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).

Friday, September 30, 2011

It's not Sunday yet, but...

... first person to tell me, correctly, why this variant cover image is so funny gets an electronic No Prize. (The filename I've given to the jpg image is a good clue for historians of popular culture).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jonathan Holmes on the Andrew Bolt case

I'm still not going to comment to any substantial extent without reading the whole judgment, which might take me some time. But meanwhile, here's an interesting comment by Jonathan Holmes (some of the material here suggests why the case may be correct on its facts, whatever broader concerns it raises).

Currently reading - Eatock v. Bolt

I'm currently reading this (very long) Federal Court judgment handed down yesterday by Justice Bromberg. It relates to - essentially - a finding of racial vilification by right-wing journalist Andrew Bolt.

Most of my friends despise Andrew Bolt, and I've got to say that I don't have a high opinion of him either. I disagree with almost everything that he says, week by week. However, that is not the issue here. The issues are (1) did his conduct in this case breach the law (even after any statutory defences are taken into account); and (2) irrespective of that, should the law be written in such terms as to make this conduct unlawful?

Although I've entered into some preminary debate about this case with others elsewhere, I want to discuss it more rigorously here. I don't propose to go off half cocked. However, I can't offer a properly considered answer to the questions until I've had a chance to study the entire judgment, which runs to 470 numbered paragraphs (or, apparently 57,000 words - making it the length of a short novel).

The federal law that Bolt was found to have breached (section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975) seems to be in rather different terms from the state statutes on racial and religious vilification that I'm more familiar with, so that's another reason to be cautious.

However, I must stress that we should not be making up our minds on the basis of whether we like or dislike Andrew Bolt, or on the basis of whether we agree with his views in the relevant op.ed pieces that he wrote. Even if we find his views in those specific publications wrong or nasty or ugly, it doesn't follow that they should fall outside the protection of freedom of speech. (Conversely, even if you agree with them there is more work to be done to show either that the case has been wrongly decided or that the law has been framed too broadly and should not catch speech of this kind.)

So, I'll be returning to this in the coming few days. I do have a pretty good sense of what the case is all about, and one thing that I can say with some confidence is that the outcome will be appealed - though that is some time away because no orders have yet been made by the court. I don't believe an appeal will be possible until orders have been issued. Whether any appeal is likely to succeed is another matter. Prima facie, though, it appears to me that Bolt has a strong argument that what he said in the specific op.eds fell under one or more of the defences in the legislation. That being so, there is a real possibility that this case will be overturned on appeal.

Whatever discussion we enter into should not be about whether we agree with Bolt's views, whether we consider them wrong or nasty or ugly, or even whether they appear to be defamatory (he was not sued for defamation, the elements of which are rather different from those relating to racial vilification, at least not in these proceedings), let alone what we think of Bolt generally or of other things that he has said. The issues that I'm interested in relate to the correct application of the law as it stands, and, secondly, how much the enactment of such laws should be controlled by ethico-legal concepts such as freedom of speech.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Center For Inquiry/Council for Secular Humanism conference - Moving Secularism Forward

I'll be speaking at this conference, to be held from 1-4 March 2012 in Orlando, Florida.

The conference has a formidable list of speakers:
Daniel C. Dennett, Sir Harold Kroto, Steven Pinker, Rebecca Goldstein, PZ Myers, Katrina Voss, Russell Blackford, Stephen Law, Rita Swan, Anthony Pinn, Victor Stenger, Elisabeth Cornwell, Eddie Tabash, Ophelia Benson, Lionel Tiger, Ronald Bailey, Razib Khan, Jamila Bey, Sikivu Hutchinson, David Silverman, Bill Cooke, Steven K. Green, Ellenbeth Wachs, Ronald A. Lindsay, Debbie Goddard and Tom Flynn.
These are mostly people whom I have never met, but look forward to meeting. One whom I've at least met is Dan Dennett, but I've only had the briefest of encounters with him, so it will be good to catch up more properly (I hope).

While in the US, I'll also be speaking at the CFI headquarters in Amherst, New York, and at gigs at Yale University and at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticutt. Freedom of Religion and the Secular State will have been available to the public for a couple of months by this point, so hopefully it will be a chance to give it some early publicity.

How religion does dirt on everything good (2)

I'd like to take this theme a bit further with a more general reflection on how religion does dirt on everything good in life. Unless they can somehow be connected up with the supernatural, ordinary good things - such as the enjoyment of health, peace, love, and sexual pleasure - tend to be belittled and disparaged by religious apologists.

In that sense, religion does poison everything. It sneers at the good things of life, finding them wanting by its supernatural standards.

Apologists for religion cannot explain how the supernatural makes things that are not otherwise good become so, or how good things are any less so in the absence of some sort of supernatural power. No one has ever shown how that is a coherent way of thinking about the issues. If something has the properties that are required to satisfy certain human needs, desires, interests, etc., then we are quite entitled to judge it as "good" whether a supernatural power, such as God, exists or not.

An omnipotent supernatural being could doubtless alter our desires (etc.) so that they are satisfied by different things, or it could alter the world so that different things come to satisfy our desires. But it is not coherent to imagine such a being making something good without also altering the natural world in these ways. Most importantly, nothing supernatural is needed for us to make a vast range of perfectly rational and reasonable judgments as to what things are good or otherwise.

Consider Tracey Rowland's speech (the written version) from the recent IQ2 debate about atheism. It contains very little that I agree with - I'd want to contest many of its specific claims. But I'm more concerned about its general tenor that life without God is somehow devoid of value. Though that appears to be the drift of it, nothing Rowland says goes anywhere near to supporting such a claim - there are no premises that we must rationally accept that lead to such a conclusion via cogent reasoning.

Doubtless some of Rowland's value judgments could be supported by secular reasoning - e.g., I agree with her that the cult of celebrity has much disvalue. But this has nothing to do with God's presence or absence. Indeed, most participants in the cult of celebrity are probably not atheists, since atheists make up only a small percentage of the population of the United States, where celebrity worship is surely most pronounced. Nor were atheists to blame for past cultural formations that could attract similar criticism. I'm thinking especially of the value accorded in past ages to kings and aristocrats - indeed, this attitude flourished during periods that are notable for their religiosity.

I don't want to go into every dubious claim made by Rowland, but note how she is unable to conceive that love might be of enormous value to us, even though it is not somehow grounded in the supernatural. And she sneers at the idea that the intellect is a device for satisfying our desires. To be fair, the intellect does more than that. It helps us gain understanding of the world (which, of course, can in many cases help us satisfy our desires). But more fundamentally, what is wrong with taking rational action to satisfy our desires, i.e. to make the world more as we wish it to be? Why is that something to sneer at?

The religious tend to deprecate the desires, values, and so on that people actually have, together with the processes of fulfilling them, but this shows a mean-spirited attitude to ordinary human flourishing.

Rowland rages against what she sees as a world in which:
Sexual relations hollowed out into their materialist shell become mutual manipulation; political relations hollowed out into their materialist shell become brutal power; and market relations hollowed out into their material shell give us consumerism and status anxiety.
Well, I'm sure that status anxiety has always been with us to some extent or other, and to the extent that religion once provided serfs and other underlings with a rationalisation for their lowly status that is hardly to its credit. But set that aside, along with quibbles about what is meant by "consumerism" (there may be some bad things as well as some good things covered by that emotive but vague word).

More importantly, I'm surprised at any suggestion that political power was wielded less brutally in more religious times than today (perhaps Rowland should study how it was used by the Byzantine emperors).

And I really must comment on the insulting claim that sexual relations without God become mutual manipulation. That is outrageous. Whether God exists or not, sex will go on providing lovers with experiences of joy and beauty, of ecstasy and intimacy, of reciprocal giving and tenderness: experiences that only a madman or a religious zealot could describe, reductively, as "mutual manipulation".

Here, as so often, we see religion's deprecation of the body and its pleasures.

In the same debate, Scott Stephens goes even further, claiming that without God there is no good. But with all respect, that is a wild thing to say. Without God many things still "fit" with our desires, needs, and so on (and hence are quite rationally judged as good) while others do not, or are even ininimical to them (and are quite rationally judged as bad, or even as evil where positive malevolence is involved). God's existence or otherwise has nothing to do with this, though we might well wonder why an all-powerful God of love has not created a world with far less suffering and malevolence in the mix.

The religious mind thinks little of human pleasure and desire, and so disparages ordinary kinds of goodness. Note again the sneer when Stephens refers to what he thinks of as atheism's "flattened-out brand of morality as mere 'well-being'."

Now, we can all engage in interesting arguments as to what well-being really amounts to, and we can get into some interesting metaethical issues as to what moral language really means (including whether it is ever strictly and literally true). I've raised these problems myself on numerous occasions. Still, we have a reasonably clear understanding of what well-being is for beings like us, and I see no reason to sneer at it in this way.

