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).

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Okay, so here's where I don't agree with Julian

As I was saying yesterday, I was reading Julian Baggini's Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, and I liked this little book a lot. I especially like his discussion of the religion/morality issue. I recommend the book to anyone who'd like a brief primer to read themselves or give to a friend.

My viewpoint diverged significantly from Julian's only at the end where he started explaining why he doesn't like "militant" atheism and is not "hostile" to religion. This material struck me as rather weak. He says that he has some sympathy for "militant" atheism but he likes to leave open the possibility that he is wrong. Well, sure - there is a possibility that I am wrong about all sorts of things, but that doesn't mean I can't feel strongly about them. There's a theoretical possibility that it would be better to enact laws drastically restricting abortion rights, criminalising homosexuality, abolishing the mechanisms of the welfare state, and who knows what else. There is always the theoretical possibility that I'm wrong - that I'm missing something - but I'd be opposing those laws vigorously. We could never feel strongly about, or passionately oppose, anything if it required first ruling out all theoretical possibility that we are wrong.

He then looks at some reasons for being hostile to religion across the board and concludes that they are not strong enough to justify a hostile attitude. Now, I'm not entirely out of sympathy with this. I do think that it's better to be hostile to particular manifestations of religion rather than to be hostile to it across the board in an undiscriminating way. I think we should all be a bit discerning in our hostility.

In my case, I'm mainly hostile to religion insofar as it seeks political power and attempts to impose its values and ideas on non-believers through the mechanisms of the secular law. That's not the entirety of my viewpoint - there are plenty of situations in which religion is damaging to children or to the interests of women, and much else, without the involvement of the state. But my hostility to religion in these situations is focused on specifics. I don't go around feeling hostile to every Quaker, Anglican, or Buddhist who crosses my path. I freely acknowledge that there are situations where people are motivated by religion to do good in the world.

However, there are plenty of reasons for a certain amount of hostility to various important manifestations of religion, even if we don't take religion to be monolithic. And none of those reasons requires an attitude of dogmatism.

Once again, I can entertain the theoretical possibility that some belief system will turn out to be the correct one in some sense while still being hostile to it. I don't, for example, need to pursue every issue to the point of mathematical certainty in order to justify my hostility to Nazism. This is not to "play the Nazi card" (rolleyes) and suggest that all religion is as bad as Nazism, but it shows the absurdity of the claim that I can be hostile to a belief system that I regard as harmful only if I can demonstrate its falsity to a mathematical standard. At some point, we are entitled to conclude that certain ideas, organisations, and leaders of organisations are harmful and should be opposed. Our lack of theoretical certainty about anything other than, perhaps, some very simple logical truths, is not a reason for quietism.

So, I suggest that Julian has not put good reasons against being "militant" or "hostile", though there are reasons to be somewhat discerning in our "militancy" and "hostility". In my case, what I mainly want is a society that embraces secularism in the political sense - i.e. a society in which the government makes decisions on grounds relating to people's interests in the things of this world, rather than attempting to impose its preferred religious ideas. It's not my aim to wipe out or persecute religion, though I do think that the various religions are untrue and that it is worth challenging their truth claims. I'll reserve my greatest level of hostility for situations where I think religion is most harmful.

All of which makes me think that Julian's softly softly approach in the last pages of his excellent 120-page primer is more a matter of temperament than anything else. That's fine, but some of us aren't quite so laid back, and I think we have good reasons to take a more aggressive approach. For many of us, a certain amount of "militancy" and hostility can be perfectly reasonable choice.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Jerry Coyne has a thread...

...on my piece over on the ABC site. Just in case you missed it. Yay for Jerry!

Currently reading: Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini

I'm halfway through this little book, and I've gotta say that I like it a lot.

I'm not sure from what I've read so far why Julian seems to have felt it necessary from time to time to distance himself from the whole New Atheism thing, but there are many confusing things in this world.

The public square of USA Today

H/T Jason Streitfeld for drawing my attention to this erudite article in USA Today about the evils of atheism. It's always good to see such high standards in the public square. In this case it comes from a bloke who has written a book on angels and demons and the "spiritual realities" that surround us. I can't wait to read that one.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

T-800 endoskeleton life-sized bust

I don't know how many of you have US$499 to throw away on this baby - I certainly don't. Looks cool, though.

With friends like Ruse who needs enemies?

My response to Ruse is now available over on the ABC Religion and Ethics portal. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Here I am feeling like I'm bashing my head against a brick wall...

...because of this thread on the BCSE's page.

I can't believe the total lack of logic here. The kerfuffle arose when a former NCSE employee, Nick Matzke, decided to have a gratuitous shot at Richard Dawkins for "playing the Nazi card", whatever that means. Read all about it here. BCSE official Roger Stanyard decided to defend Matzke over on Dawkins' site, where it inevitably found its way, as well as at Why Evolution is True. Much of the defence was about the alleged need for such bodies as the NCSE and BCSE to take an accommodationist stance towards religion.

But that is not true. Such bodies exist to defend the teaching of well-established science. They do not need to argue for a philosophical position that science and religion are "compatible" (whatever exactly that means - it it simplistic and misleading to say such a thing without a helluva lot of qualifications, reservations, and explanations) or a theological position that some kind of non-literalist view of the Bible is theologically correct. The NCSE and BCSE needn't get into any of this. They should be defending secularism, the evidential basis of the science itself, and (where relevant) constitutional standards relating to freedom of religion.

They definitely should not be defending atheism, or New Atheism (whatever that is understood to mean), or anything of the kind. Nor have they been asked to do so by Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, or anyone else involved in the debate, despite numerous allegations to the contrary (see the threads I've linked to). Asking for neutrality on the theism/atheism issue and the accommodationism/anti-accommodationism issue is not the same as asking for support of atheism or anti-accommodationism.

On this, I know that Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers, and any other usual suspects, all agree with me. We are NOT asking for the BCSE or any other such body to support atheism or anything similar. This has been said many, many times.

PZ Myers puts it well and concisely. Secularism and atheism are not the same thing.

Honestly, I just don't understand what's so hard about this. What's so hard about asking for an organisation to be neutral about whether there is a God, what theological views may or may not be correct, and whether religion is or is not compatible with science? That's what's been asked for - and all that's been asked for - again and again, spelled out clearly on each occasion. Contrary to the pronouncements of Roger Stanyard on the first thread I linked to above, we are simply not asking the BCSE (or the NCSE or any other science organisation) to support the New Atheism.

Stanyard says: "Basically they want the NCSE and the BCSE to back 'New Atheism' ..."

No we don't. That's why I feel like I'm bashing my head against a brick wall. We have repeatedly said something totally different. We do not want those any organisations to do any such thing. We want them, rather, to adopt a stance of neutrality towards us. Specifically, we want them to stop attacking us and stop taking sides. When that reasonable request is met with a blatant misrepresentation of our position, I really have to wonder...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An interesting petition

This one. Not something I can sign, for obvious reasons, but if this is legit someone has his heart in the right place.

2011 Hugo Award nominees

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (Ballantine Spectra)
Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz; Pyr)
Feed by Mira Grant (Orbit)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)

“The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2010)
"The Lifecycle of Software Objects" by Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
“The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” by Elizabeth Hand (Stories: All New Tales, William Morrow)
“The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov’s, September 2010)
“Troika” by Alastair Reynolds (Godlike Machines, Science Fiction Book Club)

“Eight Miles” by Sean McMullen (Analog, September 2010)
“The Emperor of Mars” by Allen M. Steele (Asimov’s, June 2010)
“The Jaguar House, in Shadow” by Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s, July 2010)
“Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s, December 2010)
“That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone (Analog, September 2010)

Short Story
“Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn (Lightspeed, June 2010)
“For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s, September 2010)
“Ponies” by Kij Johnson (Tor.com, November 17, 2010)
“The Things” by Peter Watts (Clarkesworld, January 2010)

Related Work
Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001, by Gary K. Wolfe (Beccon)
"The Business of Science Fiction: Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publishing," by Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg (McFarland)
Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea (Mad Norwegian)
Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1: (1907–1948): Learning Curve, by William H. Patterson, Jr. (Tor)
Writing Excuses, Season 4, by Brandon Sanderson, Jordan Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells

Graphic Story
"Fables: Witches," written by Bill Willingham; illustrated by Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)
"Girl Genius, Volume 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse," written by Phil and Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)
"Grandville Mon Amour," by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse)
"Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel," written and illustrated by Howard Tayler; colors by Howard Tayler and Travis Walton (Hypernode)
"The Unwritten, Volume 2: Inside Man," written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross (Vertigo)

Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, screenplay by Steve Kloves; directed by David Yates (Warner)
How to Train Your Dragon screenplay by William Davies, Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders; directed by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders (DreamWorks)
Inception, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Warner)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, screenplay by Michael Bacall & Edgar Wright; directed by Edgar Wright (Universal)
Toy Story 3, screenplay by Michael Arndt; story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich; directed by Lee Unkrich (Pixar/Disney)

Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
"Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol," written by Steven Moffat; directed by Toby Haynes (BBC Wales)
"Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang," written by Steven Moffat; directed by Toby Haynes (BBC Wales)
"Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor," written by Richard Curtis; directed by Jonny Campbell (BBC Wales)
"... Me, Ray Bradbury," written by Rachel Bloom; directed by Paul Briganti
"The Lost Thing," written by Shaun Tan; directed by Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan (Passion Pictures)

Editor, Short Form
John Joseph Adams
Stanley Schmidt
Jonathan Strahan
Gordon Van Gelder
Sheila Williams

Editor, Long Form
Lou Anders
Ginjer Buchanan
Moshe Feder
Liz Gorinsky
Nick Mamatas
Beth Meacham
Juliet Ulman

Professional Artist
Daniel Dos Santos
Bob Eggleton
Stephan Martiniere
John Picacio
Shaun Tan

Clarkesworld, edited by Neil Clarke, Cheryl Morgan, Sean Wallace; podcast directed by Kate Baker
Interzone, edited by Andy Cox
Lightspeed, edited by John Joseph Adams
Locus, edited by Liza Groen Trombi and Kirsten Gong-Wong
Weird Tales, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Stephen H. Segal

Banana Wings, edited by Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer
Challenger, edited by Guy H. Lillian III
The Drink Tank, edited by Christopher J Garcia and James Bacon
File 770, edited by Mike Glyer
StarShipSofa, edited by Tony C. Smith

Fan Writer
James Bacon
Claire Brialey
Christopher J Garcia
James Nicoll
Steven H Silver

Fan Artist
Brad W. Foster
Randall Munroe
Maurine Starkey
Steve Stiles
Taral Wayne

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
Award for the best new professional science fiction or fantasy writer of 2009 or 2010, sponsored by Dell Magazines (not a Hugo Award). All Campbell finalists are in their second year of eligibility.
Saladin Ahmed
Lauren Beukes
Larry Correia
Lev Grossman
Dan Wells

H. Allen Orr reviews The Moral Landscape

I like Orr's book reviews, and this is one not an exception. It's a civil, thoughtful, clear, and incisive look at the philosophical problems that haunt The Moral Landscape. There are some speculations near the end that I'm not especially in sympathy with (e.g. the comparison of morality to mathematics, which I don't think can be made to work), but Orr is not committed to them - he's just considering possible alternatives.

Once again, the book has attracted a very high class of reviewers.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - Emma Frost is not a nice person

This is from an online preview of Uncanny X-Men #536.

Emma Frost may be shacked up with Scott Summers these days - love can take people in strange directions - but she is still a supervillain at heart. Look at her behaviour in this round-table conference after a warship from the militaristic Breakworld enters our solar system and is boarded by a group of X-Men and S.W.O.R.D. agents, including the brown-skinned alien who works for Agent Brand (the woman with the green hair).

The Breakworld folks ask for political asylum on Earth, but can you trust them? This is the same bunch that tried to destroy Earth with a giant bullet during Joss Whedon's legendary run on Astonishing X-Men. (Kitty Pryde was trapped inside the Breakworld space bullet for months of in-universe time until Magneto rescued her as a peace offering to the X-Men.)

In case you can't read it easily, the alien, who speaks in a hissing voice, says, "I can psssychically sssscan them."

Emma: "I can pssssychically sssssscan them too, Sssscott."

Not nice, Emma. Not nice at all.

Jerry Coyne's open letter

In the comments on Jerry's post I expressed one minor reservation about this open letter (or rather, agreed with one expressed by my good friend Chris Lawson). That aside, I endorse the letter. I share Jerry's sentiments, and I feel strongly about this issue.

Like Jerry, I'm especially sick of the attacks on forthright atheists by people associated with the NCSE. I'm also appalled at the spectacle of the NCSE cozying up to non-literalist theologians and fairly clearly suggesting that biblical literalism is not only false (of course it is) but theologically false (a body such as the NCSE should not be making theological judgments).

It seems that a lot of people associated with the NCSE have lost the plot. The aim is not to support a specific theological or philosophical position (whether it's atheism or some kind of non-literalist theism or biblical literalism). The NCSE may certainly want to cooperate in court proceedings with theists who dislike biblical literalism. Often it is necessary to litigate against government efforts to promote biblical literalism through distortion of the science curriculum. But cooperating with someone in court proceedings does not mean that you have to endorse their wider position out of court.

The point has been reached where the NCSE is adopting a substantive position in philosophy of religion (something like NOMA) and a substantive position on Christian theology (something to the effect that biblical literalism is theologically wrong). That goes beyond its remit. Or if it considers that part of its remit, it should say so openly. It then has to understand that many people who applaud its main efforts cannot give it their unequivocal support.

FWIW, I don't think it makes sense for someone who is not actually a Christian to say which Christian position is theologically correct. The Christian holy books, traditions, and teachings are open to many interpretations. It's not our business to say which interpretation of them is "right" as an interpretation.

I do, however, think that NOMA and similar positions are clearly false. Religion has never been confined to issues of morality and "meaning" in life or to describing a supernatural world that is hermetically sealed off from the natural one. Some modern-day religious positions may be that watered down, but much religion has made stronger claims about the interaction of a supernatural order of things with the world that we perceive with our senses. Indeed, that is far more typical of what religion has said over the centuries.

The NCSE should not be taking positions one way or the other on any of this philosophical and theological stuff ... not unless it wants to lose a lot of support. People associated with it should certainly not be wasting everyone's time and energy by attacking Richard Dawkins.

Becoming a vampire through reading

I would like to read the actual article that this report is based on, as it's a bit hard to work out what to make of it in this summary form. But it looks like an intriguing, if somewhat primitive, study of how we imaginatively enter into a world that we read about.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Does religion unite or divide us?

Which do you think? Inquiring minds want to know.

The Australian Book of Atheism on Google Books

You can look at a big chunk of The Australian Book of Atheism (though my chapter on freedom of speech is not part of that chunk) over here on Google Books. If you like what you read, well the book would make a good belated Easter present - right?

The introduction by Warren Bonett gives a good indication of what the book is all about, though the essays/chapters are quite varied and there's no substitute for actually having you hands on the whole volume.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Ophelia is sooo strident

Not feeeling well today - have been trying to get rid of a nasty bug for the last few days. So if you've turned up here the best I can offer (but hey, it's pretty frakking good) is a link to this great interview with Ophelia Benson. You may have already come across it over at Butterflies and Wheels, but if not have a listen and hear for yourself how shrill and strident she is(n't).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Wisdom from Ms Goodman

Alison has done some lovely posts over on Penguin's site, telling us a bit about her thought processes as a writer (and as a reader). They're beautiful little pieces. You might want to comment, because she asks some interesting questions.

New Atheists ruin Home Economics

I've now seen the light and totally understand Ruse's point. lol


Barash on Ruse

David Barash replies to the Ruse piece that we've been talking about.

Replying to Ruse

I've written a (possibly too long) response to Ruse and just sent it to the editor of the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal. I hope it won't need to be cut, or not by too much. Watch out for that on Tuesday or Wednesday next week.

I understand that Ruse will be offered a chance to reply, so watch out for that as well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Death of Elisabeth Sladen

Damn! I'm very sad to hear about this. I loved her portrayal of Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who. Many fans of the show will be upset today. :(

Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Horror - ToC

Table of contents announced for this book:

The stories are (alphabetically by writer):
  • RJ Astruc - Johnny and Babushka
  • Peter M Ball - L'esprit de L'escalier
  • Alan Baxter - The King's Accord
  • Jenny Blackford - Mirror
  • Gitte Christensen - A Sweet Story
  • Matthew Chrulew - Schubert By Candlelight
  • Bill Congreve - Ghia Likes Food
  • Rjurik Davidson - Lovers In Caeli-Amur
  • Felicity Dowker - After The Jump
  • Dale Elvy - Night Shift
  • Jason Fischer - The School Bus
  • Dirk Flinthart - Walker
  • Bob Franklin - Children's Story
  • Christopher Green - Where We Go To Be Made Lighter
  • Paul Haines - High Tide At Hot Water Beach
  • Lisa L. Hannett - Soil From My Fingers
  • Stephen Irwin - Hive
  • Gary Kemble - Feast Or Famine
  • Pete Kempshall - Brave Face
  • Tessa Kum - Acception
  • Martin Livings - Home
  • Maxine McArthur - A Pearling Tale
  • Kirstyn McDermott - She Said
  • Andrew McKiernan - The Memory Of Water
  • Ben Peek - White Crocodile Jazz
  • Simon Petrie - Dark Rendezvous
  • Lezli Robyn - Anne-droid of Green Gables
  • Angela Rega - Slow Cookin'
  • Angela Slatter - The Bone Mother
  • Angela Slatter & Lisa L Hannett - The February Dragon
  • Grant Stone - Wood
  • Kaaron Warren - That Girl
  • Janeen Webb - Manifest Destiny
Jenny also announces it over here. "Mirror" is actually a poem, not a story, but who's counting?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Currently reading: Behzti (Dishonour) by Gurpeet Kaur Bhatti

The play Behzti, by Gurpeet Kaur Bhatti, is probably most famous for being the subject of protests in Birmingham by militant Sikhs, who objected to what they saw as an offensive depiction of the Sikh community. Bhatti herself received death threats, which is pretty much par for the course these days when you upset a religious community.

