who could be considered part of the New Atheist movement - such as Dawkins, or Ophelia, or maybe Jerry Coyne, or perhaps even me if we're going that far down the food chain (though gnus are vegetarian ... so, alas, the food chain metaphor doesn't really work). Most of the mockery, name-calling, gotcha rhetoric, twisting of the truth for effect, adopting outrageous and wildly implausible lies as "Exhibits", and various others forms of downright unfairness actually seem to be coming from such people as Chris Mooney and Josh Rosenau, i.e. people who wish that the Gnus would go away.

Unless I am confronted by egregious examples of power and influence being used destructively - as we see every day from the Catholic Church - I am actually very restrained. The same applies to others who could be seen as belonging in the Gnu herd. Even my commenters tend to be a polite, thoughtful bunch.

What we actually tend to see is reasonably civil, courteous, thoughtful critiques of religion from the Gnus being met with the response that it is so far beyond the pale that it should not be said. Thus, the crucial moment that set off the current round of debates was when Jerry Coyne reviewed two books by religious authors who argued for a compatibility of religion and science. The review was as civil as one could expect from any reviewer who disagrees strongly with key elements of non-fiction books that he or she is reviewing. It was thoughtful, detailed, and followed all the courtesies. See for yourself.

The response from Chris Mooney was that such things should not be said. Again, see for yourself.

Mooney cited - in a way that is clearly an endorsement, as clear as these things can ever be - a speech by Barbara Forrest:

Forrest eloquently defended this view in the first half of her talk; but in the second, she also challenged the latest secularist to start a ruckus–Jerry Coyne, who I’ve criticized before. In a recent New Republic book review, Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?

Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates:
1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, “be nice.” Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.

2. Diversity. There are so many religions out there, and so much variation even within particular sects or faiths. So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy?

3. Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?
Forrest therefore concluded her talk by saying that we need [an] “epistemological and civic humility”–providing the groundwork for “civic friendship.” To which I can only say: Amen.

Now, notice what is going on here. The views attributed to Forrest do not relate to some piece of writing or speechmaking that eschews all politeness and communicative restraint. The views that Mooney is attributing to Forrest, and clearly (see for yourself) endorsing, relate to a book review that follows the usual courtesies.

And note what it is said by Forrest/Mooney that we should not do or say. It's not a matter of exercising politeness. It's a matter of 1. do not question the beliefs of liberal religionists; 2. do not criticize pro-evolution liberal Christians, 3. do not make atheistic claims. Again, I don't see how this can be any clearer. What we have here is not a call for politeness or some degree of communicative restraint in the interest of social harmony. It quite plainly says that we should not "criticize" or even "question" the religious views of (so-called) "liberal" Christians or "moderates", and in particular we should not say  "there is no God". It's there in black and white.

The current debate is not, in essence, about politeness or communicative restraint. If Jerry Coyne talks to a group of Christians he is polite to them, as long as they are themselves courteous, open to discussion, and so on. So am I. What we are proposing is not mocking individuals or generally behaving like arse/assholes. It is, however, doing the things that Mooney (and, apparently, Forrest) said we should not do. That is, we do intend to go on questioning religious beliefs, even so-called liberal ones, criticising religious apologists, even so-called moderates, and putting the case that "there is no God". We will not do this in a way that lacks all "communicative restraint", though the appropriate degree of restraint will depend very much on the context.

Folks, none of this is inconsistent. Anyway, a more applicable story would go something like this:
Some other kids were unimpressed with the brave girl. They started telling her to be quiet. Some even told her, "Yes, the emperor has no clothes, but you must never, ever say such things!"

The girl protested to them, "But it's true, and it's not as if I called the emperor fatty or laughed in his face. Still, he has no clothes, and I think it should be said."

Some of the adults said ... very loudly: "Little girl, you're wrong - clearly he's dressed in beautiful finery. You need to look more carefully."

Others spoke to her in urgent whispers. "You must never say the emperor is naked," one woman said, bending down to the little girl, "not even in the most polite and thoughtful way you can. First, the emperor is not making you go around naked, so why question his clothing choices? Second, the alternative emperor might be a nasty man, so be nice to the one you've got. Third, you can never prove definitively that the emperor has no clothes, so why make trouble? Civic friendship demands that you show epistemological and civic humility about emperors and their various degrees of undress. Now run along and play."