Indeed, what is the point of moral constraints if not to aim at something in the vicinity of "well-being"? Earlier in his speech, Stephens complains that we've come to reduce well-being to health, safety, and pleasure, but even if there are other things that we value (as I'm sure there are) why are these things to be deprecated? Does it not matter if, instead of living a healthy life, experiencing varied and intense pleasures in a situation of relative safety, I am stuck with a sick, miserable, endangered existence? Why is the increased ability of modern societies to provide the former sort of life, rather than the latter, not a huge advance? Why do dirt on it?

I don't know any atheist who blames religion for all the evils of human societies. But religion is one source of social evils. It encourages an attitude of disparagement toward much that is good in our lives, claiming - erroneously - that "real" goodness depends in some way on the supernatural. If we take this seriously, it can distort our attitudes to much in our own lives, the lives of our fellows, and the operation of society, law, and political power.

Our current social arrangements in industrialised nations still leave much to be desired, but it is ahistorical to imagine that we are living in a time of particular moral decline or malaise. On the contrary, many things are improving - among them, attitudes to equality of the sexes, attitudes to violence and suffering, and our general tolerance of others who differ from ourselves - and religion certainly cannot take the credit for this.

Religion is not the root of all evil, but it is far from being the source of ordinary goodness in our lives. On the contrary, it is an enemy of ordinary goodness. We can lead good and fruitful lives without God or any belief in the supernatural, and that's what I suggest we all do. Life without God is not thereby way diminished or hollowed out. That is an unsustainable claim. It's pathological to think of the world that way.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Kenan Malik on morality without God

As I said yesterday, I'm returning to this interview with Kenan Malik. Malik discusses five books that illuminate the issue of morality without God, and his choices are not exactly what we might expect - they shed their light from very different angles and offer us bases on which to think for ourselves. None of them set out a comprehensive secular alternative in the manner of, say, Peter Singer's Practical Ethics.

Malik's five choices are:

1. Plato, Euthryphro.
2. Abul Ala alp-Ma'arri, The Epistle of Forgiveness.
3. Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment.
4. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.
5. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

He briefly describes and discusses each of these, and I found the discussions of Plato and Dostoevsky especially penetrating.

I've read only three of these five books (Plato, Dostoevsky, and Camus), but all three belong in my own canon of works that have great significance for me personally. I haven't read the book by Jonathan Israel, though I'm broadly familiar with its thesis, and I confess that I'd never heard of The Epistle of Forgiveness. I'll try to get hold of these, though it seems that the last does not have a complete translation into English (or at least one that is readily available).

Do have a look at what Malik has to say. I find his approach very congenial. Here's a nice quote with which I'm in broad agreement:
In truth, morality, like God, is a human creation. Even believers have to decide which of the values found in the Torah or the Bible or the Quran they accept, and which they reject. What God provides is not the source of moral values but, if you like, the ethical concrete in which those values are set. Rooting morality in religion is a means of putting certain values or practices beyond question by insisting they are God-given. The success of religious morality derives from its ability to combine extreme flexibility – just look at the degree to which religious morals have changed over the centuries – with the insistence that certain beliefs, values and practices are sacred and absolute because they are divinely sanctioned.
The only point that I'd want to add to this is that religious morality is not flexible enough. While it does adapt and change over long periods of time, it also tends to resist change at any given time. One result is that religious moralists will often claim that certain kinds of conduct are "just wrong" without looking to such questions as whether they are really forms of conduct that must be deterred for the sake of social peace or to avoid suffering.

If we see such worldly goods as social peace and avoidance of suffering as providing the point of moral rules and virtues, we'll often come to quite different conclusions from religious moralists who typically ground morality in the will of God or some kind of universal teleological order, or in something else that is otherworldly or esoteric. This can set us in opposition to religious morality, which can seem, as it does to me, a force for bad in the world.

Indeed, as Malik suggests, religious morality diminishes us: the idea of religion as guardian of our moral values "diminishes what it means to be human." Contrary to the claims of religious moralists, we do not require any kind of supernatural source in order to address how we are to live together successfully as social beings, and to do what we reasonably can to ameliorate the burden of the world's suffering.

As always, religion tends to belittle and disparage humanity, as it does so many other good things. I'll return to that theme later today.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - the ongoing drama of the Scarlet Witch in Avengers: The Children's Crusade

USA Today has an article on events in the current mini-series Avengers: The Children's Crusade, which brings Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. the crazily powerful (and somewhat crazy) Scarlet Witch, back to the Marvel Universe.

The mini-series has been released slowly, with a bimonthly schedule that has already slipped a couple of times, but it has now reached issue # 7 of 9. At this stage, most of Marvel's highest-profile characters - and numerous others - are squabbling over the Scarlet Witch's fate. This follows her horribly destructive course in several stories last decade, which culminated in the notorious line, "No more mutants," with which she depowered most of mutantkind at the end of the House of M event.

USA Today quotes scriptwriter Allan Heinberg, who emphasizes the thinness of the line between heroism and villainy, once characters are given great powers and begin acting for greatly higher stakes than ordinary human beings:
Heinberg says he was trained early on that even so-called "bad guys" are the heroes of their own stories, which seemed particularly resonant to him in the case of the Scarlet Witch and her children. So there are no villains in Children's Crusade, where even the usually megalomaniacal Doctor Doom is a sympathetic character.

"Crusade is really the story of a group of super-powered kids struggling to be heroes in a world where superheroes can suddenly turn into supervillains and vice versa," Heinberg says. "And real life is rarely, if ever, black and white about who the heroes and villains are of any given story."

Marvel has been hyping up the series over the past week or two, with a batch of short Heinberg interviews to bring us up to date, remind us of the roles of major characters in the story (such as Magneto, Iron Lad (who is destined to grow up to be the Kang the Conqueror), Doctor Doom), and the Scarlet Witch herself, and to whet appetites for the last couple of issues.

I'm loving this mini-series, though it's attracted controversy over some of Heinberg's decisions. He makes some of the heroes (especially Wolverine and Cyclops) appear especially bloodthirsty and almost petulant in their hunger for revenge. Perhaps Cyclops is a bit "off" in his preparedness to kill Wanda Maximoff on the spot, and it's a bit difficult to believe that so many of the other X-Men would back him up on this. Conversely, Doctor Doom and Magneto manage to appear dignified and comparatively reasonable, even as they come into conflict with each other and many of the other superpowered characters who get caught up in the rush of events.

Then again, that's not entirely unrealistic: so far, the villains are more concerned about the Scarlet Witch's welfare (Doom has fallen in love with her and Magneto is her father) than in their rival ambitions for world domination. Perhaps there's no reason why they shouldn't come across as more reasonable than the volatile heroes in a family situation like this. At the same time, the stakes are enormously high, the outcome uncertain, and the need to do something (but the characters can't agree on what) especially urgent.

Generally speaking, Heinberg is astute in his depictions of the voices, motivations, and power sets of his huge cast. He is writing a rare story that involves many of Marvel's iconic characters, all with conflicting ambitions and desires - there are many more than two sides to the evolving story. Generally speaking, he portrays them all with respect for their abilities, back stories, complicated relationships with each other, and likely motivations.

I especially like the way he has blurred the dubious line that he mentions between heroes and the villains. More than most writers of superhero comics, Heinberg seems aware of the way heroes, almost as much as villains, can be tempted to take matters into their own hands rather than abiding by the laws of ordinary human beings.

This can lead them into outright vigilante conduct, but also to an all-too-easy forgiveness of their main opponents whenever cooperation and camaraderie seem expedient (it's conspicuous that nobody is making the slightest attempt through The Children's Crusade to arrest Doom or Magneto for their numerous crimes). There are so many tangled family and other relationships among Marvel's main heroes and villains that we often see something more akin to the historical machinations of the interwoven dynasties of Europe than a struggle between good and evil.

It's all-too-believable that individuals this powerful would start to take decisions on behalf of the rest of us, seeing themselves more like sovereign entitities who are exempt from local laws than like ordinary people among others. That is especially the attitude of a would-be world-conquering villain like Doom (who actually does rule his own fictional country, Latveria) or Magneto (who has repeatedly defended his actions as, in effect, those of a one-man nation at war with humanity). But even the heroes who supposedly defend us from them are not necessarily immune to this way of thinking.

The final two issues of The Children's Crusade have been hyped as making a huge impact on the Marvel Universe going forward. We are already getting characters repowered, saved from what appeared to be their deaths, or uniting (or re-uniting) with family members, and we are warned that some heroes are going to die before it's all over. The outcome is supposed to set up Marvel's biggest events for 2012, so I'll be following to the end ... when it finally comes around in January.

Five books on morality without God...

... as chosen by Kenan Malik.

(I'll get back to this.)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

How religion does dirt on everything good (1) - with some reflections on Gerard Manley Hopkins

Does religion poison everything, as the sub-title to Christopher Hitchens' book suggests it does? On the face of it, this seems absurd. Irrespective of the persistence and pervasiveness of religion, life goes on, and much of it is good. Religion does not take all the juice and joy out of life, even if that often seems like its purpose.

