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).

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Advertisers exploit the #MTRsues trope

In this advertisement for an event in Sydney involving Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf.

Note the questions supposedly raised by #MTRsues - according to the copy writer:
1.Who knew so many men were bothered about this?
2.Why is defining who is allowed to call themselves a feminist such a live issue?
3.To what extent do public figures need to disclose their religious beliefs?
4.Why is the online environment so much like a sewer?
5.Why do outspoken women generate so much hostility, specially from other women?
Well, whatever. Some of these questions seem a lot more salient than others - at least to me.

As far as I'm concerned the issues raised by #MTRsues relate, first and foremost, to the use of defamation law as a weapon in public debates on matters of public interest - especially when a powerful and influential public figure threatens to sue someone far less powerful who has greatly inferior media access. Defamation law is all very well if powerful media interests are destroying the reputations of relatively powerless people - though even then you'd want to be careful about how the law is framed - but when a law suit is threatened by a public figure who has ready access to the mass media to put her case and clarify whatever needs to be clarified, you really need to wonder.

Note that this question, which raises concerns about freedom of speech, power, and bullying, is not even on the copy writer's list.

Secondly, the issues relate to what (moral, I suppose) duty there is for public figures to disclose such things as the underlying worldviews that motivate them, which is the topic of this thread at Talking Philosophy. That goes far beyond just disclosing your religion.

Somewhere amongst it all, I admit, is the topic of what is a feminist - and when is it legitimate to call yourself a feminist when taking part in public debate? When is it legitimate to draw on the prestige (at least in some circles) of the feminist movement to enhance your public image and perceived moral authority? In particular, is it legitimate for an anti-abortion campaigner to do this? To me, that is a relatively low priority question, or set of questions, especially compared to the free speech issue. But - sigh! - I guess it needs to be discussed. I just wish it didn't have so much tendency to take over the whole discussion.

Reminder - Embiggen Books event

This is just a little reminder about the event at Embiggen Books, providing Freedom of Religion and the Secular State with its (first) launching, this coming Thursday evening.

If you live in Melbourne, and you haven't already booked, do consider coming along. I'm looking forward to speaking at it, and to meeting people, signing books, etc.

More rubbish about "shrill" atheists - this time in The Daily Mail

I am sick of this meme, but it won't go away. It seems that any forthright expression of atheism is going to be called "shrill", though the same will not apply to similarly forthright expressions of theism.

In the case of Richard Dawkins - really, he's a gentleman by the standards of debate on almost any other topic. At times he is passionate or mocking, but aren't we all when faced by manifest injustice, nastiness, or cruelty? In his book, The God Delusion, taken as a whole, he does indeed argue for the unpopular point of view that we should be emphasising the ways in which ordinary religion resembles delusion, rather than whatever ways they are distinguishable, but the general tone is very mild. At most, it is rather satirical (the paragraphs are laced with humour throughout - though there is also plenty of thoughtful discussion, with concessions and qualifications as needed).

In public appearances, Dawkins is usually gentle and tolerant - far more so than most people speaking on most subjects that they are passionate about. I've seen him go out of his way to be courteous to annoying and ignorant interlocutors.

As one of the commentators - "ben" - at the above link, says...
The religious zealots have adopted a very clever tactic, namely branding anyone who speaks out against religion as "strident", "shrill"or "angry" in attempt to plant the idea that atheists are persecuting them. The problem for them is that religion has had a free ride until recent years and any questioning of their superstitions is therefore seen as aggressive when in fact it is no more so than in any democratic debate. I for one do not intend to hold back because this is precisely what they want.
This is exactly right: there has been a largely successful attempt to hold atheists who actually argue publicly for atheism to a special standard. Anyone who does not meet it is thereupon demonised, or simply dismissed as "shrill", "strident", etc.

That's not to deny that there can be genuinely uncivil and over-the-top language from atheists. There can be, as from anyone else on any other topic. But it doesn't come from Richard Dawkins, and when we do see examples of it they are nothing compared to the sort of language that is used by people who are debating politics. With the Republican primaries going on in the US at the moment, that country is currently engaged in forthright political debate - and the level of incivility on all sides is at least as bad as I see from anyone debating the truth or falsity of religion.

Meanwhile, forthright Christians who want to argue publicly for the truth of their views manage to be at least as "shrill" as Dawkins. For example, I'm currently reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which I don't think I've previously read in its entirety and have not opened for decades. As usual with Lewis, his style varies between blunt, emotive, self-righteous, and downright snide (I'll bracket off how naive the actual arguments are). His approach gets a free pass in our culture, but if an atheist wrote in exactly the same way he or she would be roundly condemned.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Skepticlawyer makes some more observations (re #MTRsues)

If you don't follow her blog/read it regularly, you probably should. This is good stuff, as usual.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

More from Tim Dean on The Ethical Project

Okay, just for the moment, here are the links to Tim Dean's series of posts on Philip Kitcher's The Ethical Project: one; two; three; four; five.