The brave girl was upset by this, but she stood her ground as she thought about it. Some of her friends finally spoke up. "But it's not fair," her friend Cordelia said. "The emperor really is naked."

"But you've both got carried away here," said a nicely-dressed kid with a big white Colgate smile. "Maybe the emperor actually enjoys being naked. Maybe he really doesn't know he's naked, and he can't figure it out when you're speaking to him politely. Maybe when he looks at you, your clothes look ridiculous to him, too! Calm yourselves!"

"I'm perfectly calm," the little girl said in a perfectly calm voice (though she actually still felt a bit upset inside).

"So am I," Cordelia said in a no-nonsense way, "though this is getting a bit annoying."

 "Oh noes! No, no, no," said the kid with the Colgate smile. "Now, you're being strident. Think of how you're communicating!"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Online encyclopedia article on New Atheism

Here's an article on "The New Atheists" in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It's an interesting synthesis, though of course that has its dangers. It's not as if the people who are commonly labeled "New Atheists" form a philosophical school or even that any of them (even Dennett) necessarily has a comprehensive philosophical position. Once you take a hint here from one person, a hint there from another, an implication that one person says X so presumably his allies also think X ... then you'll present a composite picture that is not necessarily true to the beliefs of any one individual.

The criticisms of specific positions are interesting, and some may, I suppose, be fair. However, some are not. It's hardly fair charging someone with "scientism", which is then defined in a paradoxical way by you (not by them) and then claiming that they hold a view that is paradoxical. Someone somewhere may be guilty of a paradoxical epistemological position, such as scientism is supposed to be, but you'd better wait until they actually spell out the view that is supposed to be paradoxical before you accuse them of holding it.

The views from William Lane Craig that are relied on cannot really be used in the way that they are. It's no use saying that theologians see God as having a mind that is simple. The point is that if you start from a position of neutrality, moving in an incremental way from what we've discovered about the world, you will not end up drawing the inference that a simple mind designed something that, ex hypothesi, is incredibly complex. Human beings never see that sort of thing happening. We do, of course, see complexity evolve iteratively via simple mechanisms. However, any designing minds that we see are, in fact, incredibly complex things. If we were to draw the inference that the universe is a designed thing, the product of one or more designing minds, the natural inference to draw is that the designing mind(s) must be unimaginably complex. It may be logically possible that the universe somehow arose from a huge power source attached to a simple mind, but that is not something that we've ever seen, and it is not the sort of inference that we'd draw, based on our actual knowledge, from what we perceive of the universe and have learned about it.

In which case, we would want to know where that mind came from - the only complex designing minds that we've ever encountered are products of evolutionary development over vast tracts of time. So, given the knowledge we actually have, why wouldn't we then speculate that any designer of the universe is most likely also such a product? Either that, or if it was itself designed, why would we not assume that its designer was also unimaginably complex? The point is, William Lane Craig and the encyclopedia author are assuming what they need to demonstrate: that we have some reason to begin by favouring a theological notion of an essentially simple mind with complex contents - but why postulate something like that as the explanation of the universe when we've never encountered anything of the kind?

The discussion of how the New Atheists "must" be moral objectivists is obviously of interest. Perhaps they are. But if, in speaking to you, I criticise some social institution for having destructive consequences I don't thereby assume that having destructive consequences is an objectively bad thing. All I have to assume is that you and I both desire to avoid destructive consequence. If what we want from social institutions is that they not, for example, produce suffering, constrain human choice, and spread ignorance, but, rather, that they ameliorate suffering, empower individuals in various ways, and spread knowledge, then nothing stops us calling religion, or particular religions, "bad". If they are inefficient - indeed counter-productive - for ameliorating suffering, and so on, then we are entitled to make a negative evaluation. More generally, no one has to be committed to the idea of objective values or objective standards to make a negative evaluation of a social institution. We make evaluations against standards that reflect our actual values, goals, and purposes ... as we do all the time with other things.

Moral language may well often contain a claim of some sort of objective requirement or prohibition. That may well be part of the very meaning of some kinds of moral language. But no such claim necessarily lies in a judgment such as, "This is a bad social institution" or "This is a bad law" or "This is a bad political policy." All that's required is a sense of what counts, in the context concerned, as a good or bad social institution, etc., supported by some sharing of values, goals, and purposes.