Hitchens, of course, means something rather specific when he talks about religion poisoning everything. While the claim seems hyperbolic, he explains it in terms that are far less so. In particular, he is concerned that religion insults us deeply when it suggests that ordinary human decency is not enough, or that we lack adequate naturalistic resources to sustain it. It wounds our integrity, for Hitchens, when religion claims that we need supernatural support and some vision of a good that goes beyond ordinary human flourishing.

I should let Hitchens speak for himself - something he's done in many forums. Without wishing to interpret exactly what he means, I'll simply suggest that there is truth in the vicinity of his hyperbolic claim that religion poisons everything. All too often, in all too many ways and times and circumstances, religion may not succeed in spoiling things for us, exactly, though it can do that to, but it does succeed in disparaging - in doing dirt upon - everything genuinely good.

Consider Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "Spring", which I linked to above. Hopkins has written a lovely sonnet in praise of the spring season, which he depicts in some detail within the vivid lines of the octave: here birds sing; flowers bloom; trees and sky appear to reach for other; lambs race and gambol. The world is rich and happy, and the speaker lays it all out for us in joyous language: the sentences appear to revel in their own imagery, alliteration, and a partly irregular rhythm that plays a merry dance around the half-expected march of traditional iambic pentameter (though these lines are nothing like Hopkins' more extreme experiments with his trademark "sprung rhythm"):

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

Read this aloud and savour it: "weeeds in wheeels shoot loong and lovely and lussshh..." The language is full and sensuous, delightful to our tongues and ears. Some critics will find hints, even here in the octave, that all is not well - when the lambs "too" have fair their fling, does this "too" suggest "too much"? - but I suggest we set that aside, at least for now. Yes, there are sinister interpretations available, once we look for them, but poetry can always be read against the grain (can't it?), and at least on first inspection the grain all runs the same way. Joy and wonder dominate our attention.

Even if we reconsider when we reach the sestet, for now let's take the lines of the octave at face value and enjoy their sweet ripeness.

But then, in the sestet - the final six lines of the sonnet - the speaker asks for the source of the juice and the joy, and now Hopkins' religious motivation appears more explicitly. The spring tableau, we are told, is "A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning/In Eden garden." So far, so good, we might think - the poet invokes the story of Eden and the Fall metaphorically, with spring seen as a strain of earth's paradisal beginning such as described in Genesis.

A secular poet could have used that metaphor, I don't doubt, but not the appeal to Christ ("O maid's child") that comes next:

[...] Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

The speaker calls on Jesus Christ to seize spring, and/or its "juice" and "joy", before it can "cloy" and "cloud", and "sour" innocent minds with "sinning". The language retains its strength - the rather heavy, if uneven, rhythms, alliteration and internal rhymes, the powerful, concrete, evocative words and phrases. Whatever your religious beliefs, or mine, or whatever our lack of them, we can experience the momentum of the poem at this point, and can buy into its resolution.

But there's more going on here, and in particular, once we take a step back ... isn't there something pathological about this? Confronted by the joy, beauty, and sensuality of the natural springtime world, the speaker expresses no wish to be part of it, or, indeed, to relish the cycle of which it, in turn, forms part. Rather, he calls on God the Son to stop it in its tracks, to take it - "Have, get" - before it cloy, cloud, and sour into sin, before it can somehow corrupt the innocent (and there must, in a poem full of blossoming flowers and birdsong, be an unhappy sexual implication here).

Imaginatively, we can be onside with the speaker, but the speaker is misguided, and at one level even Hopkins must know this: there is no prospect that Christ will somehow stop the process of the seasons and "Have, get" spring while it is fresh, clear, sweet, and innocent. That is the way of things, and perhaps one reason that the poem works is that it is written against such a factual background. The speaker calls for ... not so much an impossibility as something that simply does not happen and will not happen, and we all know this, perhaps the speaker as much as the reader. The speaker's fears get expressed, but of course Christ does not act.

We have a great poem on our hands. It's a poem to cherish, but not one to trust entirely. For all that I've said, the poisonous thought does get expressed. Even in writing about the juice and joy, the sensuousness and richness, of springtime, Hopkins turns to troubled thoughts of the corruption of youth, and a wish for the whole thing to stop while it is still innocent. He cannot simply affirm spring for what it naturally is. Hopkins is a Catholic priest, and for him an awareness of sin cannot be far away.

In the end, alas, in one of the most joyful poems in the English language, a worldly affirmation of spring and everything it stands for can not be allowed stand alone and unchallenged. At the very same time, the entire world of experience is disparaged from a viewpoint focused upon corruption and sin. Via our imaginations, we can enter into this aspect of the poet's vision - surely this is not beyond us, even if we are not religious ourselves - but we can also step back and see part of an unwholesome pattern. Religion all too often disparages the good things of our world.

Hopkins' sonnet does not lose its greatness because of this. Perhaps the doubleness of its vision strengthens the poem in a way. The sestet sends us scurrying back to the octave, looking for possible hints of what was to come (and if we overread in doing so, as we're likely to do, surely there's a sense in which even this is almost invited). And yet, what if Hopkins could have reached a final affirmation that simply stays with nature, rather than turning to God's relationship with it? The final note is an adoration of Jesus, far removed from the opening depiction of a purely worldly beauty. Why did it have to be thus?

Tomorrow, I want to take this a bit further. The point today is that a glorious poem in praise of nature still disparages nature. It still portrays the natural world as incomplete - and even corrupt, or trembling on the verge of corruption - when viewed in isolation from an imagined God. This is a leitmotif running through Christianity and many other religions: this belittling and denigration of the good things that the world offers. Tomorrow, I'm going to focus on one of the speeches from the theist side in the recent "Atheism is wrong" debate, to show how easy it is - how rhetorically and imaginatively seductive - for religion to do dirt on everything good.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Currently reading - Real Presences by George Steiner

Has anyone else tackled this? Any insights? I'm not finding it especially enjoyable...

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (slightly spoilery discussion)

Spoilerz lurk in wait below. Yawl are warned.
Okay ... first, I'm glad to have read this now-classic trilogy. Although it has young protagonists and is popular with a youthful audience, the three novels that make up His Dark Materials are sufficiently complex in their language, themes, and psychology to appeal to adults, even adults who are well read in literary fiction. I wouldn't hesitate to give a set or a one-volume version as a gift to a grown-up who enjoys fantasy (and that's just as well, since I did exactly that before reading it ... I gave it as a gift to a friend a couple of months back, thinking, from what I knew about it, that she would enjoy it).

In fact, there's much to love about His Dark Materials. The main character, Lyra (the little liar), is vivid and likeable, though sometimes I wanted to shake some sense into her (why do we imagine that we can actually do that!?). The adult characters - particularly Lyra's mutually-antagonistic parents, Lord Asriel and the amazing Mrs Coulter - are wonderful literary creations. I really enjoyed the armoured bear king, Iorek Byrnison. These and others will stay in my memory.

Similarly for the magical objects that play a large role in the trilogy. The subtle knife that gives the second book its title is especially notable - we are made to feel just how powerful and useful, how sinister and dangerous, this weapon is. Once again, the action surrounding these objects is vivid, detailed, and memorable.

The trilogy's values are also noteworthy, and I applaud them. The implied author clearly sides with freedom, effort, love and sex, and the bold recognition that life is complicated and ambiguous. Sam Harris might not like it, but lying is often showed as justified and useful in the particular circumstances that the characters face throughout; seemingly evil characters turn out to have some wholesome aspects; and no one ever suggests that momentous decisions are easy. All in all, this is a story that can only be salutary for young, maturing people. It challenges inflexible, absolute moralities, and stands in favour of love, joy, and a resolute acceptance of life's complexity.

All that said, I thought the last book, The Amber Spy Glass, particularly its final 50 to 100 pages, was a bit of a mess. As I inched towards the ending, I kept wishing that Pullman's editor had shaken some sense into him (even though we know that this never actually works ... see above). The main plot is resolved long before the book finally comes to an end, and the last 50 pages in particular seem tacked on to ensure an unhappy, or at least poignant, ending, and to make didactic points about the need to compromise. Worse, this was not a case of contriving a resolution that was unrealistically neat and happy; the sense of contrivance was certainly there, but apparently to avoid a neat, happy resolution as far as possible, even at the cost of introducing hand-waving and special pleading.

Conversely, some of the most important thematic and psychological conflicts, involving Lyra's relationships with her parents, needed a lot more resolution to be satisfying. Important characters disappear from the narrative with no real pay-off, and generally the whole wrap-up feels untidy and unsatisfying. That's especially disappointing when the first 800 pages of the trilogy (which runs to some 930 pages in my single-volume edition) are so good.

Notoriously, Pullman uses a version of the Catholic Church and a version of the Christian God (and his chief supernatural minion) as his evil-doers. This only really becomes important in the third book: up to that point, and especially in the first volume, the bad guys could be almost any cruel, sinister, authoritarian organisation. We could easily work out its resemblance to the Church for ourselves (as I gather happens with the movie of the first book, which I still haven't seen). By the end, this plot point was seeming heavy-handed to me, though I did find some of the anti-clerical diatribes placed in the mouths of the characters both apt and eloquent. Cheers for Pullman to that extent.