Behzti is undoubtedly sensational - involving rape and a murder - though there are also light moments, some appropriately corny stage business that would delight theatre goers, and a (somewhat) touching love story.

I have not seen the play staged, and I don't know whether there has been a stage production in Australia. I very much doubt it, or there would have been heavy publicity and public controversy.

Apparently it's been performed in Belgium and France, but I don't know where else. Thus I have to imagine how it would work on stage ... though of course we all do this all the time if we are interested in the study of drama. Bhatti's play seems to show mature stage craft and to have much potential for humour, drama, and some shocks near the end that would leave audiences gasping. It would be fascinating to see how the public would respond if an effort were made to stage it here. In any event, I'd now love to see how it would come alive with quality staging and a professional director and cast.

Behzti is, of course, in no way a racist or quasi-racist attack on Sikhs. This is not a work of racist propaganda. However, it is set in a Sikh temple and has been accused of being especially offensive for portraying violence and sexual abuse (to put it mildly) within such a location.

In case you were wondering, the Catholic Church appears to have come out firmly against the play during the controversy in Birmingham - at least if Wikipedia is reliable on this. Did the local bishop make a strong, unambiguous statement in favour of freedom of artistic expression? Ha! Wouldn't it be nice if this happened one day? I'd be happier if Wikipedia provided a citation, so we could be certain it is accurate, but it says:
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, said the play was offensive to people of all faiths: "The right to freedom of expression has corresponding duties to the common good. Such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh religion demeans the sacred places of every religion."
In other words, freedom of expression is only freedom to express what is supposed to be for the "common good". You're not supposed to be free to express yourself if your expression - even if fictional - violates and "demeans" religious sacred places.

As always, however, freedom of speech and expression does not mean freedom of pretty, uncontroversial speech and expression, or freedom to express yourself in a way that meets the approval of the local bishop. It includes the right to express ugly sentiments in ways that might offend.

I'm not saying that Behzti should be looked on as ugly speech, but even if it were, goddammit, the emphasis in the midst of a public controversy should be on the right to utter it, not on a responsibility to censor yourself or to accept being censored. But that's the Catholic Church for you. Shame.

Edit: Thanks, guys, for the citations for the Nichols quote and for the edit by Friend of Icelos to Wikipedia so there's now no doubt for readers over there.

Catholics militants destroy artwork

A bunch of militant Roman Catholics destroyed the Serrano photograph "Piss Christ" at a gallery exhibition in Avignon. The gallery is now displaying the destroyed artwork "so people can see what barbarians can do."

This is news worth spreading. It puts in perspective just how "moderate" the Catholic Church is. And don't give me the line that this was merely a bunch of outliers - the Catholic hierarchs have previously attempted to prevent the exhibition of "Piss Christ", calling on the power of the state to do their dirty work. It happened in Melbourne during the time when I lived there, for example. They are very happy to employ force to stop speech and expression that they disapprove of, and, despite all the historical revisionism that we see, they always have been.

Roman Catholicism has a long history of suppressing ideas and images that it considers threatening. In past centuries, it has had considerable success with this, acting through state power. The Catholic hierarchy is fundamentally opposed to freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and this has been shown numerous times.

There is nothing "moderate" about the Catholic Church or the Catholic faith, despite the way it is often held out as one of the nicer religions. It's just as bad as any other - and in some ways, it's worse than most. Once again, I call on decent people who belong to the Catholic Church to leave it and join some other Christian denomination. If these sorts of barbaric actions don't represent you ... well, maybe you need to look further into the positions that the hierarchy takes on your behalf.

"Wrong or simplistic or misleading..."

I do dislike the fact that stuff I think wrong or simplistic or misleading gets great traction with the public. I dislike it from the Tea Party. I dislike it from the New Atheists. I think Dawkins is simplistic when it comes to analyzing the arguments for the existence of God. I think Dennett is na├»ve and simplistic when he thinks that so sophisticated an issue as the growth and belief in religion can be analyzed in terms of Dawkins’s cultural units of memes. I think Harris is crude beyond belief when he thinks that morality can be reduced to scientific findings. I cannot say anything about Hitchens, since I quit reading him when he supported George W. Bush’s excursion into Iraq.

Ruse is entitled to think various views are wrong or simplistic or misleading, though the usual response when we see views that strike us like that is to try to publish the views that we consider right, adequately complex, and reliable. He has no problem getting his own ideas published.

But in any event, he really ought to look in the mirror. How is his theory about the constitutional implications (in the US) of the New Atheism not wrong, simplistic, and misleading? Likewise for his theory about how the cases have been decided so far. I realise that Ruse gave evidence about the nature of science in one important case, but that doesn't make him a constitutional lawyer or even a philosopher of law. This happens to be something I know a little about, and it's pretty obvious to me who is being simplistic, etc., here.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"I will regard them with contempt."

Ruse says:
I don’t think the New Atheists are bad people. I really don’t. I think the contrary, that they are deeply moral people. But moral conviction is not enough. To answer Sam Harris: Doing the right thing is not a matter of deriving morality from the facts; it is a matter of combining morality with the facts. ——And until I get some sense that the New Atheists are going to show why their present strategy does not spell disaster down the road, why it is that they can mesh science and atheism as they do and not get into trouble in the courts when it comes to keeping creationism out of the schools, I will continue to regard them with contempt.
This is extraordinary. It boils down to, "I think that some of the views of the Gnu Atheists could lead to a bad outcome (as well as being false). Therefore, I regard these deeply moral individuals with contempt."

See what he did there?

I'll be responding formally to Ruse over at the ABC religion/ethics portal, which gets many, many times as much traffic as I get here. But I couldn't let that statement go. When you think about it, it's outrageous. Just let it soak in for a minute.

(The fact that the bad outcome would only arise from some very bad legal reasoning is independently important, but beside the point I'm making here.)

I can't help (some supervillain with a mind control power obviously has me in thrall!!) observing that the relationship between the teaching of evolution and freedom of religion, as embodied in the US First Amendment and various other legal instruments, will be among the many issues discussed in my new book (working title Freedom of Religion and the Secular State) to be published by Wiley-Blackwell in late 2011/early 2012.

If I don't get to flog my book out of this, what's the world coming to?

Oh noes, ah iz a Junior New Atheist

According to Michael Ruse.

I'm more amused by this than anything else. But what's a bit annoying about the whole thing is that Michael Ruse is better than this - I used to count myself as something of a fan of his work. He's written some very good books. At the moment, as things seem to me, he's doing himself a disservice. Oh well, more later no doubt.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - A review of Thor plus a special bonus or two.

This review of Thor is making me salivate (kind of) - it sounds like a heap of fun. I guess I'll go along and see it in a couple of weeks when it's released here.

While “Thor” is not a perfect film, it is the best from Marvel Studios yet. The lessons learned from their previous attempts are evident here, with a strong storyline that doesn’t have any major weaknesses. The film deftly expands the Marvel Universe in film, taking bold steps to set itself apart from the pack, with a great set-up for what may be the ultimate super hero cross over.
Which leads me to this piece of nostalgia from my childhood - an old (1966) Thor cartoon available on YouTube. As usual, our hero is engaged in conflict with the cunning god of mischief, Loki. Gotta love the voices, especially Loki's. 

For those who are wondering - and I assume that most of my readers are too young to have seen this when it first appeared - the animation style was clunky even for the time, in fact deliberately so. There was plenty of slick animation on television in the mid-1960s. The idea was not only to save money, though it certainly must have done that, but also to present something much more like the experience of a comic book than an ordinary cartoon.


Or for metal fans, try this Thor-oriented rock video, which guest stars Thunderstrike and Beta Ray Bill.

More reviews of The Moral Landscape

Kenan Malik and Ophelia Benson have their say.