(And even if someone says, "That was a morally wrong act," she may be using shorthand, or (rightly or wrongly) she may not accept that this means "an objectively forbidden act" ... or there may be other explanations other than that she is committed to moral objectivism.)

Again, it may turn out that the leading New Atheists really are all objectivists, but they needn't be. Even non-cognitivists make judgments of "good" and "bad", for Zeus's sake, and so do crude relativists, and they all offer stories about what it means when they do so. You really can't infer much about someone's metaethical position merely because he or she makes judgments of social institutions being good and bad.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How disconcerting is moral error theory?

Moral error theory interprets moral judgments as making truth-apt claims - and says they are all false. Now, in fact, it may not be so simple. While that's a position within a set of metaethical pigeonholes, no one who sees a problem with moral judgments necessarily has to claim that all moral judgments are simply false. Morality may turn out to be very messy. Perhaps some moral claims are best interpreted non-cognitively, and so as neither true nor false. Perhaps some are best interpreted cognitively, or as having a cognitive component, but are actually true. In The Myth of Morality, Richard Joyce thinks that moral language is pretty much seamless, so that all sorts of first-order moral judgments stand or fall together. Here, I'm not sure that I'm with him - and this an area where I'd like to find some time for more thought and research.

Still, skipping over that for now, Joyce and I (and Mackie and Garner, and a lot of other philosophers these days) agree that what are often thought of as the most central moral judgments are literally false. Those are claims such as "X-ing is morally wrong" or "Y-ing is morally obligatory". Actually, even here I'm not sure that I'm in full agreement. I think that part of the trouble is that we don't really know what we're saying when we make these claims. This sort of moral language may suffer from confusion and uncertainty as much as anything else.

So, I'm starting to look like an error theorist in only a minimal sense. Nonetheless, one of the things that people seem to be thinking and conveying when they use this kind of language is "X-ing is objectively forbidden" or "Y-ing is objectively demanded". I.e., there's a claim of objective prescriptivity here, and my position is that all such claims are false. Sophisticated moral relativists also hold that all such claims are false, but they argue that we don't make such claims when we make moral judgments. Such positions - which are rather remote from the kind of crude moral relativism that Sam Harris rightly atttacks, and which almost all philosophers hate - make moral judgments seem much like ordinary evaluations. Or, in one version, moral judgments can be interpreted (perhaps charitably) as being like that.

Although moral relativism has a bad reputation, I think the most sophisticated versions, which tend to be inspired by the work of Gilbert Harman, are actually quite attractive. As I've observed before, what separates them from the most common form of error theory is their moral semantic component. Whereas as an error theorist will interpret "X-ing is morally wrong" as "X-ing is objectively forbidden" or maybe "X-ing is forbidden by a standard that is objectively binding", a sophisticated relativist will interpret it as "X-ing is forbidden by standards that those in involved in this conversation share" or perhaps "X-ing is forbidden by standards that I invite others involved in this conversation to share". There may be a further thought that the standards being used could be justified to others involved in the conversation, perhaps by appealing to their values and/or widely shared values.

The problem for sophisticated relativists is that we really do tend - don't we? - to think, when we make these kinds of thin judgments, that we are stating objective requirements or prohibitions. In some sense, the requirement or prohibition exists in the nature of things, or is just a fact (of some sort), or is true as a matter of reason (in some sense of "reason" that we cannot ignore). In that sense, these sorts of moral judgments are not like other evaluations of "good" and "bad" where we don't seem to think that the standards used are binding. As I've discussed in the past, other evaluations leave room for at least some legitimate disagreement. Perhaps more importantly, they don't usually involve the idea that the standard used is objectively binding, even on rational creatures who don't share the desires, goals, purposes, or whatever that underwrite it. We get by making evaluations that are useful to us in particular social contexts.

Towards the end of my interview with Common Sense Atheism the other night, I was asked a question to the effect of how I could reassure someone who is worried about the idea that the standards on which moral judgments are made are not objectively binding.

I had a fair bit to say, but I was conscious as I thought about it once more, that a lot of people really are going to find the idea disconcerting. What can be said to them, at the end of the day, is going to involve a whole lot of theory that they need to grasp, and something important does at least seem to be lost if moral requirements and prohibitions are not, in the sense that I'm denying, objective ones. Putting myself into the mind of an objectivist who is an ordinary good person (note again that I don't think that the word "good" is necessarily tainted with any error), it is quite a lot to be asked to give up the idea of objective prescriptivity.