In all, reading His Dark Materials was an interesting, thought-provoking, positive, generally enjoyable experience. Much of it will stay with me, and I do recommend the trilogy for both teenagers and adults. But the last book could have done with some serious re-thinking and was a bit of a let-down.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Atheists can't have close (family, etc.) relationships

Austin Cline disposes of this idea.

From the back cover...

From the Back Cover

Religious freedom is the prototypical liberal freedom, a cornerstone of modern political rights. Freedom of Religion and the Secular State examines the concept of religious freedom, focusing on today's hot-button issues, including blasphemy and religious vilification; the teaching of biological evolution in schools; the health and welfare of children (particularly where religious beliefs clash with modern forms of medical treatment); claims by some religious organizations for a right of conscientious objection (e.g. doctors who refuse to perform abortions); and the recognition of Sharia law in Western societies.

Such issues are topical, controversial, and intransigent. Somewhere at the core of contention lies fear of overweening government power, used to impose a favored understanding of the world - or another, transcendent, world - or to persecute those with a different understanding.

With a background in legal and political philosophy, philosophy of religion, and moral theory, Russell Blackford traces the historical background both of religious persecution and the modern liberal state's embrace of secularity and religious freedom. Engaging in contemporary debates, he argues for a balanced view of what religious freedom is about, and how the state should approach it.

Coming soon!!


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Spencer Tunick's Dead Sea Nudes

See this story and accompanying video.

The background is that US photographer Spencer Tunick set up and recorded an installation of 1000 nude Israelis in the Dead Sea ... with a view to promoting the location and helping in the campaign to save it.

Predictably, a bunch of local God-botherers, in this case Orthodox Jewish rabbis and politicians, attempted to prevent the event from taking place, citing offensiveness to residents and making portentous references to Sodom and Gomorrah.

This is one of the big, big problems with Abrahamic religion: its deep, nasty, and persistent negativity about the human body and human sexuality - not that there even seems to be anything sexual involved here, just unclothed human bodies.

Which is not to say that all religious people share that negativity as individuals. That is most certainly not the case, as I know well. However, shame about the body runs deep in the Abrahamic traditions, and it's not surprising to see another example of it - or to see an attempt to use state power to impose that particular pathology on others.

Tunick himself is Jewish, though I don't know whether he actually has any supernatural beliefs (Q: "What do you call an atheistic Jew?"; A: "A Jew!"). In any event, he comments lucidly on the issue of nudity in art:

For Tunick, a Jewish American who has arranged naked human bodies over prominent landscapes and landmarks ranging from a Swiss glacier to the Sydney Opera House, a nude installation is an indicator of a host country's openness.

"In some places the work is a little bit more controversial, and then in other places the works are accepted as a litmus test for how free a country is, or how open a country is, and how full of rights a country is," he told a pre-shoot news briefing. "For me, a country that allows the nude in art, in public space is some place that's very progressive, very open, and very caring, and very dignified."

"Atheists are wrong" debate - to be televised on ABC 1

For Australian readers, please note that the "Atheists are wrong" debate will be televised on ABC 1 (on the Big Ideas program) at 11 am on Tuesday 4 October. If you don't get to see it or record it that day (e.g. if you live in another country) it will be available at some point on the IQ2oz website. You might be interested to browse that site, by the way, because many of the debates on other topics are interesting - for the subject matter, of course, but also to see the approaches taken to topical issues by a variety of speakers.

Monday, September 19, 2011

France bans street prayers

As Kenan Malik said in a tweet, this seems like an own goal for secularism ... certainly from a PR viewpoint, but not just that. It looks like a law that is not religion-neutral but aimed specifically at religious speech in public, and at one kind of religious speech at that.

There may be more to it than that, I suppose. If certain streets are actually being disrupted on an ongoing basis, and if secular speech and activity that is similarly disruptive is being treated in the same way, then this action may be defensible (it still may not be ... even facially neutral laws can be contrivances to achieve non-neutral purposes) on "time, place, and manner" grounds or something of the sort.

I'm not happy, however, when I need to sort of bend over backwards to make up possible defences of a government's actions. If this is defensible at all, we need to know a lot more about it. On its face, it doesn't look good.

Secularism is not about suppressing religious expression and conduct, or even about driving it from public places. It is primarily about driving religious influence from government. It means that governments do not make policies and laws on the basis of otherworldly considerations or esoteric religious morality that goes beyond people's civil interests. The government does not govern in accordance with the supposed commands of a god or something like Roman Catholic natural law theory. It does not take action to enforce or endorse, or to persecute or disparage, religious viewpoints.

But that is a very different matter from suppressing the religious speech of individual citizens.

Again, I'd like to know a bit more about this before condemning it outright ... but I'm really not liking some of the actions taken in Europe lately. I support a secular Europe, but on the facts available to me so far this is not the sort of thing that I have in mind.

How dominionist is the Australian Christian Lobby?

The ACL denies that it wishes to impose a theocracy, but it certainly supports laws that are based on esoteric or otherworldly moralities associated with Christianity. That in itself is enough to worry about. Chrys Stevenson goes further, however, in a fascinating and detailed article on the ABC's Religion and Ethics portal. Among other things, she documents close connections between leading ACL figures and the US-based dominionist movement.

She suggests: "Just as responsible Muslims have distanced themselves from the lunatic ravings of Ibrahim Siddiq-Conlon [who advocates that Australia be governed by Sharia law], it is time for the leaders of Australia's mainstream Christian churches to publicly disassociate themselves from the right-wing, extremist, divisive dominionism of the ACL."

"Diversity" at TAM - how diverse is diverse?

This piece by Brian Thomson should not be allowed to go without comment and maybe controversy. I'm pleased to see that women, for example, were well-represented at the most recent TAM but I question the claim that, "it's essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation" (my emphasis).

Thomson goes on near the end to complain about religious believers often being made uncomfortable at Skeptic events.

But why, exactly, is it essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded because of her religion? Surely at least some religious teachings must fly in the face of everything that the James Randi Educational Foundation and TAM stand for, no matter how narrowly JREF interprets its remit. So why wouldn't it be perfectly natural and inevitable that people who believe at least those teachings feel somewhat unwelcome?

Case in point: what if my religion teaches, contrary to everything discovered through the last four or five centuries of scientific investigation, that the universe is 6000 years old, that fossils are the remains of animals killed in a great flood a few thousand years ago, and that the diversity of human languages was caused by a miraculous act when a divine being decided to make communication more difficult (as a punishment for human hubris)? If I have those religious beliefs, surely I'm likely to feel rather unwelcome if I attend a conference such as TAM. Furthermore, surely there's a limit to how far organisers and other attendees should bend over backwards to make me feel welcome. Doubtless they should treat me in a friendly, courteous way, as long as I reciprocate, but they shouldn't go out of their way to leave my views unchallenged.

There can, of course, be reasonable disagreements about how far the remit of an organisation such as the JREF should extend. That's a matter for James Randi and others who get to make the decision. There can also be reasonable disagreements about how far the remit of the Skeptic movement, more generally, should extend. How far, in particular, should it involve itself in sceptical scrutiny of the supernatural claims made by religion? Different people may, reasonably and rationally, want to draw lines in different places.

But are we really going to say that your religious beliefs should make no difference at all to how welcome you feel at a conference such as TAM? Really? No matter what the content of those religious beliefs may be?

And what about other beliefs? Why single out religion? Even if you think religion should get a free pass, and that religious believers should be coddled, there must be at least some beliefs that organisers and attendees should not bend over backwards to coddle. Should TAM and other such conferences be run so that no one feels unwelcome because she believes in astrology, or in the existence of ghosts, or Bigfoot, or in UFOs stocked with bulging-eyed aliens and anal probes? Once again, by all means be friendly and courteous to such people, but you can't expect them to feel especially welcome within a movement devoted to debunking these kinds of ideas.

I see two issues here - first, the remit of the Skeptic movement. How narrowly should it confine itself in the things that it submits to sceptical scrutiny? No matter how narrowly it confines itself, at least somebody is going to feel not entirely welcome, and the broader the movement's remit the more people that will be. Doubtless there are reasons - at least in many cases - to express disagreement in a civil way. But you simply cannot guarantee that everyone, no matter what her ideas may be, will feel entirely welcome to the meetings of a movement that actually exists to be sceptical about ideas.

Second, this is an example of the unfortunate tendency to think that ideas are analogous to the sorts of personal attributes that include biological sex, gender identification, sexuality, skin colour, ethnic or socioeconomic background, and the like. We have very good reason not to discriminate against people on the basis of these attributes. These things have little or nothing to do with the things that we really value in people, such as good character (kindness, honesty, courage, and so on), talent, and skills; and it is cruel and destructive to act as if they do.