I'll be back with a bit more to say about all this - though again, my own review of The Ethical Project is available online - so this post is a bit of a placeholder until I edit it.

Edit: I'm not actually going to add much to this post - rather, I'll add it to the growing list of things that I've promised to return to at some point. I do want to talk more about the functionalist account of morality, which I also subscribe to in a general way. I think that this view - which is represented in Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Kitcher's new book, Tim Dean's work, and many others - and has many predecessors going back at least as far as the Greek sophist Protagoras - is the way ahead. It involves examining how the phenomenon of morality (and with it specific moral norms) has contributed to social survival and social coordination. It tends to reveal that morality is not what it is commonly imagined to be, something objectively binding in the nature of things, but rather something that serves widely held desires (though it may sometimes misfire or even backfire).

There's much scope for researching this in more detail, trying to pin it down more precisely, and exploring its real-world implications. But whatever more I want to say about it can await another post, I think. Allow me, at this stage, just to commend the posts that I linked to. Some of the threads that resulted are also interesting. I noticed a familiar name or two.

I also think that the view has some problems that need to be examined carefully, such as a problem with the whole idea of "function" - that doesn't render it false, but it opens up areas where more work needs to be done.

Sunday supervillainy - Supervillainy is apparently a tricky thing

So it seems, if you go to this post at Scans Daily. I do like the supervillain team-up of Voltaire and the Marquis de Sog.

Some papal gobbledegook

I'm going to link to this papal address to the American bishops without any detailed comment - it's one of those "look at what we're up against" moments.

Suffice to say that the Vatican concept of freedom of religion is a very long way from the concept that I advocate, which is a two-way street that includes freedom from the religions that you don't subscribe to. When the Vatican talks about freedom of religion, it gives its own meaning to the expression, and its supposed support for "freedom of religion" may not mean what you think it means if you don't delve.

Disclosure. Deception. Duplicity. Defamation.

From my point of view, at least, we're having a good, constructive conversation about this over at Talking Philosophy ... arising from the #MTRsues controversy. Do feel free to join in. I'm not sure that we're going to reach any consensus, but we might at least get some more clarity on issues to do with what public figures should disclose about themselves, and, conversely, what it's legitimate for us to disclose about them and/or speculate about concerning them.

Steve Zara reviews Freedom of Religion and the Secular State

A favourable, but certainly not uncritical, review of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State has appeared on Steve Zara's very worthwhile blog, "Steve's Posterous".

Steve asks a good question: what would a truly secular and liberal state look like, since no existing state acts in quite the way I propose, and how do we get there from here. Perhaps he's right that another book could be written on this. Briefly, though, I do think that my own country, Australia gets it right most of the time, as do most of the other liberal democracies.

There are glaring exceptions where laws are made that cannot be justified on secular grounds or which move away from the liberal principles that I think a secular state should adopt. Thus, I am always railing about attacks on freedom of speech, and Steve is correct that I don't support sweeping bans on wearing the burqa publicly, as we now see in France (though I also don't support the idea that wearing the burqa is a positive right that should prevail over the secular interests of others in all situations - for the nuances of this, you'll need to read the book). The book contains numerous criticisms of specific laws and court cases where I think the wrong outcome was reached.

In some cases, our liberal democracies get a bit crazy, with quite draconian restrictions on the self-regarding behaviour of adults. Some of these cannot be justified on what I consider good secular grounds.

For the moment, though, it's important to notice that they get things about right the vast majority of the time. By getting things right, I don't mean that they produce the optimal policies. They don't. But they do tend to produce policies that I think are reasonably open to them to adopt through the democratic process. Or if not, the reasons that certain policies are not reasonably open to them will be something different from what I discuss in the book (e.g. some policies are simply harsh, counterproductive, poorly thought out, etc., though not in breach of the state's role of protecting and promoting worldly interests).

Part of the problem is that so many forces in society want to turn the governments of the liberal democracies away from the direction that they were travelling in through the twentieth century, with the result that we now find ourselves in something of a culture war. It's worth going back to first principles to look at the justification for secularism in the sense of a separation between the functions carried out by the state and those carried out by religious organisations, and to look at what else might follow from those first principles. That's not, by itself, going to get us "there" from "here", but talking about what we are trying to achieve and why is a good start.

Still, there's (even) more to be said about this. One area that does, perhaps, deserves exploration in the future, if the main arguments of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State are about right, is the relationship between legitimate policies (in the sense that they are not based on otherworldly considerations ... and perhaps in the sense that they conform to liberal principles such as freedom of speech) and the best policies (which is going to require a much more complex value judgment). Secular governments may legitimately adopt very different policies on, say, economic management or the funding of education and healthcare, and some of these policies - judged on other criteria - are going to be a lot better than others.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Website update

With (a lot of) help from Jenny (who is better at these things than I am and ended up doing most of the work - thanks, mate!), I have updated my website ... which had been languishing. There's actually some more to go into getting things like bibliographies up to date, and I'll be putting some effort into that, but it provides a much better picture, now, of where I'm at in my life at the moment and what I've been up to.