As Richard Garner emphasises in his publications, there is also a dark side to objective prescriptivity. In the end, we may be better off without it. I'm definitely not suggesting that abandoning it will cause chaos and suffering. But it's a psychological wrench for most people, or at least that's my perception. I don't think we can simply embrace sophisticated relativist moral semantics, because it looks to me at the moment that the folk (and hence the language they use) are committed at least to some extent to the idea of objective prescriptivity. But nor can we expect them to give up that idea lightly. Sophisticated relativists like Harman make some good points, but they are too optimistic about our ability to expunge objective prescriptivity from our thinking and our discourse.

Again, the problem is not that chaos would ensue if we all agreed to think of moral judgments as much like other evaluations, finding an eventual foundation in various human values and projects - with the addition that these will be especially important and salient values, such as social survival and amelioration of suffering. I expect that we can get by just fine if we think like that, and it's a useful way to think when actually doing practical philosophy. I'll go on arguing this. The problem is the psychological wrench involved if we ask people in general, not just a few philosophers and philosophically-minded folks, to think this way.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Interviews on moral theory

I did my two interviews last night - both long ones, and both about the Sam Harris book, David Hume, moral realism, moral scepticism, and related ideas. The first was with Common Sense Atheism, at 7 pm my time. Then at 2 am my time I did one with the Minnesota Atheists. The latter was live to air and is already, I gather, available in podcast form (I'll dig out a link later on). The Common Sense Atheism one will be podcast at a later date.

I'll have a bit more to say about the individual interviews later on. More generally, it was an unusual experience for me doing all this media work in one night - it doesn't happen that often, and it was just a coincidence that the same day turned out to suit both organisations. I also don't do this sort of thing often enough to feel especially polished at it, and I look on it as a learning experience. On the other hand, I enjoyed the interviews and thought that both went pretty well. I was a bit tired for the second one, and we had some problems with the line dropping out a couple of times. All in all, I thought I was a bit sharper in the first one.

In both cases, I spent quite a lot of time defending Sam Harris/explaining what I agree about with him. Basically this comes down to the important point that religion doesn't provide an authoritative source of guidance in how we should lead our lives, and neither does the local culture. We shouldn't be accepting a practice merely because it is accepted in the culture where it happens. I emphasised that when we evaluate cultural traditions, moral norms, laws and legal systems, customs, and so on, we should look at their consequences for the people they affect.

I didn't manage to say anything quite this cogent, but I suppose I could have put it that consequences are salient to evaluation of these things - not their source in tradition, or a holy book, or a priestly class. I did try to convey that insofar as Harris is saying these sorts of things there's an important message that I agree with.

This was worth making a bit of fuss about, I think, because my review of The Moral Landscape stresses that the most interesting things I could say were about where and why I disagree with the book. That's true if we mean "philosophically interesting", but there's also a take-home message that I can get behind, and these interviews provided an opportunity to spell it out in a bit of detail.

At the same time, both interviews provided opportunities to defend David Hume, and to point out that science cannot determine our deepest values or the totality of our values, even if we otherwise accept the Harris analysis, since that analysis presumes a value of "the well-being of conscious creatures" rather than showing how this is an empirical finding. Thus, TML leaves Hume's point about the is/ought distinction unscathed: Hume never denied that you could derive an "ought" conclusion if you include in your argument an "ought" premise, such as "we ought to value/pursue/maximise the well-being of conscious creatures". His point was that you cannot derive a conclusion containing the relation "ought" solely from premises that do not contain it, but only the relation "is". So, he said, some explanation is required as to where the "ought" relation comes from or how propositions containing it are justified.

There was also an opportunity in each interview to stress that I am not proposing to stamp out talk of "well-being", which can be perfectly useful, but that I don't think it can be pressed beyond a certain point. I explained how well-being may not be just one thing but a mixture of things that we do in fact value - though some of us may weight some of these things differently from others, with no further truth as to who is "correct" to do so. This alone leaves some room for legitimate disagreements, unless all the aspects of what we call "well-being" are lined up in the same direction, as they will be in extreme cases.