But it is not, generally speaking, cruel or destructive to disagree with someone's ideas. There can be exceptions, as when ideas are attacked as a mere excuse to treat someone badly when you are actually motivated to do so on other grounds (skin colour, perhaps, or perhaps just idiosyncratic dislike). Generally, however, disagreeing with ideas, disputing ideas, choosing to assist or oppose people on the basis of their ideas, and so on, are all perfectly legitimate. Such things as people's religious beliefs, moral beliefs, and political ideologies simply do not belong on the same list as "race, gender ... or sexual orientation".

Perhaps, after much introspection and debate, the Skeptic movement will decide that its remit is sufficiently narrow that it will not submit religious doctrines (any of them) to sceptical scrutiny. It's hard for me to imagine how it could come to that view in any principled way, but even if it does so that will have to be the outcome of a long internal argument. The movement can't adopt as a starting point the thesis that it must never make anyone feel unwelcome because of her religious beliefs.

Frankly, the idea, expressed in a blanket way, that no one should feel unwelcome or excluded because of her religion is sententious claptrap. It is, in fact, a form of sententious claptrap that merits sceptical exposure, scrutiny, and opposition. The Skeptic movement can aim at courtesy and other good behaviour, but it cannot give a free pass to one subset of ideas so as to guarantee that people with those particular ideas will feel at home. Not if it wants to be principled.

The Skeptic movement itself stands for certain ideas and for the scrutiny of ideas. That means that contradictory ideas or ideas that fail to withstand scrutiny will be, to some extent, unwelcome. People who adhere to those ideas will find that the movement is not for them. This is inevitable, and it's not a bad thing. A movement based on ideas and on rational scrutiny simply can't be all things to all people.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I've finished reading The Golden Compass ...

... and I'll now plunge on with the rest of the trilogy that makes up His Dark Materials. I haven't seen the movie of The Golden Compass, but I'm now a bit bemused by what I've heard about it. A major criticism was (or seemed to be ... it's possible that I got the wrong impression) that the movie watered down the anti-clerical content of the book. I've got to say that the latter wasn't actually very important. There are plot reasons why it may become more important as the trilogy continues, but there's really no great reason in the first book why the bad guys have to be connected with the Church/Magisterium. At least for the purposes of this first book, it could be just about any sinister, power-hungry, unscrupulous organisation doing these terrible things.

I'll get to the rest of the trilogy over the next few days.

Sunday supervillainy (more!) - Heinberg on Doctor Doom and the Scarlet Witch

Nice interview about the current game-changing (possibly) Avengers: The Children's Crusade story.

"Scientology dodges a bullet"

According to this story, the much-discussed Fair Work Ombudsman's report on the Church of Scientology probably won't have much effect at all. There may be other cases that could be looked at in the future, but as I said yesterday this doesn't sound like something to get very excited about unless there are further developments. If anything, it looks like the Scientologists have had a bit of a win here.

Sunday supervillainy - countdown of top 100 Marvel and DC characters

This list is a work in progress - as I write it has yet to unveil the top 14 characters from each company. I.e., it currently lists the 15th to 50th most popular characters from Marvel and the 15th to 50th from DC, based on votes from "nearly 1400" fans. The list will reach completion during the remainder of September.

I don't know all that much about DC, though it's obvious that major characters such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Joker, and Green Lantern (the more popular incarnations of the character, since one incarnation is on the list already at 23) are still to come in the top 14.

I know more about Marvel, so let's play a game of who will be the remaining 14 characters. I predict  that it will be something like the following group of characters, in something like the following order:

1. Spider-Man
2. Wolverine
3. Captain America (Steve Rogers)
4. Iron Man
5. The Hulk
6. Thor
7. Doctor Doom
8. Magneto
9. Professor X.
10. Galactus
11. The Thing
12. Mary Jane Watson
13. Cyclops
14. Doctor Strange

I can't immediately think of any other characters who could turn up in the top 14 and are not already  listed from 15-50. But maybe I'm forgetting someone. As mentioned below, the Wasp may be an outside possibility, but I kind of doubt it. The same goes for Juggernaut.

I hope I haven't named someone who already appears on the list somewhere.

The list so far doesn't contain many villains - I notice Loki at 45 and Thanos at 44. I suppose it's possible that the Red Skull will sneak into the top 14, in which case someone I've listed above won't be on the list at all. The three villains whom I expect to make the final 14 and possibly even top 10 are Doctor Doom, Magneto, and Galactus ... all of whom are among Marvel's most interesting and iconic characters.

The list is also light on for female representation. In fact, this is culturally and commercially important. I've guessed that Mary Jane Watson will make the list, maybe just outside the top 10, but perhaps she won't be there at all. She has a large fan following, but maybe she's not an obvious character to vote for. If, in the end, she doesn't appear at all, the highest ranked female character in the voting will probably be Emma Frost at 17. And I just can't see any female character appearing in the Marvel top 10.

I'm sure that Marvel is concerned at its inability so far to create truly iconic female characters, but this is an area where renewed effort is needed - for the health of the industry apart from anything else.

The female character that it tends to push most, Ms Marvel, is languishing at 29. A number of prominent female characters from X-Men are around 20. She-Hulk comes in at 26, and there's only a small smattering in the 30s and 40s. Some potentially great female characters such as Polaris, Umar, Magik, the Enchantress, Medusa (but her husband, Black Bolt, isn't there, either), and Moonstone don't appear at all so far ... and are most unlikely to be in the top 14. Even the Wasp isn't there, despite having been an Avengers leader, though I suppose there's still an outside chance that she could appear somewhere in the top 14.

Hopefully, as it were, this list will look different in a decade with the recent creation of several potentially interesting female characters, among them Hope Summers and Finesse, but it remains to be seen how much popularity they can gain.

I don't see any female villains, unless you count the Scarlet Witch (which I don't). Some of the female characters (such as Rogue, Emma Frost, and the Black Widow) are reformed villains, but it looks as if Marvel doesn't have a real female villain (even as real a villain as, say, the morally-ambiguous Galactus and  Magneto) who can make such a list. The nearest thing is Emma Frost, who is still presented as snarky, unscrupulous, and not a nice person, but as having reformed a long time ago and pretty close to totally.

We need some villainesses to get more prominence. Marvel is doing a good job with Moonstone, but she could be upgraded in importance even further - she's a potentially great character. The Enchantress is another who could play a bigger role. (To be fair, some important male villains also look like not appearing on the list - the likes of the Green Goblin, Juggernaut, Dormammu, Absorbing Man, and Doctor Octopus.)

Edit: A few people - here or on Facebook - are saying Mystique, and I think that's probably right. I'm kicking myself for not thinking of her, especially after complaining about the relative paucity of female characters. Mystique is very popular, especially from the X-Men movies. That would give us a female supervillain, and possibly the highest ranked female character in the Marvel list. It would also mean that at least one character on my guess of the final 14 won't make it at all ... and I suppose Mary Jane Watson is the most likely of them to have been overlooked in the voting.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Scientology and labour law

I really don't understand this story about a report prepared by the Fair Work Ombudsman, inquiring into the work practices of the Church of Scientology. The starting point should be that religiously-neutral laws of general application should apply to religious organisations operating in the relevant jurisdiction. That's what the story (or the report) seems to be saying, but it's very murky just what the Fair Work Ombudsman has found. Perhaps the important point is that certain classes of workers have been found to be employees in the strict sense (not, for example, independent contractors).

Any insights from commenters who know more about it would be welcomed.

In any event, the office of the Fair Work Ombusman is not a body that exercises judicial power, so I wouldn't expect that anyone is going to get any compensation for underpaid wages and the like just yet.

Probably a story to keep an eye on for the future, rather than one to be too excited about for the moment.

Gutting on Kitcher

Gary Gutting discusses Philip Kitcher over here. I'll be reviewing Kitcher's forthcoming book, The Ethical Project, for The Philosophers' Magazine, and am looking forward to reading it.

Interview with James Randi

Randi seems like a really lovely guy - I enjoyed my contact with him when he wrote a piece for 50 Voices of Disbelief, and he comes across well in this interview. Given the discussion on another thread here, regarding the role of the Skeptic movement, this piece seems timely.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Currently reading: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I've just finished reading this huge, generous, intimidating book, which had been sitting on a high shelf to my right, glowering at me, for many, many months. When I opened it, several days ago, I knew very little about Jonathan and Mr Norrell, except for its impressive record of major awards (including a Hugo Award and a World Fantasy Award) and nominations (including appearances on the Booker Prize long list and the Whitbread Award shortlist). I'll now go and read some of what others have said, but meanwhile here are a few first impressions of my own ... made as spoiler-free as possible for those of you who have not read the book but would like to do so.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is set in Europe, mainly England, during a period that is wonderfully familiar to most readers of literary fiction: the first decades of the nineteenth century. Much of the action relates to the war against Napoleon (who knew that magic had such a large role in his downfall?), and the social setting resembles that of a Jane Austen novel. Indeed, many of the book's incidents could be fitted quite seamlessly into one of Austen's narratives. There are also references to the Romantic poets - well, especially Lord Byron, who appears as a minor character. Susanna Clarke also apes the prose style of Jane Austen to an extent, with a similar knowingness and suggestion of detachment.