Edit: And here is Simon Blackburn. Harris has certainly gained the attention of some high-quality reviewers. (H/T Marshall.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Wilders hate speech trial resumes

I guess we should be watching this - whatever individual opinions we have formed of Geert Wilders. The trial has recommenced after screeching to a halt last year and having to start from the beginning. Once again, it's bogged down in debates about judicial propriety.

As always with the ongoing Wilders debacle, we have the spectacular mix of free speech issues, extreme-right perspectives lurking around the edges, clashes between classical liberal values and post-modern ideas of how to enforce social harmony. All grist for the mill. Hopefully, the Dutch judicial system will eventually extricate itself with honour from this mess which it brought on itself (recall that the prosecutors never actually wanted to prosecute this case).

Friday, April 15, 2011

"Envy"; "jealousy"; "spite"

While we're talking about envy, jealousy, and spite, I'm interested in how people distinguish among these and related concepts.

Robert Nozick has a famous discussion of them in a (very) long footnote in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (page 239 for those who are interested). He makes some subtle distinctions, and they do seem to correspond with concepts that we actually have. I'm not sure, though, that his explications of envy, jealousy, and spite match my intuitive ones.

Nozick has this little matrix that applies to some sort of good, whether it's money, fame, success, sexual desirability, or whatever. The possibilities that he imagines boil down to these:

1. Both you and the other person have it.

2. The other person has it and you don't.

3. You have it and the other person doesn't.

4. Neither of you has it.

The question is: What are your preferences among 1., 2., 3., and 4.?

Nozick has a complicated analysis that has now left me wondering, though I do think that someone who prefers 4. to 1. is spiteful. Nozick defines spite as preferring 4. to 1. while preferring 3. to 4. I guess that's fair enough.

But what about jealousy and envy? And Nozick adds a couple of other categories - someone who is begrudging and someone who is merely competitive (which he doesn't really disapprove of).

What if you prefer 4. to 2. but prefer 1. to 4. (while your favourite is actually 3.). Is that jealousy or envy? Is it a form of spite? What if you're neutral between 1. and 3., both of which you prefer to 2., while putting 4. last? That's okay isn't it? There are lots of possibilities. What if your preferences are, in order, 1., 3., 2. 4.? That would seem fairly normal and healthy to me. Yes? But some people might list their preferences as 3., 1., 2. 4. Is that jealousy?

Anyone who prefers 4. to 2. seems very worrying, and someone who prefers 4. to 1. even more so.

Just asking.

How I see the "New Atheism" - Part 2 of 2

I was saying yesterday that something has changed. There's a sense of many people being fed up with religion, and large publishers are interested in books that relate to the public mood. But why the widespread hostility to religion at this particular point of history?

Part of it, of course, is a reaction to the events of September 11, 2001, and it's notable that The End of Faith, the first of the very popular New Atheist books was largely focused on Islam. But surely that's not the whole story. Every day there are terrible actions carried out in the name of one religion or another, and many people now see religion as having a dark side.

Unfortunately, there's plenty of evidence that even traditional forms of Christianity, which pride themselves on their love and compassion, have this kind of dark side. Much of the behaviour of religious leaders and organisations in Western countries fuels the perception that they'd rather use force than try to persuade people. In many cases, we see Christians, doubtless well-intentioned, wanting to get governments to impose their ideas on others who may not be Christians. You may say that it's your democratic right to do this, and I'd agree with you up to a point. Only "up to a point", because I think that might show a simplistic view of how democracy is supposed to work. In my forthcoming book on freedom of religion I'll have a lot to say about this.

Meanwhile, even if it's somebody's democratic right to ask governments to endorse, promote, or impose, Christian viewpoints, there will inevitably, and quite rightly, be a response from people like me who strongly disagree with those viewpoints. We're going to ask whether those viewpoints are soundly based, whether they really have the divine authority that is claimed for them, and so on.

If any of us involved in public debates claim to have some kind of special moral authority that comes from God or a holy text or a body of theological teaching ... then there will, quite rightly, be others asking whether we really possess that sort of authority, whether God really says what we claim (or even exists), whether our holy texts are really divinely inspired, whether our theological doctrines are credible, and so on.

On the face of it, after all, the sorts of claims that are made by Christian and other religious leaders sound extraordinary and even arrogant. No one should assume, anymore, that people will simply accept that these religious leaders have a special insight into reality or that they hold the high moral ground in public debate. Many of us disagree, and of course we also have rights, notably the right to express our disagreement strongly and publicly.

That is what the New Atheists are doing, and even if you disagree with their views (in part or in total), what they are doing is legitimate.

We've seen many attempts to demonise forthright atheists as unreasonable or extreme or dogmatic, or as "fundamentalist" in their own way. If you look at it like that, you're engaging in wishful thinking. The reality is that many people who are thoughtful, moderate, rather tolerant, not at all extreme in their thinking, are now suspicious of religion - not only of its claims to offer transcendent truths, but also about whether it's even socially beneficial. That's the message we should all take from the New Atheist phenomenon. The New Atheist books are successful for the simple reason that people want to buy them. And that's because there's a perfectly reasonable suspicion of religion's dark side out there in the community.

I made some of these points when I spoke  last September at the Crossway Conference - a conference of evangelical Baptists here in Australia - and they seemed to gain a lot of acceptance. The irony is that some religious people seem more willing to accept the legitimacy of strong criticism of religion than some atheists. I am amazed by the continuing attempts by many atheists and secularists to demonise the New Atheist writers and their intellectual allies.

There's been a great deal of discussion of this phenomenon on other blogs just lately. In a sense, my thunder has been stolen. But I do find it extraordinary that we have so many atheist thinkers expressing what seems to go beyond disagreement with certain New Atheists on certain points (the kind of disagreement that you get from me all the time if I disagree with some specific thing that Sam Harris said or that Richard Dawkins said), and conduct themselves in a way that seems resentful and spiteful.

Surely those of us who wish to engage critically with religion are all better off as a result of the New Atheist publishing phenomenon. It has opened up opportunities for us, and all of the publishers that we might approach are now working in an environment where criticism of religion sells. That benefits academic presses and smaller trade presses that are publishing critiques of religion. The rising tide really is floating a lot of boats here.

I’d don't know, but I suspect that Prometheus Books now sells more copies of its publications than ever as a result of the synergies that Dawkins and company have created. If they don't, they must be doing something wrong, because this is now a very favourable market for them. And Christopher Hitchens even helped out with an intro to one of Victor Stenger's books published by Prometheus. This is not a zero-sum game (and I certainly don't see Stenger complaining).

Again, I can understand people wanting to disagree with specific New Atheist thinkers about specific points - such as my disagreement with Sam Harris about certain issues in moral theory. What I don't understand is all the resentment. Apart from the unattractive emotions of envy, jealousy, and spite, the only explanation is that some of these folk who had established philosophical and historical theories are disappointed that what they see as incorrect theories are gaining greater popularity with the public.

Well, fine. But there is now a greater opportunity than ever to disseminate the "correct" historical and philosophical analyses, whatever they are. That can be done in a positive way - through actual books and articles - rather than through the unedifying spectacle of a long-running campaign of sledging on the Internet.

I haven't descended to naming names here - the specific names are pretty obvious, but not all that relevant to the point I want to make. He (and it usually is a "he") that hath an ear, let him hear.

Craig versus Harris (more)

The full video, along with comments by Sam Harris, can be found here. Harris has some interesting comments about his tactics for dealing with Craig - comments that don't surprise me in the light of my own discussion of his tactics a few days ago. Interesting, though, to see what was on his mind when he made certain choices.

Edit: I should say that I thought the debating rules were fair to Harris - I'd be happy to be the opposing speaker to a topic under those rules.

The one other rule that I think should apply to all such debates is: "No notes or overheads (or any other such crutches) to be used." Make it a real contest of the speakers as speakers. I'm talking generally, not about this specific debate.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

How I see the "New Atheism" - Part 1 of 2

Perhaps the first thing I need to say on this topic is that there's really no such thing as the New Atheism - at least in a sense. The authors who have come to be known as "New Atheists" are not necessarily saying anything terribly new. To the extent that there is something new in their books, articles, speeches, media appearances, and so on, it builds in an incremental way on what came before. What's really new is that people who criticise religion in a forthright way now have a large audience interested in their thoughts. Prior to the last few years that was far less the case.

In Western countries, there's a long tradition of intellectual critique of religious teachings going far back into antiquity with the writings of Epicurus in ancient Greece and Lucretius in ancient Rome. The intellectual classes of Europe and the West increasingly turned away from Christianity in recent centuries, or at least from the orthodox traditions of the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestantism. Obviously, much happened in between.