The interviews got really interesting - and into the deepest philosophical water - when they turned to questions about moral scepticism, error theory, and so on (all the core metaethical stuff). Unfortunately, we ran out of time in the Minnesota Atheists interview, and had to cut it short at an interesting point where I was about to discuss the example of my disagreement with Peter Singer about radical life extension proposals. That was just a bit frustrating. It was, however, partly because my answers were a longer and more diffuse than I'd have ideally liked.

Still, these were two good opportunities to talk about my philosophical ideas to a popular audience, which is rather different from delivering them to academic colleagues or putting them in written form. The change in forum can make you look at your ideas in a different way, as you wonder how well you're explaining them to such an audience and how they'll come across. Philosophers should do more of this.

More on that later - I'm planning to reflect a bit more about each experience in separate posts. All in all, once again, an interesting night for me last night, and I just hope it went well from the point of view of others involved.

Back soon with more reflections.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

They're never satisfied

In the Australian state of Victoria, religious employers are allowed to discriminate in employment where demanded by the inherent requirements of the job. In practice, this is likely to mean that the Catholic Church can insist on male priests - no female priest could consistently uphold the Church's doctrine that only a man can exercise the function of Christ in transmuting the bread and wine, or whatever, exactly, the relevant doctrine is. It is likely to mean that a Catholic teacher employed specifically to teach the Church's miserable doctrines about sexual sin could not expect to hold the job if he or she were openly acting in defiance of those doctrines. Presumably the Black Muslims could insist on a black priest, and a white supremacist cult could insist on a suitably blond and blue-eyed priest or whatever its nutty doctrines demanded.

We could have an interesting discussion about whether these sorts of exceptions are justifiable. They certainly give the various churches and sects considerable scope to discriminate. In any event, folks, that's the current state of the law ... but some of these people are never satisfied.

The religious lobbies in Victoria have pushed for much wider exemptions from anti-discrimination law, and the recently-elected Liberal (i.e. conservative) government is all too willing to comply. It looks like legislation will be enacted that goes far beyond pastoral positions, or those involved in moral teaching or public advocacy, or whatever other areas might come under the "inherent requirements of the job" test, to allow the churches and sects to run enterprises that openly and pretty much freely discriminate in employment.

This is advocated on the grounds of freedom of religion. But hang on, anti-discrimination laws are not enacted for the purpose of suppressing religions. Moreover, that can't even be the effect - not even a collateral effect - as long as there is an "inherent requirements of the job" test in place. The core work of churches and sects, including public advocacy of their respective doctrines, can go on with no real impediment from anti-discrimination law. Once we move beyond pastoral positions and others that are particularly sensitive for whatever reasons - positions where agreeing with, and being seen to agree with, the doctrines concerned really is needed to perform the job competently, safely, and with the employer's trust (which shouldn't be withheld unreasonably by ordinary standards) - where's the problem?

Well, I suppose the problem is that conformity to the law may be inconvenient for religion-sponsored enterprises. It might be easier and "nicer" to have a workplace where everyone from the CEO to the gardener thinks the same things and acts, even in private life, in accordance with the same canons of conduct.

But all enterprises experience a certain amount of inconvenience from obeying the law. Inconvenience does not trump public policy.

Religious or religion-sponsored enterprises don't have any more claim than anyone else to be able to do things in whatever way is most convenient to them, even where it undermines the secular purpose for which a law is enacted. Once churches and sects move into the secular labour market, they should meet the same employment standards as anyone else. Those standards can even include the same flexibility as everyone else gets - the inherent requirements of the job test gives some flexibility to ordinary businesses in various circumstances, as well - but why should religious enterprises get special privileges?

Interview at Common Sense Atheism

The other interview that I'll be doing tonight will be for a podcast at Common Sense Atheism. I'm not quite sure when this will be available online, but I'll let y'all know.

Jenny Blackford revamps her website

Jenny's website has undergone a bit of a facelift over the last couple of days, getting a lot of the information in one accessible place. I laughed out loud at one of the photographs she included (with Felix). You're invited to go and have a look.

Radio appearance with Minnesota Atheists

Very late tonight my time, but Sunday morning American time, I'll be doing a radio interview with Minnesota Atheists (most of the detail is on page 2) about moral realism, moral scepticism, and all the rest of it. Wish me luck. Hopefully the timelag on the phone + my accent, which some Americans seem to find a problem, won't be too much of a factor.

More on accommodationism - the strange case of Aikin and Talisse

I'm a bit late getting to this, but I should comment on the piece by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse over at 3quarksdaily.