For most of us - most lovers of English literature - few historical settings are more comfortable than this, which eases the author's task in creating a plausible, detailed, lived-in world where her characters may love, puzzle, strive, and compete with each other for power and glory.

Strive and compete they do. The main characters - the eponymous Jonathan Strange and his tutor, Gilbert Norrell - are magicians, set on reviving the practical use of magic in Britain. As the action begins, we learn that magic has declined in recent centuries and is now studied only in a theoretical and historical way. Apart from Mr Norrell, who soon makes his presence felt, magicians are now more like historians or literary scholars, with no pretensions of commanding supernatural agencies or forces. This changes, as Mr Norrell sets about reviving the practice of magic, though he is an obsessive, fastidious, nervous (not to mention sometimes callous) control freak of a man who wants to do this only on his own narrow terms. He is determined to keep the art of magic to himself as far as possible, and to channel its future development within what he considers safe and acceptable boundaries.

Though Mr Norrell soon gains political influence, things go wrong when he resurrects the dead wife of a benefactor - not understanding the price that he accepts, or foreseeing the misery that he will cause her. When he takes on a brilliant, headstrong pupil, Jonathan Strange, the two of them soon come into philosophical and actual conflict. Meanwhile, there are greater powers at work in the world, operating to undo the happiness of them both.

Despite its enormous length (over 1000 large-format pages), Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell never flags. Somehow the author manages to produce new plot twists every chapter or so, sustaining surprise and suspense to the end (though the ending itself is perhaps a bit soft and whimpery after so much that has gone before). The sense of generosity and solidity is maintained by its aping a form of old-fashioned and over-fussy scholarly biography, complete with frequent footnotes, some of them very long (these typically tell their own diverting stories, peripheral or tangential to the main narrative). Thus, the novel is itself presented as work of theoretical magic, as that is understood within the diegesis; it constructs a history of English magic over the decade or so of the main story, while embedding this in a more elaborate history that covers centuries.

The two main characters appear suitably larger than life, yet also flawed, complex, rather destructive, at times, of themselves and others, and in some ways all-too-recognisable from ordinary experience. The less important characters - some of whom actually become very important indeed as the narrative expands and gels - appear rounded and sympathetic, as they get caught up in magical perils and complicated schemes. Even the small cast of truly villainous men and other beings who plague the rest, bringing trouble and chaos, appear vivid and plausible enough, if not exactly likeable.

For maximum reading pleasure you need to be open to fantasy narratives and preferably familiar with the historical setting, though the latter is not strictly necessary - no particular demands are made on readers' historical knowledge, and what needs to be explained gets covered concisely and effectively.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is pure entertainment, though perhaps with a certain vision of human nature (gentle and compassionate, yet, I think, a little cynical). It is not didactic and does not attempt to be life-changing. No one's values will be transformed, but the book is certainly amusing as well as slyly perceptive. If this sounds like what you want in a novel, go ahead and give it a try. I totally enjoyed it, and am glad I set aside a bit of time for it, at last.

And it need no longer glower at me from its shelf, demanding my attention - that's a relief.

What, exactly, should "Skeptics" (with a capital "S" and a "k") be sceptical about?

I'm just going to throw this open. It opens up issues about what we want from the Skeptic movement, including issues of whether the movement is worthwhile if it doesn't deal with important subjects, such as scepticism about religion, scepticism about popular understandings of morality, etc.

E.g., I'm fascinated by stories about Bigfoot and Nessie. On the other hand, these stories are unlikely to be true. On the gripping hand, does it really matter compared to, say, the Catholic Church's claim to exercise a God-established, God-guided moral authority? Aren't there more important things - many of them, indeed - to be sceptical about than tales of weird creatures such as Bigfoot, Nessie, and super-gigantic anacondas?


Thursday, September 15, 2011

More on God, Craig, and (in this case) debating morality

This is from Martin S. Pribble's blog, as is this.

For myself, I don't see any reason at all to believe that morality is objective in anything like the sense that Craig describes (that's a recurring theme of this blog). Indeed even if morality came from God it would not be objective in the sense that Craig seems to be getting at - moral norms would not be rationally binding on us all independently of our desires, values, etc. No doubt an all-powerful God could give us the desire to obey its commands, either for its own sake or to avoid painful punishments, but that's not the same thing.

There is, however, a social and psychological pressure to think that the "true" morality is rationally binding on us in a way that transcends all desires and has more rational clout than mere social norms or commands from others. Christian apologists often play to this, and there's no doubt that many people find the idea that morality is not, strictly, objective rather disconcerting ... and likewise, many people find the idea that God can somehow deliver an objective morality psychologically attractive. But disconcerting ideas can be true and psychologically attractive ones can be false.

The pressure I refer to provides a Christian apologist with powerful emotional weapons, but not with a sound argument for the existence of God.

Another IQ2 debate - this one in Germany

I assume the video of this will end up on IQ2 Germany's website eventually, which won't be a lot of use to me since I don't speak German. But surely a lot of y'all out there do, so I draw it to your attention. Note that A.C. Grayling is one of the speakers. The topic is to the effect that the Catholic Church is a good thing - a benediction or blessing.

Oh, and much the same topic will be debated in Melbourne later this year under the auspices of IQ2oz. It's an interesting batch of speakers, though the only ones I'm very familiar with are Horta, Summers, and Marr.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Disbelief is Not a Choice"

I like this nice, clear piece by David Niose. It does raise questions as to what a "choice" is, but generally I think Niose is on the money here (I have a very brief discussion of the same issue in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, but in the context of a discussion of Islam).

New Jesus and Mo cartoon


Published results for the IQ2 debate polling

Now published on the website. These figures are (very slightly) different from the previously tweeted results from IQ2. I didn't scribble down what was actually read out at the end of the debate, but it was something very similar, and the motion was declared lost.

When the debate is televised and/or available as a video on the site, you can make up your own mind as to why the outcome was as it was and what lessons can be learned about what the theists did wrong, what the atheists did right, and what both sides could have done better. There are written versions of the speeches now available on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal, but of course they may not exactly match what was said on the night and might not give a very good picture of the cut and thrust of the actual debate. If you read them, try the actual order of delivery on the night: Longstaff (introduction), Jensen, Pataki, Rowland, Caro, Stephens, Blackford.

In any event, the figure for people for supporting the motion that "Atheists are wrong" actually dropped by 0.5 per cent after the debate. The figure for people opposing the motion increased by 10.0 per cent:
Pre-debate pollPost-debate poll

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Martin S. Pribble on William Lane Craig

This post somewhat dissents from the common view that Craig is a master debater. Sample:
After watching a few of his debates, I’m sorry but I can’t take Craig seriously anymore. He sticks his fingers in his ears and says “But why? But why? But why?” without any intention of listening to a reasoned and rational response.
I don't really agree with this, insofar as I've watched a number of Craig's debates by now, and I think he's technically very good (i.e. very good in debating technique) ... but it's refreshing to see a different perspective. I certainly don't think that Craig is unbeatable - e.g. I think that John Shook got the better of him in a debate in Vancouver a couple of years ago. I haven't seen the Kagan debate that Pringle refers to, but by all accounts Kagan did well.

Udo comments on his Globe and Mail interview

A brief comment here.

Rowan Williams planning retirement ...

... according to this story. Who can blame him, as the Anglican Church continues to rip itself apart over such issues as the ordination and consecration of women and gays, and the blessing or otherwise of same-sex marriages?

Interview with Udo Schuklenk

The Globe and Mail also has a detailed interview with Udo.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Globe and Mail supports physician assisted suicide

Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper has published an editorial supporting a tightly-regulated system of physician assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. It concludes as follows:
Research shows that, in places where assisted suicide is legal, there is an initial spike in requests. However, the number then diminishes. “Many people, once they know that if all else fails, this is an option, they won’t make that call. The stress is gone,” says Udo Schuklenk, a Queen’s University professor who chairs the Royal Society’s committee on end-of-life decision-making in Canada. The committee will release a report this fall.

“Often when people talk about end-of-life decision-making, the assumption is, it’s about pain,” he adds. “But it’s not. The concern is more about losing control over the quality of their lives.”

As well as retooling the law on euthanasia, the government should expand the use of palliative care, so that people with terminal illnesses can be less fearful of an agonizing, protracted end, and less drawn to assisted suicide as a last option.

There must, however, be a way for society to grant the wishes of mentally competent adults who do not want to live with unspeakable pain, lose their ability to swallow, walk and talk, lose their selves. Surely this is the most compassionate way for them to end to their journey, and to have the good death they deserve.
Kudos and congratulations to Udo Schuklenk for his role in moving this issue so far forward. I don't need, I hope, to point out that this would be a change for the better in Canadian society, brought about in the face of resistance from religious groups. As usual, moving away from religion is necessary if we want improvements in the way our societies do things. The unfortunate fact is this: if we want more compassionate societies, they will have to be less religious societies. The only people who can make it otherwise are the religious leaders themselves, if they are prepared to let go of their empty moralising and look at issues in a more modern, liberal, and humane way.