Throughout our lifetimes, there has always been a strong body of thought according to which holy books such as the Bible are not divinely inspired but are merely human constructions, traditional religious concepts of God are highly implausible, and key Christian doctrines such as those of the Trinity, sin against God, eternal punishment, and Christ's sacrificial atonement seem unlikely or even incoherent.

Consider the 1980s and 1990s, however - the rather recent past. During those decades, you could have found plenty of material that criticises traditional religion, denying its truth claims and seriously contesting its moral authority. The sorts of secular thinkers I have in mind were likely not only to think that the claims about the world made by Christianity and other religions are false, they were also likely to deny that the Christian churches and their leaders held the high moral ground in social debates or that there was any reason to consider Christian priests, presbyters, pastors, or even the pope - perhaps especially the pope - to be moral experts.

However, during the 1980s these criticisms were seldom expressed in highly visible, highly public ways. You were most likely to see them in academic books and journals, in material published by what we can think of broadly as the rationalist movement, or, related to this, in monographs from relatively small publishers such as Prometheus Books.

The material was there for those that wanted it, but it was tucked away in the corners of the culture. That is what changed, and you can pinpoint the exact year when it changed: 2004.

Let's start by looking at what actually constitutes the phenomenon of "the New Atheism". It's mainly that the sort of material that had existed for a very long time is suddenly popular. Large publishers are now prepared to accept books that criticise religion; powerful literary agents are willing to represent such books; in some cases, very high-profile writers are writing them; and the public is buying them in rather large numbers. Some of the most prominent books have sold millions of copies.

Tom Flynn, the editor of Free Inquiry magazine, has suggested that the first cab off the rank - the first of these recent books by a forthright, unashamed atheist to issue from a major publisher - was actually Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby, published in 2004 by an imprint of the giant publisher Macmillan. But the really dramatic breakthrough was later that same year, 2004, with The End of Faith by Sam Harris, published by W.W. Norton. This was a more fiercely anti-religious book, aimed especially at Islam and emphasising that religious ideas actually matter because religious adherents are motivated one way or the other to act in accordance with the teachings that they accept. Harris followed up a couple of years later with another book, Letter to a Christian Nation, which is very short and provides an easy introduction to how he and many others like him think about religion (particularly Christianity), and its role in modern society (particularly the United States of America).

In early 2006, the large trade imprint Viking published Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, which calls for religion to be studied as a natural phenomenon. Dennett goes out of his way to be conciliatory to Christian believers, and his tone is far from vitriolic, but he has often been dismissed in vitriolic fashion, which tends to create the feeling on my side of the current debates that, no matter how considerately and courteously you may express yourself, you are likely, if you're a critic of religion, to be demonised.

Then, later in 2006, Richard Dawkins published the best known of the so-called New Atheist books, The God Delusion, which was supported by large publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2007, high-profile journalist Christopher Hitchens added a much more aggressive book than Dawkins' (The God Delusion has a provocative title and forthright passages, but is generally more moderate in tone than you might think). Hitchens' book is called, provocatively, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. It was published by a new imprint, Twelve, which has considerable marketing power, and it became a best-seller.

In November 2006, prior to the publication of Hitchens' book, a journalist called Gary Wolf published a piece in Wired magazine under the title "The Church of the Non-Believers". In this piece he dubbed Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins "the New Atheists" and hyped up their hostility to religion, as opposed to mere disagreement with religious doctrines. Since Hitchens joined the group, the colourful epithet, "the Four Horsemen" has also been applied to Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens.

You can add in Michel Onfray, A.C. Grayling, Victor Stenger ... and I should mention my own anthology, co-edited with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, which offers quite a spectrum of thinking from outspoken non-believers. It should be pointed out, however, that whatever books you count as "New Atheist" books ... there are already far more books written to try to answer them (often sporting titles like The Dawkins Delusion, The God Solution, Beyond the God Delusion, Letter from a Christian Citizen and so on). Apart from these opportunistic or reactive works, many other books are published every year advocating one or another form of traditional religious belief. These far outnumber books by the New Atheist writers and some of them outsell even Richard Dawkins.

So the publishing phenomenon of the New Atheism needs to be kept in perspective.

Still, something has changed. Large publishers are interested in the New Atheist books and some of these books are, as I said, selling in very large numbers. There's a hunger in the population for these kinds of books and there's also a vibe of people organising under the banner of atheism. These people are not extremists - they are not going to blow things up, take hostages, or conduct violent revolutions - but there's a sense of many people being, frankly, fed up with religion.

Tomorrow, I want to begin by asking why that might that be so.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Currently reading: Beyond Humanity? (Oxford, 2011) by Allen Buchanan

This is the new book by Allen Buchanan - of Buchanan, et al, From Chance to Choice (2001), widely regarded as the most sophisticated philosophical study of the ethical and political questions relating to genetic engineering and related technologies.

Beyond Humanity? is a much shorter work, but it contains more than its share of detailed philosophical analysis. I didn't quite know what to expect, thinking this might contain a lot of the same old arguments back and forth that I've read many times by now. But it surprised me - pleasantly. It seems very fresh throughout, even when Buchanan is giving well-deserved stick to the usual bioconservative suspects (Leon Kass, Michael Sandel, Frances Fukuyama, and so on).

In particular, Buchanan rolls out a lot of expertise in genetics, evolutionary biology, and philosophy of biology to attack science-based bioconservative arguments. He also tries a new take on the distributive justice issues relating to biotechnology, which have been done to death in the past with no one ever managing to say something even remotely conclusive. He asks how the problem looks if we avoid getting tied up in highly abstract debate about theories of justice and look at the distribution of new technologies as a practical issue in much the same way as we might look at getting drugs and vaccines to people who need them (e.g. in the developing world).

Buchanan ends with a set of practical proposals for regulation of biomedical enhancement technologies. Would his proposals work? To be honest, I need to read those pages again just to get a better sense of how it's all supposed to operate. It involves a new international regulatory agency and new developments in international intellectual property law. You need to know more than I do about international regulation of intellectual property research, and much else, before the final chapter is really transparent. I know something about this, but nowhere near enough to take in, from one reading, exactly what Buchanan is proposing ... let alone whether it would work or what problems it would have. I'm happy to learn from any commenters who have also read the book and have a better understanding than mine.

But anyway, I think it's a good thing to see a philosophical bioethicist rolling his sleeves and trying to develop practical governance proposals, working with other people who have expertise (he worked on the last chapter and related research with a political scientist and an international lawyer).

My own approach to philosophical bioethics tends to be more abstract and markedly, well, "philosophical" than this, although it's also backed up by some solid knowledge of legal principles. I doubt that I can get as nitty-gritty in making recommendations as Buchanan does, but I'm very glad to see someone of his calibre doing it. We do need to move on to the detail of what regulatory regime we want, on the assumption that it's not one of the draconian ones that have tended to proliferate in Western Countries over the past 15 or so years. Buchanan is opening up possibilities for discussion here, and Beyond Humanity? is a book that I can recommend to anyone who is interested in the subject.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Science of Religion

Gregory S. Paul has a wonderful website, The Science of Religion, which may well be worth putting in your bookmarks. Do check it out. It's a very thorough resource if you're looking for information about how more religious societies compare to less religious ones on what are usually thought of as indicators of social well-being. (Yes, "well-being" is a vague concept, and no single indicator is going to be perfect or even uncontroversial. All the same, the relatively religious USA does poorly against a raft of indicators that even evangelical Christians are likely to regard as highly relevant to social health. The relatively irreligious countries of Western Europe do far better.)

As you dig deeper into the site, there is plentiful information as well as clearly argued opinion pieces.

It's often been claimed that religion is necessary for social stability and harmony, but the data don't bear that out at all. It may not be possible to come to a clear conclusion, but, putting it mildly, there is no indication at all that a decline in traditional religious belief causes social dysfunction. There are always extraneous variables that can't be controlled, so some epistemic modesty is called for here ... but, superficially, the data seem to point in precisely the opposite direction.

This is not a surprise - I think the overall trend is pretty familiar by now - but it's fascinating to see a site devoted to the question, with many links and citations that you can follow up. At the level of whole societies, it's pretty clearly time to leave God behind.

Scientism - Jerry Coyne nails it

I don't report as often as I could on goings on over at Why Evolution Is True, since I expect that most of my readers are also among Jerry Coyne's readers. But I do particularly want to point out this great post on scientism. It's not that I necessarily agree with every word: in particular, I suspect that there are motivations for blathering on about "scientism" that don't have much to do with religion (fear of encroachments on the turf of the humanities, post-colonial shame and anxiety about Western power, and Zeus knows what else).

But Jerry has been on a roll of late - really, he usually is - and this post is a gem. He nails it when talking about the absurd double standards that are applied to scientists, who are often called "arrogant" despite showing considerable epistemic humility, as opposed to religious leaders, who are allowed to get away with the most breathtaking (and dogmatic) claims to extraordinary knowledge.