I think this piece is very unfortunate, not because I am unlikely to enjoy the authors' new book or because they strike me as stupid, or anything of that nature. However, they have painted themselves into the corner of accepting the label "accommodationist" when they seem to be nothing of the sort.

The term "accommodationism" applies to people who say, in a naive (or disingenuous), unqualified way that "science is compatible with religion". More particularly, it applies to people who think that it is possible to accommodate traditional religious beliefs, without any great intellectual strain, within a science-based view of reality.

Anti-accommodationists do not deny that there are vaguely religious views that avoid direct conflict with science - a non-literalist view, perhaps, or a very austere Deism - and we've said this many times. But we do see real problems, historically and philosophically, when religion encounters science. Some religious views are in blatant logical conflict with science because the space-time universe that they describe simply cannot be reconciled with the facts (the most obvious example is the fundamentalist Christian who believes that the Earth is only 6000 years old). Others are more subtly in conflict with reasonable inferences from the scientific picture - for example views that are held even by many supposedly "moderate" Christians to the effect that there is some kind of sharp discontinuity between Homo sapiens and other animals. In some cases, there may be no outright logical inconsistency, but certain religious views simply become highly implausible given our scientific picture of the world, as with the common elements of anthropocentrism/human exceptionalism that we find in many religious views. In other cases, longstanding theological problems, such as the Problem of Evil, are made more pressing or more difficult as we find out more about the world.

Moreover, anti-accommodationists note the way that religion needs to be constantly reinterpreted to maintain even logical consistency with our empirically-based secular knowledge. This process in itself leaves religious beliefs looking ad hoc and implausible.

We also tend to be very critical of specific philosophical theses that are supposed to leave religion a sphere of authority that is not threatened by science. For example, we tend to criticise Gould's NOMA theory rather harshly - but certainly not only that theory.

There is much more to be said about the anti-accommodationist critique, and much of it has been said in detail in one place or the other. But the upshot is that we say it's unsurprising that scientific knowledge tends to erode religion, or at least lead to a severe thinning out of its truth-claims. A scientific understanding of the world, combined with minimal reflection, leads quite naturally to scepticism about religion and to an overall picture of reality that is pretty much impossible to square with the old religious pictures. To refer to this as "compatibility" is absurd. In many cases it may be disingenuous; at best, it is woolly and misguided.

Anti-accommodationists are also prone to use the word "accommodationism" to describe anyone who accepts the views I've sketched above but who basically says that we should keep quiet about them, perhaps for political reasons.

Often, alas, it can be difficult to tell whether someone really thinks that science and religion are "compatible" ... or whether this is someone who just thinks that this is what we should say.

At any rate, by these definitions, Aikin and Talisse seem pretty clearly to be anti-accommodationists. They seem to think that traditional religious positions are false, their reasons for this seem like they might include perceived implausibilities in reconciling a scientific picture of the world in space and time with what religion has historically offered, and they don't seem to oppose criticism of religion (including criticisms whose premises include scientific findings). How can they be accommodationists, then? From what I can see so far, they are not.

This suggests that people communicating with them, or criticising them, not be in a hurry to call them something they are not. I take it that they mainly want to put their case against religion in a way that they hope will be persuasive to believers, and they think that this involves sounding - or being - reasonable. By that, I take it they mean not sounding too personally hostile.

As I've said before, I think there's a place for scorn and mockery in these debates, though I prefer it to be directed at the absurdities of religious doctrines and associated arguments than at individuals. However, there is also a place to direct it at individuals in some cases - especially those who possess power and influence. But at the same time, there's a place for persuasive advocacy that tries to reach opponents and get them to change their minds, and it's true that a low-key, non-hostile approach is often most effective. You'll see this from the best courtroom advocates, who are very selective in when they choose to display aggression (though they are capable of it when required).

So I don't have any reason to call these two authors accommodationists, but I do think that it's very unfortunate that they have (a) distanced themselves from their natural allies in their post (and, possibly in their book? I don't know yet), and (b) added to the popular myth of the gnasty gnu atheist who is thoughtless and uncivil when dealing with others.