All too often, religious morality puts otherworldly factors higher than such obvious secular goods as relief from suffering and the freedom to live a life that suits you; and thus it places barriers to a better morality (yes, "better" ... by very plausible standards of what we actually want our moral systems to deliver). Going by its record to date, religious morality is something to be overcome.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Society is getting worse, therefore God exists."

The topic of last week's IQ2 debate was "Atheists are wrong" - and this was given a gloss as follows:
Having been persecuted as a dangerous minority for centuries, in recent years the champions of atheism have achieved celebrity status around the world. Atheists have been quick to point to the evils done in the name of religion and to claim that their criticism of religion is grounded in the demands of reason. Their opponents have championed faith as a source of inspiration and as an essential aspect of the human condition. However, beyond rhetorical skirmishes, in the end, just one fundamental question must be answered: does God exist?
One criticism that could be made of the speakers for the affirmative in the debate was that they didn't get past the rhetorical skirmishes and put any well-developed arguments that God (or a god of any kind) actually exists. That, I think, cost them with the audience.

But what is a fair argument that God exists? There seemed to be a view on the affirmative team that they could make their case by demonstrating that as modern Western and European societies have become more secular (in the sense that religion has increasingly become just an option) they have also become morally worse. This is supposedly shown by, for example, consumerism (whatever, exactly, that really means), greater acceptance of abortion, and the availability and common use of pornography.

We could have an interesting argument as to whether current societies really are worse, in some sense, than they were in the past. In particular, I think that greater acceptance of abortion is a good thing. In my view, most abortions merit neither legal penalties nor social condemnation. In fact, it is a censorious approach to girls and women who choose to have abortions that merits our condemnation. Trickier issues may arise with consumerism and pornography, but neither need necessarily be a bad thing, depending on exactly what is being picked out by these words.

More generally, it's unlikely that anyone could actually make out a claim to the effect that declining religiosity causes (or is even accompanied by) declining moral goodness. Judged by widely accepted standards of what we actually want in a society, things may even have been much worse in the past than they are now in Western and European societies. Violence is now less accepted than it was in past decades and centuries; people in most socio-economic strata are now less likely to experience it (at least as frequently); and we are certainly less likely than was once the case to die violent deaths at the hands of other human beings. Furthermore, we have moved somewhat beyond the old insistence that people conform to narrow roles and modes of self-expression based on sex. In general, we are far more tolerant of a diversity of thought, expression (including expressions of our sexuality), and life choices.

All in all, what we are seeing is better interpreted as the opposite of a moral decline. Based on quite plausible standards, our societies were actually worse in the past; based on quite plausible standards, things are slowly getting better. Sure, there may still be a long way to go; the process of getting there is gradual and often frustrating, with plenty of backward steps along the way; and, for example, there is no shortage of bigotry to go around. But in many ways, we've improved things. Some historical perspective is needed before we get too far into moralising about the evils of current societies, let alone about an overall decline.

I think most of us have a sense of this - whatever the faults of our current societies, it is facile, simplistic nonsense to imagine that they are morally worse than they were, say, a hundred years ago. For that reason alone, the argument that "Society is getting worse, therefore God exists" is nonsense. That's not a reason to give up on trying to make improvements: e.g., I support efforts to tackle global poverty and climate change, to go further in the acceptance of gay and bisexual people, and to rid ourselves of other irrational prejudices.

But we do need to keep our perspective on things. Consider, for example, the enormous difficulty as recently as the 1960s - and in some cases more recently still - in getting rid of criminal laws against homosexual conduct. That battle is now pretty much won, providing a foundation to take gay rights much further.

But even if our societies really were getting worse overall there could be many reasons for this other than declining religiosity: perhaps the effects of corporate capitalism, for example, or perhaps the impact of certain technologies. Since I don't believe that our societies actually are getting worse on balance - quite the opposite - I'm not interested in finding the cause of it. I.e., I'm not interested in tracking down the cause of what I take to be a non-existent phenomenon. Importantly, though, the argument, "Society is getting worse, therefore God exists" would still be very weak even if society actually was getting worse.

You'd think this would all go without saying. In fact, it probably does ... at least for most educated people. I said very little about it in the limited time that was available last Tuesday night, but I'm sure the audience grasped the point just fine. And yet, it's fascinating that this kind of argument gets run at all.

Sunday supervillainy - post-Schism X-Men line-ups

Both X-Men sides - blue and gold - are revealed here in this X-Men: Regenesis article on Marvel's site (h/t Rocket Stegosaurus), complete with the very villainous-looking core Uncanny X-Men team.

It appears Psylocke is playing on both sides of the fence. She's depicted on the covers (click images to expand) of both X-Men (one of the "blue" books apparently set on Utopia under Cyclops's overall leadership) and X-Force (one of the "gold" books set who knows where - maybe back in Westchester? - under Wolverine's). There must be a story to that.

Or is that not Psylocke on the cover of Uncanny X-Force? Surely it can't be a cross-dimensional counterpart, or even Revanche? Hmmm, I assume it's just Betsy sneaking off to do some black ops work for the other side.

As promised, we get family members, lovers, and ex-lovers finding themselves on opposing sides.

Cyclops is leading the blue side, but the gold side includes his brother Havok (shown in X-Factor), his sort-of daughter Rachel Grey (in X-Men Legacy), and his ex-lover (since, hey, some of those events "really" happened), Frenzy (also in X-Men Legacy); Colossus (currently looking like and wielding the power of Juggernaut) is on the core Uncanny team along with his sister, Magik, but his girlfriend, Kitty Pryde, is on the gold side hanging out with Wolverine; Magneto is on the blue side, and looks to be one of its core players, but his daugher, Polaris, is on the gold side, along with his lover, or perhaps ex-lover by the time we get to this point, Rogue; Domino is on the blue side, separated from her ex-lover, Wolverine.
Come to think of it, this split looks like giving the characters good opportunities to break up with unwanted lovers or get away from troublesome exes. OTOH, Cyclops is on the same book as Emma Frost; Rogue is on the same book as Gambit (so is Marvel going to put them back together?); and X-Factor now looks even more like a family orgy, with long-time lovers Havok and Polaris returning to a book that already had an incestuous quality to it.

These eight covers reveal only a relatively small proportion of the characters involved in the larger X-Men story, though most of the important ones are there. We see Storm on the blue side, but some of her best friends are on the gold side. Among the missing are Namor, the Stepford Cuckoos (who are teenage clones of Emma Frost - surely they'll be on the blue team?), Dazzler, and most or all of the New X-Men. Most importantly, Professor X himself appears nowhere, so what will be his role within the new scenario of a split within the X-Men?

Among the unexpected inclusions we find Sebastian Shaw posing bare-chested on the cover of Generation Hope (so is sinister young Hope going to adopt Shaw, of all people, as her new mentor?), while Toad appears on Wolverine's team.

The blue side looks villain-heavy, with Magneto, Emma, and Danger in the core team, but many members of the gold side started out as villains, come to the think of it, including such major X-Men characters as Wolverine and Rogue. As has been the case for many years now, X-Men continues to blur the line between heroic and villainous characters, with plenty of fanatics, narcissists, nutcases, and near-psychopaths running around managing to do good things to protect their world ... even though they are not especially nice people.

Exploring that blurred line continues to be a theme of the franchise, and surely that can only become more obvious, if one of the main plot points is (apparently) that the very powerful group who make up the core Uncanny group now wish to be both loved and feared by Earth's human population. That has already been revealed as Magneto's new political philosophy for mutants, and although he is not leading the team - Cyclops is - the others in the core group have apparently embraced some version of it. Potentially, it's an explosive approach for a supposed superhero team to take: it immediately makes them a team of anti-heroes, and it opens up the possibility for endless conflicts with more traditionally-inclined heroes.

There's scope for many personal and political tensions - what with opposed philosophies as well as all the complicated familial and erotic relationships that cross over the lines between the blue and gold line-ups. They don't have to be at each other's throats - this is a split over philosophies and strategies, not a violent struggle - but they'll inevitably find themselves disagreeing sharply, so we can expect to see plenty of family melodrama whenever, say, Cyclops and Magneto cross paths with Rachel and Rogue, or with Havok and Polaris. Christmas dinners are going to be a little edgy.