Religionists’ claim that scientists are arrogant always amuses me.  Really, who are the arrogant ones?  Scientists are nearly always tentative in their conclusions. Lately I’ve been reading a bunch of papers on evolution, and was struck by how often conclusions are qualified by words like “this suggests that” or “this conclusion should be regarded as provisional”.  Many papers suggest additional lines of research that could support or falsify their conclusions. In the end, it is religious people who are the certain ones, the overbearing ones.  How often do you hear, in religious discourse, that “my conclusion that there is god should, of course, be seen as provisional, subject to refutation by findings of unjustifiable evil,” or “maybe there’s a heaven, but maybe not; I don’t have much evidence.”  If they relied at all on evidence, the faithful wouldn’t be able to say anything.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Currently reading - Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe by Erik J. Wielenberg

Thanks to one of my beloved commenters for recommending this book. I'm glad to be reading it, and there is certainly some interesting stuff in it - including a very transhumanist sort of approach to the idea of morally enhancing ourselves (see Chapter 4).

The book is really just too Kantian for my taste. I've never found much of Kant's philosophy to be at all convincing or even plausible, so I'm inevitably going to be out of sympathy with someone who wants to help himself, without a lot of argument, to a broadly Kantian way of looking at the world. More particularly, the book relies on a naive objectivism about values and moral obligations that it never really earns. E.g., Wielenberg's approach to divine command theories of ethics is to reject them based on their alleged incompatibility with such claims as that pain is intrinsically bad and falling in love is intrinsically good.

Now, pain certainly seems bad to me. I avoid it, as almost all of us do. I do, in fact, think that there is a point in the vicinity of the one that Wielenberg makes about pain, so I have some sympathy for what he says, and this would be worth some deeper exploration. After all, a powerful being that commanded us to inflict otherwise-gratuitous pain on each other would be regarded (by us, as we are) as evil. In fact, this would be pretty much a paradigm case of what we mean by an "evil" being. This suggests that our notion of evil - whatever exactly it turns out to be - is not infinitely flexible, and that it certainly does not amount to an idea of disobedience to a god's commands. It actually has something more to do with the malicious infliction of pain and suffering.

We'd be inclined to regard disobedience to a powerful being that commanded the infliction of gratuitous pain as good.

All the same, Wielenberg is very quick to insist that we just know that pain is intrinsically bad. Do we really know that? I know that I want to avoid pain for myself. I know that I am sympathetic to others, and therefore want to avoid pain for them as well. I know that I'll therefore make an unfavourable evaluation of anyone who is disposed to inflict pain avoidably and gratuitously, or who commands that this be done. What I don't know is that any other rational being, irrespective of its own desires and values, must make the same evaluations as I do or else be simply and factually wrong (or caught out by an error of reasoning of some sort).

That's a very difficult thing to demonstrate; seems quite counter-intuitive if we start working through the detail (what exactly is a sadistic Martian's mistake when it says "What is that to me?" at the prospect of causing pain to Earthlings?); and has never been satisfactorily demonstrated. The idea that it must be like that looks very like projection of our values onto the external universe and/or a product of socialisation.

Wielenberg provides an interesting manifesto for the possibility of value and virtue in a god-free world. I could, however, have done with something a bit more rigorous at key points in the argument.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Jason Rosenhouse on Giberson and Collins

I missed this review at the time - but thanks to Michael Ruse (who quoted it in a bad-tempered shot at Rosenhouse) and to Ophelia Benson (who then commented on Ruse) I've become aware of it. I think that Rosenhouse's discussion of the issues is of interest in itself, whether or not you want to read the book.

Rosenhouse is always worth reading on questions relating to accommodationism, evolution, the science-religion relationship and the like. If you don't read his blog (and I should read it more regularly myself) and you are interested in these sorts of issues ... well, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Sunday super, um, stuff - Thor released in Australia at end of April

The new Thor movie will be released in Australia on 28 April - a week ahead of the US. The full schedule of release dates shows that some countries even get it on the 27th (though they are in later time zones than Australia, so in practice you'll only be able to see it a matter of hours earlier in Cairo than in Sydney).

Thor has a lot of potential: what's not to like about an Asgardian god, with a whole mythological back story, being exiled to Earth in the twenty-first century, and being forced to do heroic stuff against incredibly powerful villains such as the construct known as the Destroyer?

This will be a great opportunity to cheer for the heroes (or the bad guys, if you prefer) while munching popcorn.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris

As some of y'all know, William Lane Craig debated Sam Harris in the last day or two on a topic relating to the source of morality - the precise proposition that was to be debated is still not clear to me even after listening to it, though it was doubtless stated at some point in the longish introduction. It was something to the effect of, "Are the foundations of morality best explained as natural or supernatural?" though it seemed, in practice, to be more like, "Given that morality is objective, can it come only from God?"

Damion has a review of it here ... and there is another review here (this one by John Loftus). I can't judge who would be seen as having won the debate from the point of view of a reasonable person actually in the audience, as you lose a great deal from having only an audio recording. From my viewpoint, merely listening to the audio, both speakers were fluent, sounded confident, and probably put the strongest arguments they reasonably could have in the timeframe available.

All in all, I'd score it as a draw. No knock-out blows were delivered. Neither speaker struggled at any point. Either speaker could have sounded plausible to someone predisposed to be sympathetic.

Sam Harris conspicuously failed to engage with one of Craig's points - that he (Harris) rejects both libertarian and compatibilist free will, so one might ask whether this must force him into something like an error theorist position. After all, if you reject even compatibilist free will, is there any sense in which any of us can ever act otherwise than as we do? And if not, doesn't this remove the presupposition that we are responsible for our actions And is that presupposition, Craig can ask, not inherent in ordinary moral discourse?

It's a bit surprising that Harris didn't address this, but perhaps he thought it best to avoid opening up a can of worms relating to free will and determinism ... and he was arguably within his rights to ignore it because atheism does not directly entail that there is no free will. At worst, Harris might be forced to adopt at least some deflationary concept of free will and/or moral responsibility, and he actually does this to a point in The Moral Landscape - he gives an account of how we can be held morally responsible for our actions in many or most circumstances. Perhaps it was better to do what Harris actually did, and let Craig waste time on this issue while concentrating on making a positive case for a naturalised objective morality.

Harris failed to attack Craig strongly where Craig was weakest - in showing just how God delivers an objective morality. Craig kept saying saying that he was not, for example, making a moral semantic claim that "morally good" means "in conformity with God's commands" ... but this left it rather confusing just what he does think it means. He kept insisting that he was making an ontological claim about the source of morality, not a moral semantic claim, but the actual content of the ontological claim ended up being very vague. To someone who was not already sympathetic, it might have sounded like no more than rhetorical gobbledegook.

Which leaves a question as to whether Harris was tactically correct to let it go save for the briefest mention. Enough was said to at least raise the point, while leaving the detailed criticism unargued - anyone who was sympathetic to Craig on this would, perhaps, have been beyond the reach of any more elaborate argument that Harris could have put. Conversely, it's doubtful that Craig's woolly explanation convinced anyone who was initially sceptical. That left Craig's main argument rather inconclusive, to say the least.

Still, someone scoring the debate formally might have deducted points from Harris for failing to engage more over this.

Let's take this slightly further than Harris did. It seems clear enough that commands from a powerful being such as God could have something like the status of weak categorical imperatives, like the norms of law, etiquette, professional practice, and positive morality. The point is: all of these can be ignored by someone who can get away with ignoring them and who doesn't care about their authority. "What is etiquette to me?"

The commands of a powerful and omniscient being such as God could not be ignored in practice - if we ignored them God could punish us. But that gives us only a subjective reason to obey, based on fear. If someone says, "What is that to me?" there will be an answer, but it will appeal to the person's desire not to be harmed. In that sense, it's still subjective.

Craig needs a reason to obey that is not based on such things as desires or fears. He might, of course, have it if the commands (or their content) were good in an objective sense even prior to being issued by God. But that's mysterious, and besides it's a line that Craig can't take. If he admits that that scenario is even possible, he is back to saying that God's issuing of commands is not the ultimate source of objective morality after all.

Perhaps he would have said more about this conundrum if Harris had pressed him harder on the issue, but Harris never did. Again, leaving aside someone formally keeping score, that may have been a smart move on Harris's part, leaving Craig stuck with a claim that sounded weak and unconvincing to anyone who was even mildly sceptical, while allowing Harris time to develop his positive account. Perhaps how we score it depends on who Harris was really trying to persuade to his viewpoint.