I do hope they'll rethink this and change their approach to this issue. You can damage your own cause in many ways: in this case, accommodationism is only one way to throw your allies under the bus. Anti-accommodationists can do that, too.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Tangled Bank now available in print

Chris Lynch's anthology The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution has now been published in a print version in time for Darwin Day 2011. This book contains stories, poems, and other material relating to biological evolution, including my essay "Science and the Sea of Faith". High-profile writers include Sean Williams and Brian Stableford - though in fact, it's a strong anthology in terms of writers with high reputations in their various fields.

I'm told that The Tangled Bank will be available from various outlets including Amazon, but meanwhile your best bet is to order it via the link provided.

Some Saturday supervillainy: Zeus vs the Hulk

Well, almighty Zeus isn't really presented in Marvel Comics as a villain, exactly, but I couldn't resist the alliteration.

I see around the intertubes that Marvel created a minor controversy this week when it presented a clash between one of its major heroes, the Incredible Hulk, and the king of the Greek gods - Zeus himself. Guess who won?

Now some Hulk fans are complaining about the Hulk, who almost never loses a fight, being taken down so badly by a "mere" king of a pantheon of imaginary deities. Others are observing that if Hulk fans have reached the point where they expected a different outcome ... well, it was about time something like this happened. I tend to the latter view: heroes are supposed to be physically beatable. They are not supposed to solve their problems by overwhelming force - at least not time after time - but through resourcefulness and courage and a certain amount of luck (and, where relevant, teamwork). Which was why I could never see the point of Superman when I was a kid ... and still can't really.

Friday, February 11, 2011

And even more on moral realism, moral anti-realism, and Sam Harris.

One thing about Sam, he has certainly provoked the popular conversation that he wanted. We're all now absorbed in metaethics, moral psychology, and fundamental normative theory.

Over on the ABC's religion and ethics portal, you'll find my new piece and a piece by Tim Dean (I'm not sure whether this is the same text as a post by him that I linked to previously ... or maybe a slightly revised version).

More on Peter Beattie's thread at Butterflies and Wheels

That's a very high quality thread over there - thanks to Peter Beattie for provoking such good discussion and to Ophelia Benson for hosting it. There are a couple of excellent commenters who are ably defending views similar to mine.

But I also find myself nodding along agreeing with the comments made by Paul W. in defence of The Moral Landscape. I don't think they go all the way to defending moral objectivity of the kind that error theorists deny, and nor do they defend a thoroughgoing consequentialism based on maximising something. But he doesn't claim that they do. He puts a very good case that the sorts of things that we usually have in mind when we talk about "well-being" really do lie at the roots of human moral codes. I haven't disagreed with that, but it's a point that I should, perhaps, emphasise more. Again, it doesn't get us all the way to maximising something - for example, it in no way shows that a society must prefer universal well-being in some sense to its own survival, if confronted with that choice. But there's still a lot of scope for convergence here if we can get the non-moral facts all agreed, and that's the strength of what Harris is saying.

I do disagree with the idea, which Harris pushes, that refusing to accept maximisation of well-being as the goal of morality is somehow akin to radical epistemological scepticism. I don't think this is a point where our spade is turned - i.e., where we hit bedrock. What I do think is that most of us value certain things that we can summarise as well-being, and that these things usually correlate with each other, although they can come apart in thought experiments and sometimes in real life. If you try to show that well-being really is just one of these things, or that they can all be reduced to one thing, you'll find that your view is contested, quite legitimately, but most of us can at least agree in a rough sort of way on what we want from laws, customs, policies, moral systems, etc.

It may not be a matter of maximising one of these things, so much as making a variety of judgments about moral systems as to how far they tend to meet them. There is room for legitimate disagreement about how "good" various moral systems are, but judgments like that don't have to be irrational, unreasonable, or arbitrary. They are constrained by the fact that we (meaning almost anyone likely to get involved in such conversations) really do have a lot of underlying shared values. Judged by those values, there will be plenty of clear-cut cases where certain moral systems have gone off the rails in one respect or another, or in many respects.

Obviously, I prefer this way of putting things to the way Harris puts them, but most of the book could be translated into this sort of language. It's mainly in the endnotes, where Harris deals with theoretical objections, that I think he'd need to make considerable changes before I could sign on. E.g., he has a note relating to Mackie that I think is quite wrong, and another note discussing Robert Nozick's "utility monsters" thought experiment where I think his theoretical commitments lead him to the wrong approach. But do read Paul W.'s long comments, because they say better than I could why there is a lot of good sense in what Harris is trying to do, and my arguments about his high theoretical positions don't take away from that.