It's going to be fascinating seeing just how this split within the X-Men comes about, and then seeing how Marvel's writers fare in exploiting the possibilities. The Schism /Regenesis scenario has endless potential, so I hope it's realised in practice.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Conversion narratives, rational argument, and the life of the mind

One issue raised in the current debate about Joel Marks's shift ... conversion ... whatever you want to call it ... to moral error theory is the role played in argument and viewpoint-forming by autobiographical narrative. In this post, I'm not so much concerned about Marks's new metaethical position, although that substantive issue remains interesting, as in the kind of weight or trust we should accord this sort of narrative. In her post on the Marks piece over at In Living Color, Jean Kazez expresses scepticism:
...I think the genre is compelling but deceptive. The convert presents himself (or herself) as traveling from darkness into light, and the sheer drama makes us think--yes, yes, yes, that's the light! The story line of revelation is no substitute for good arguments.
In fact, this is one of many interesting observations made in the post and the resulting thread, and I may turn to others on another occasion - not so much in a spirit of disputing them (though I do in fact have difficulties with some) as in thinking that this debate created by Marks has been a rich one. In particular it has opened up questions about what some of our underlying commitments may be when we engage in philosophical analysis and argument.

For the moment, let's stick to the role of autobiographical narratives. Jean's comment expresses a rather austere scepticism about them ... which is a bit of a concern for someone like me who recently co-edited a book of essays that includes quite a large number of such narratives. Some of the essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief are fairly straightforward arguments or position statements, but most are, indeed, autobiographical. My own essay, "Unbelievable!", falls partly into this genre, even though it does contain some philosophical argument. Needless to say, I have operated here on the basis that such narratives are valuable, and that they do something legitimate that is enabled by their literary form.

It's true, no doubt, that they obtain a certain rhetorical power from their narrative structure and direction: the sense of conflict, as opposing ideas clash through the story; and the imaginative engagement in a journey that is partly, of course, an inward one, but is still, metaphorically, one of movement outwards into the light.

It's also true that an argument is only as good as its premises and the sort of deductive or inductive logic it displays. So how can any arguments that are embedded in these autobiographical conversion narratives thereby gain in power? If they do, surely that power is merely rhetorical - doesn't the literary form give an extra psychological force to an argument, without increasing the cogency of the argument itself? And isn't this somehow intellectually illegitimate?

Good questions. But there's a worry here. If we answer these questions affirmatively, are we thereby requesting that these narratives no longer be written and published? Perhaps we wouldn't want to ban them, since they are a natural way for people to express themselves, but we might think that they lack value for readers, who are, after all, being lured into taking arguments to be more cogent than they really are. Perhaps those of us who actually understand this issue should make a free choice to stop writing conversion narratives, editing them, trying to get them published, and so on? Or if not, why not, if they are deceptive in the way described? At the very least, perhaps we should stop reading them and letting ourselves come under the sway of their rhetorical power. Again ... if not, why not?

The concern goes further. Surely the same issues apply (even more?) to fictional conversion narratives. Once again, if we are shown a character as moving on an inward journey that is, metaphorically, one from darkness to light, this has a certain rhetorical power. The psychological force of the narrative structure may make the arguments for the character's ultimate position appear to be more cogent than they really are. Thus, readers are misled (are they not?). Once again, we might not ban such narratives, but shouldn't we stop writing/editing/publishing them if they are so misleading? At the very least, should we not stop reading them and letting ourselves come under the sway of their rhetorical power. If not, why not?

All of this might lead us to discount a great deal in the way of journalistic and philosophical writing, literary fiction, and more popular forms of fictional narrative (and note that the argument surely applies at least as strongly to plays, movies, TV programs, and so on, as to straightforward autobiographical journalism, novels, etc.). But if we do that, are we thereby giving up something of value? If so, what? After all, these narratives appear to be lending a spurious cogency to arguments that would not, otherwise, convince us.

At this point, I want to offer a suggestion. Before I do so, let me invite you to think seriously about these questions and contribute your own reactions to them. Might Jean Kazez be simply right? If so, what are the implications for the sorts of texts that we should write, edit, publish, read, take seriously, and so on? Or are there aspects that she hasn't considered and which I haven't picked up, either? Is there more to be said than what I'm going to say below?

My suggestion is that these narratives are, in fact, of great value (please don't tell me that nothing is really of great value; plenty of things are of great value to us, as long as we recognise that the "us" - and the "we" in this sentence - are, to some extent, a fiction; we can adjust to that easily enough).

It's true, of course, that an invalid argument cannot become valid simply because it is embedded in a conversion narrative. Nor can the false premises of an argument become true simply because they are embedded in such a narrative. So far, Jean is quite correct. But that does not make the use of narratives for persuasive purposes illegitimate. We are entitled to extract the embedded arguments and scrutinise them, but these narratives do more, and I think it is completely legitimate.

Often, resistance to an argument is not based on the fact that the premises are independently known to be false. Rather, it is that the premises are held to be false based on an intuitive, largely unconscious, reaction to them ... ultimately grounded in the hearer's socialisation and life experience.

Or it may be that the conclusion is held to be false on such a basis, with the result that the hearer will treat the argument as a reductio ad absurdum of its premises (even if she cannot identify which premise is false).

Again, if the argument is not deductive, there may be a resistance to it, based on an intuitive sense that it cannot be inductively cogent: e.g. it may be that its conclusion will not be accepted as the best explanation, or even as a good explanation, for facts contained in the premises ... even if the hearer can't explain why the conclusion is not a perfectly good and intellectually attractive explanation.

In short, we can and do reject arguments that may actually be quite strong - deductively or inductively - because of an ingrained prejudice against certain premises that (again) might actually be true, or else more directly against certain conclusions. These prejudices may make it futile for others to argue with us, even if their arguments are actually good ones. We may find that such prejudices prevent us from making intellectual progress.

Of course, they may be justifiable in some cases. Years of experience in certain aspects of life may have honed my intuitions in a way that makes them very reliable, even if I can't offer an analysis of how I formed them. Thus, a competent speaker of a language may have sound intuitions about its grammar, even if she cannot give good answers as to why she judges some sentences or other linguistic items to be grammatical and some not. An experienced lawyer working in a certain area of practice may be able to make intuitive judgments about the strength of a case far more quickly than she could justify them to anybody. Her intuitions may be highly reliable.

An experienced firefighter might sense that a building is about to collapse, though she has not thought it through consciously and could not, perhaps, explain exactly what factors her judgment is based on. Her experiences may have honed her intuitions to the point where they are very reliable - she is an accurate building-about-to-collapse detecting instrument.

I'm not denying that intuition can sometimes be useful and correct. If I'm ever caught in a burning building, I'll trust the intuitions of experienced firefighters, rather than demanding justification for them before I move to get out of there.

Nonetheless, intuitions can mislead. Often, things that seem obviously true to one person - God exists, there are objective moral properties, or whatever it might be - may not be obvious to others who are just as well situated, and may true at all. These intuitions have not been shaped by life experiences that make them reliable in the way that the firefighter's intuitions are reliable. Yet, I may find it very difficult to question my intuitions on these subjects - they just seem so "obviously" right. I may be resistant to what are actually deductively or inductively strong arguments.

This, I think, is where literary devices can be very useful. They can be enabling devices ... enabling us, or at least assisting us, to understand something of how the world looks to others. We can see the world, to an extent, through the eyes of someone with different intuitions; we can even gain some sense of how different intuitions from our own may be shaped, perhaps by experiences of life no less compelling than our own. If we can enter into something of the life experience of a person who is writing autobiographically, or even that of a fictional character, this can offer a check on our commitment to our own intuitions, which might be revealed as largely-unsupported prejudices.

We can, in short, get some distance from ourselves and our assumptions. We can't step out of all of them at once, but we can certainly gain some critical distance from certain of our assumptions that may be holding us back.

Indeed, we do philosophy best when we can gain some distance from our own intuitions and assumptions, even alienating ourselves from them to an extent. This is something that autobiographical and fictional narratives, with their powerful rhetorical structures, can help us do. The arguments won't actually be stronger - logically speaking - because of the way they are embedded in narratives, but the narratives can expand our imaginations and make us legitimately more open to persuasion. Thus, doubtful intutions that might be standing in the way of my acceptance of a position can be bracketed off - at least to an extent - enabling me to look at someone else's position and its supporting arguments in a new way.

For that reason, I think it's crucially important that we write such narratives, if we have the talent to do so, because we can help other people engage with the world in more imaginative, receptive ways, getting some valuable distance from their own intuitions, assumptions, and prejudices. It's also important that we read these sorts of narratives, created by others, as a way of getting some distance from our own starting points.

It's a dialectical process - to some extent we will inevitably measure these narratives against intuitions formed from our own experience (including the experience of other narratives that we've already encountered and which have helped shape us), as well against the facts obtained from ordinary observation or from science. There's no question of that, and there's always scope to approach narratives with a critical eye. But the narratives also stand as a measure of us.

In some cases, they may cast doubt on our intuitive certainties and on the processes by which they were formed. The richer and more convincing the narrative, the more it can challenge (and augment) our own experience.

And so, painfully, we make progress. Writers of conversion narratives can't be entirely trusted, but neither can anyone else, most especially our parents, our teachers, our peer groups, and ourselves. We desperately need these narratives to see the world from new angles, and we can't get by without them if we're intellectually serious. Whatever their limits as sources of knowledge, narratives, and specifically narratives of conversion to new ideas, have a legitimate role - an important, even essential role - in sustaining the life of the mind.