Though he seemed rather weak on showing just how God's commands are objectively binding in any interesting and plausible sense, Craig was effective in attacking other possible sources of objectively binding moral authority. Conversely, I thought that Harris was very strong when it came to developing his positive case for objective morality based on purely naturalistic considerations. In the end, I was not convinced - surprise! surprise! - and Craig made the telling point that the argument seemed to rely on something like faith: Harris presupposes the controversial claim that we ought to do whatever maximises well-being. Craig has a point when he says that this is not the sort of thing that can simply be stipulated as an axiom.

Still, it's a point that many people (including some of my regular readers) would grant Harris ... and once you let him that far he is very cogent and eloquent in developing the implications.

In all, this was an impressive performance by both speakers with some tactical (I assume) decisions by Harris that may have cost him points in some people's eyes ... but may not have been bad choices, all things considered. I'd be interested to listen to, or preferably watch, another debate between these two.

Edit: Thanks to the commenter who pointed to a YouTube video.It looks like there are actually nine of them if you want to follow the whole debate. To be honest, I'm not likely to do this soon, having spent a couple of hours yesterday listening to the audio version ... though I'll try to get to it at some stage in the future.

Friday, April 08, 2011

"Damion" on debates

One commenter, Damion, referred us to his Agnostic Popular Front blog - which is a running commentary on debates between religious believers and non-believers (or broadly analogous protagonists such as people with different views of biological evolution). So, I give him a hat tip - I didn't know about this resource, and I've got to say that it's an interesting one. It's not a place to discuss debates, since it doesn't have comments, but it's a creative use of the blog format, with information, and what seems like an informed opinion, on numerous debates dating back to the 1970s.

These are not all formal debates such as we've been talking about over the past week of so, but also include various less formal discussions, interviews, etc.

I could find it providing many hours of fascinating reading.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Dealing with William Lane Craig

Richard Dawkins' site has an interesting article by Lawrence Krauss relating to a recent debate that he had with William Lane Craig.

The thread that follows is also interesting. Richard himself has a comment in which he challenges the claim that Craig is a skilled debater. I'm going to disagree with Richard about that - from what I've seen, Craig is in fact very skilled in using his allocated time, judging how aggressive to be, maintaining a confident demeanour, connecting with his audience, and all the other things that make it appear that someone has "won" a debate irrespective of the quality of his arguments.

That doesn't necessarily mean he'd do well in a court of a law - though I expect that he would, in fact, tend to appeal to a jury. But he does very well in this sort of format. I'm not sure what good it does debating him. Someone who doesn't debate in this format day in day out, and who may not have the talent or training for it in the first place, will be seen as "losing" (and then, like Krauss, be subjected to well-meaning dissections from allies who want to tell him, "Ur doing it rong").

Still, interesting to see some further discussion of the merits of such debates.

The Daily Mash on AC Grayling

A bit of fun. :)

Hitchens on book burning and despicable responses

I'm glad we've still got Christopher Hitchens around to say stuff like this.

For what it's worth, I'm not a great fan of burning our enemies' holy books. But that doesn't justify responding with violence. Nor does it justify proposals to allocate the legal blame for the violence to the person who burned the holy book rather than the people who actually committed the violent acts.

Just sayin'.

Currently reading - The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur

I've read this previously in manuscript form - and even wrote a short blurb to go on the back. But it's nice nestling down with a copy of the published book.

It's not a quick read, because it's very dense with factual detail and argument. Cliteur doesn't allow you to breeze through chapters that contain a lot of optional asides, jokes, anecdotes, and so on. You actually have to focus on the paragraphs. That doesn't mean that the style is inaccessible or difficult - not at all, it's very readable - but this is a meaty book that asks for (and rewards) a certain amount of concentration.

Cliteur's aim is to describe and defend secularism, and particularly the freedom to criticise religion. He spends a considerable amount of the book examining religion's dark side and arguing that we must be free to expose this and challenge it. There's a lot in here, and I can imagine coming back to the book again and again as a resource.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Is science strictly objective?

One of the objections that I often receive when I claim that moral judgments are not strictly objective is that the same reasoning can be deployed to demonstrate that science is not strictly objective either. Apparently that is meant to be a reductio ad absurdum, as if we possess transcendental knowledge that science is strictly objective.

Someone made this point on my Facebook profile overnight, I've seen Sam Harris use the argument on various occasions, and I see it frequently in debates on the internet.

It actually opens up huge issues in scientific epistemology, and I can't deal with those here. But there are some oddities about the argument.

First, note that the claim that moral judgments are not strictly objective is continuous with the claim that other kinds of evaluations are not strictly objective. They may be rational and non-arbitrary, but they are not binding on all rational beings. It looks to me as if the argument for this is compelling when it comes to non-moral evaluations.

So forget about moral judgments for the moment. Are we going to insist that all our practices of evaluation are strictly objective for fear that saying anything to the contrary will undermine the authority of science? I fully agree that the things we evaluate have objective characteristics - but the point is that there's going to be some slippage in what we require of these things (how do their objective characteristics conduce to meeting our desires, purposes, and so on?). Strictly speaking, there is no "we" here. Even if the people in a small group form a community with, for the scope of the argument, a unanimity of purposes, etc., they will not have a unanimity with all rational creatures in the universe ... or even all rational creatures on Earth.

Evaluations have an objective element, and they can be debated rationally. Eventually, however, evaluations are made relative to desires, etc., and in that sense have a subjective element. Outside of the sphere of moral judgment, this claim isn't especially controversial among educated people in culturally open societies. Do we now have to abandon this common understanding of non-moral evaluations for fear that we are undermining the authority of science?

That's one aspect that I haven't seen discussed. I'd like to know why a non-objective element in moral judgment is threatening to science but a non-objective element in evaluations more generally is not.

Here's another aspect. Imagine for the sake of argument that some kind of argument goes through to demonstrate that science is not strictly objective. Presumably the argument will have to be that our choices of scientific hypotheses and theories are actually something like evaluations. We evaluate scientific hypotheses against "values" such as explanatory power, parsimony, and track record in making novel predictions.

Ordinarily, we think of these as criteria for truth - or for likelihood of truth. Outside of science, we certainly do use them that way. But what if we do think of them as simply things that we happen to value? Well, yes - if you do think of explanatory power, parsimony, predictive record, and the like as things we just happen to value you'll turn science into something that is not objective.

What if you say that they are not things that we just happen to value but value for some other reason? Well, it might be that our reason is that they are indicators of likelihood of truth! In that case, the authority of science doesn't seem to be undermined after all. Sure, if we don't care about truth we won't use these criteria. But that in no way detracts from the fact that people who do use these criteria are discovering propositions that are likely to be true. And that gives science authority as a truth-seeking enterprise. Where's the problem?

Could we have some other non-arbitrary reason for valuing these particular things? Well, I can't immediately see what it would be. Nor do I see how we or any other rational beings in the universe really have much choice but to employ such criteria as explanatory power, parsimony, and predictive record. To call them "values", as if we have some real choice whether or not to value them, is misleading.

But all that said, there are many views in scientific epistemology. Perhaps there's some way of preserving science's authority, or much of it, while also claiming that it is not strictly objective, or that it only finds "empirically adequate" theories, not truths about the universe, or whatever. I don't really want to get into that today, and in all honesty I'd need to research the issue a lot further.

Without having done so, I take a straightforward scientific realist view. The criteria we use in science really are criteria of likelihood of truth and would be used by all rational beings that engage in science ... at least once they reach a certain stage of cultural evolution. That can be so without it following that our evaluations of cars, friends, people's characters, and so on are strictly objective.

But let's assume I'm wrong about science. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that my scientific epistemology is naive and false. In that case, perhaps science is also not strictly objective ... well so what? Perhaps that's an unwelcome conclusion. So?

You can't say that a metaethical view is false merely because a similar, but independently motivated, argument may (or may not) lead to an unwelcome conclusion in the field of scientific epistemology. The argument that moral objectivism is required on pain of undermining the authority of science is simplistic, illogical, and cuts no ice with me.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

On moral evaluations

I have a piece over at the ABC religion and ethics portal, in which I discuss the process of evaluating things - hammers, cars, novels, tennis players, friends, fellow citizens, or people to have around - as a context for talking about moral evaluations.

As I've argued on this blog in the past, there's nothing spooky about evaluating things as "good" and "bad", although the concept is quite tricky once examined, and it may be that even ordinary judgments of good and bad have a (largely innocuous) fictional element: we work on the assumption that the people we're talking to have shared requirements of things, when even with the simplest things our requirements are not totally shared.

From a very strict point of view, there is no "we". From a practical point of view, however, our requirements as individuals are often similar enough that there's nothing much wrong with saying, "My Honda is a good car" or even "Abigail is a good person." For all intents and purposes, such statements, spoken in a context, can be simply true.

In very many actual contexts "we" can say without being too misleading that something is a good example of its kind - i.e. it has the characteristics that are needed for it to meet "our" requirements for things of that kind.

Furthermore, our requirements won't be arbitrary - there's nothing arbitrary about what we usually want from hammers or cars or friends or even fellow citizens. We can have rich and quite rational conversations about this - and such conversations produce convergence and agreement in many, many cases.

With just that bit of slippage, creatures like us have a wealth of reasons to want hammers to be sturdy, cars to be reliable and fuel-efficient, friends to be loyal, and fellow citizens to be industrious and law-abiding (at least with respect to most laws, and we have a wealth of reasons for identifying some laws as more important for this purpose as others). There isn't even anything especially mysterious about our judgments of people's characters or of their choices in respect of actions that could affect others. Non-arbitrary, rationally defensible evaluations can be made of the kinds of things that we think of as falling in the "moral" domain.

As long as morality doesn't purport to be more than this, we can demystify it without debunking it.

What this won't get us, however, is a strictly objective morality. Whatever judgments we make do not compel all comers, regardless of their desire-sets, to act one way or another on pain of making a mistake about the world or something of the sort. Thus, when we think that moral judgments are special in this way - different from all other evaluations in being strictly objective - we make an error. To whatever extent that error is built into some of our moral language, that part of our moral language is systematically false (I've come to think that this won't be all or nothing, and I don't believe that John Mackie thought it was, either).

I don't go into the latter ideas in the ABC article. I.e., it doesn't explicitly address moral error theory. It does, however, show how evaluations in what we think of as the moral domain (the realm of character and choices) can operate much like our other evaluations - neither strictly objective nor merely arbitrary. The problem is that, very often, we really don't think that's good enough. We (or many of us, much of the time) want moral judgments to have more metaphysical grunt, and we don't want to be stuck with the kind of ambiguity and indeterminacy that pervades our evaluations of other things. Or so it seems to me whenever I discuss this with people out there in the forreal world.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Freedom of religion and belief - report to AHRC

The long-awaited report to the Australian Human Rights Commission, prepared by a working party looking at freedom of religion and belief in 21st-century Australia, has finally been released. So far, I've only glanced through it, though Chrys Stevenson has a damning review of it here.

From my quick look, the report looks more anodyne than anything else, as if the group involved was unwilling to say anything controversial, or to offend anyone, or to make recommendations that might rock the social and political boat. In a way, that's not a bad thing; this group was never going to say anything of great benefit to secularists, so perhaps the less it does say of any substance the better. All the same, enormous amounts of money and effort went into this whole exercise, with a couple of thousand submissions received from the public.

All in all, this looks like much ado about nothing. However, I need to read the report properly to see whether there's anything there to worry about ... or anything that might actually be helpful.

Terry Lane on freedom of speech

Over here, Terry Lane reviews a new book on freedom of speech in Australia. It seems that this is the usual case where the book's author is all in favour of freedom of speech except of course when it's what she regards as nasty speech.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - The Hulk vs Dracula? WTF?

Marvel has the rights to its version of Dracula, and they're conducting a big push of late to build him up to be one of their major, major supervillains ... to rival the likes of Dr. Doom and Magneto.

They can sure do with an injection of truly competent villains in the Marvel Universe. For some time now, Magneto has been a brooding presence within the X-Men, where he operates as a very effective uber-powerful anti-hero. Even Dr. Doom, whose personality shows fewer redeeming features than Magneto's - he's much more an out-and-out megalomaniac and much less a guy with a genuine grievance - has signed up to join the Future Foundation (the successor to the Fantastic Four). That was apparently the idea of little Valeria Richards (the child of Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman), but her "Uncle Doom" seems to have jumped at it.

Evidently, the most competent and dangerous Earth-based villains have learned the lesson that it's smart to work with the heroes as and when it suits their interests. And the heroes are prepared to employ the power and brilliance that these guys can offer.

Interestingly, Dracula seems set to play the role of anti-hero as well - if I understand this correctly, the Hulk is going to run amok in one sub-component of Marvel's "Fear Itself" mega-event that's just cranking up, and only Dracula is going to be in the right place at the right time to do something about it.

You can work out for yourself what all this means for our contemporary concepts of heroism and villainy.

Shafer-Landau on moral objectivism

Russ Shafer-Landau's discussion (The Fundamentals of Ethics) of moral objectivism does pick up (albeit briefly), the real problems with it - such as how can our moral judgments ever transcend such down-to-earth things as our actual desires, values, and purposes (and throw in needs, if you like, though I think needs pretty much reduce to actual or ascribed purposes).

To suggest that the objectivist position is at least not hopeless, he offers the following as a case where someone seemingly has a desire-transcendent reason to act in a certain way:
Suppose you are hiking along a cliff path and notice a stranger who is absent-mindedly walking from the opposite direction. You see that he's about to take a wrong step and plunge to his death. There is a reason to yell to him and alert him of the danger. And this reason applies to you even if you don't care about the stranger or about the pats on the back you'll receive when the story gets out. There is something to be said on behalf of your warning him, something that favors it, that justifies it, that makes it a legitimate thing to do. These are just different ways of saying the same thing: There is a reason for you to save that stranger's life, even if doing so won't make you any better off or get you anything you care about.
But this is very weak. Shafer-Landau tells us repeatedly that there is a reason, but he doesn't tell us what it could possibly be ... and I've got to say that I can't imagine what he thinks it is.

Now, as it happens, I would have reasons to save the stranger's life. I immediately feel sympathy for him, and want to help him as I see him in his dire and immediate peril. I can help him by yelling out. Hence, I have a reason to do so. Yelling out will achieve my purpose of helping him. From my viewpoint, it's a productive action.

But there's a sleight of hand here. I have a reason because of something about my desire-set: my sympathies generate or amount to (it doesn't matter which) a desire to help others who are in danger. So Shafer-Landau claims that I would still have the reason even if I didn't have the desire-set. That claim might have some psychological force, but that's because I can't really imagine myself without the desire-set.

I suppose I might have other reasons, but none of them transcend my desire-set. E.g., I may wish to conform to a code of social norms that I've internalised. Or I may fear the law (particularly in a jurisdiction that has an obligation of easy rescue).

Really, ordinary human beings who are not psychopaths or anything of the sort will have plenty of reasons to yell out, but that's because ordinary human beings care about each other, at least in some minimal or basic way, and because they care about other things such as how they are regarded, whether they are obeying the social expectations that they encounter every day, whether they are obeying the law (this may contain a lot of bad norms, but most of us have at least some residual wish to obey it), and so on.

Shafer-Landau asks, in effect, whether I'd still have a reason if I turned into the sort of person who'd be regarded as a monster - someone who doesn't care about, and is not restrained by, any of these things. I can't imagine myself as such a monster, so I feel emotionally bullied into agreeing that I'd still have a reason. But on reflection, it seems clear that I wouldn't. I'm not sure in what sense I'd still be me if I turned into such a monstrous creature, so perhaps it's better to ask what would be the case if I were replaced by such a creature.

Suddenly I've been whisked away by an act of Zeus who has sent in my place an evil demon that has no compassion for human beings, no fear of humans and their laws, no identification with human social codes. This being is too powerful to be constrained by human expectations and requirements and is totally without sympathy. It regards the death of a human being with a sort of clinical fascination, and nothing more. It is, however, intelligent and rational - at least rational in the "thin" sense of being able to find out facts about the world and to avoid acting in ways that are counterproductive to its own purposes.

Does this creature have a reason to call out? I can't see it. We may have a reason to regard the creature as evil - such a creature is horribly dangerous to our interests, we can't reason with it or appeal to its sympathies or anything of the kind - but it has no reason to save the guy's life. It's in no sense making a mistake about the world, drawing a false inference, acting against its own purposes, or anything of the kind, when it watches in silence then observes (and makes notes) as the man falls to his death.

Again, our moral systems are created for us ... for creatures that, by and large, are animals that are responsive to each other (and to a lesser extent to other animals and to various other things). It is perfectly rational for someone like me to yell out, and for my society to develop a norm according to which I am required to yell out. Nothing in this picture is irrational or arbitrary.

Morality is not arbitrary or irrational for creatures like us (though many specific moral norms may be, and some moral systems may contain a lot of norms like that). But it can't get a grip on powerful, rational monsters. Fortunately, we don't encounter many! Business corporations sometimes emulate the actions of powerful, rational monsters ... but even they usually restrain themselves to some extent, given that their decisions are made by actual human beings. You can draw similar conclusions about churches, armies, governments, and other powerful corporate entities whose purposes can become unyoked from ordinary human sympathies.

When and if we do encounter such things, they are a danger to us, and it's rational for us to protect ourselves from them if we can. But that's not what Shafer-Landau is saying.