It's also a cleaner, simpler, clearer design. Hopefully it will now be more useful to people looking for information about me in one place.

A temple for atheists

On the face of it, this seems like a crazy idea to me. Atheism isn't a belief system in itself, and atheists should not be acting as if it is by mimicking the trappings of religion. I suppose I should read Alain de Botton's new book, when it is finally published (it's getting a helluva lot of advance publicity), but what I'm reading about it so far doesn't sound useful or plausible.

Pity - I quite liked some of his earlier work. But this seems like he's going off on a frolic of his own.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ecklund on Singer

One of the more annoying passages in Science vs. Religion by Elaine Howard Ecklund presents the view of one scientist that universities are turning off the general public by funding meretricious and alienating pseudo-scholarship. Ecklund presents this at such length, and in such a context, that the irresistible conclusion is that she endorses this scientist's views, or is at least sympathetic to them.

What this shows me is that neither the scientist nor Ecklund properly understands what universities are all about. An important component of the role of universities is the creation of a space where what seem like commonsense ideas - handed down through socialisation and tradition - can be held up to the light and challenged. One thing that we want from academics, especially in fields such as philosophy, is the capacity and courage to attack popular ideas, including popular ideas of morality. This kind of intellectual critique, which may involve the development of unpopular critiques of how ordinary people think, is one way that we make progress as a society.

Accommodationist thinkers in the style of Ecklund or, say, Chris Mooney, want to reverse this. The idea is to market a product, such as science, by showing how it is safe for people to consume without it challenging their existing worldviews (which may be based on religion or traditional morality). People with various existing worldviews are taken as demographics, and the idea is to market science to them.

But science and scholarship are dangerous - not necessarily in the sense of creating physical risks, but in the sense that they can lead to ideas that undermine received wisdom. Universities are places where dangerous ideas, in this sense, are created, refined, and tested in debate. To suggest otherwise, and adopt the marketing strategy favoured by accommodationists, is profoundly ignorant and anti-intellectual.

The example given by the scientist in Ecklund's passage is Peter Singer:
Mentioning perhaps Singer's most extreme view, he said that Singer has "been saying infanticide is acceptable under some circumstances. I mean maybe an academic can justify that, because he can write that in a fancy paragraph. But to any level-headed human being, it doesn't matter what kind of paragraph you write. It's simply wrong and that's the end of it."
I have to laugh at an academic, of all people, complaining about someone writing "a fancy paragraph" - I wonder what someone who thinks in such an anti-intellectual way is even doing in the academy.

But setting that aside ... there goes the entire sub-discipline of moral philosophy. If we are not allowed to challenge what "any level-headed human being" supposedly knows, we might as well go out of business. Ecklund doesn't even notice what a stupid understanding of the role of universities this scientist has, which makes me wonder about her own understanding of it. Does Ecklund "get" academia at all?

I have a radio interview...

... in a couple of hours - with this organisation, Think Atheist. I'm not sure where you have to live to receive this broadcast, but if anyone has a chance to listen in, well, please do so.

Edit (now that the interview is over): I gather this wasn't actually live to air. Anyway, it'll be on their site and I'll provide the link at a later stage. We spoke for nearly an hour, and I understand that we'll end up with a version slightly edited down to about 45 minutes.

Emrys Westacott on the philosophy of everyday living

This interview at The Browser may be of interest - philosopher Emrys Westacott chooses and discusses five books that relate to how we should live our lives.

His choices are not works of analytic philosophy (they consist of a book about the Stoics, a classic English novel, a work of academic psychology and one of anthropology, and Niezsche's The Gay Science), but they are interesting suggestions, and he discusses them engagingly. I have no idea what his own book, The Virtues of Our Vices, is like. If it's written like this, it might be worth a look - but make up your own mind about that if you read the interview.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The secular state has no mandate to enforce religious morality

Or to enforce any all-things-considered moral system. It has a more limited remit than that.

The piece linked to was discussed in a radio conversation between Scott Stephens and Waleed Aly earlier this evening (the topic apparently related to the role of the state in enforcing morality, or something along those lines). I haven't yet had a chance to listen to it, but I expect it will soon be available on the Radio National website.

I hear that it was pretty favourable publicity. Considering both broadcasters are religious believers, that's heartening and interesting. Did anyone else manage to catch it on the Drive program on Radio National?

Another obtuse article gets published about #MTRsues

In The Sydney Morning Herald we see an article by Cathy Sherry, an academic from the University of New Wales, writing in defence of Melinda Tankard Reist.

By now, I am sick of this issue - much as it has raised many interesting questions that need more debate. There are other things that I'd rather be posting about, but I can't forebear commenting on this particular piece, as it so totally wrongheaded and dangerous. You'd think, to read it, that Melinda Tankard Reist was the one being bullied and silenced.

In fact, she is by far the more powerful person in the dispute she is having with Jennifer Wilson. One is a public figure with enormous political and media support behind her and easy access to the mainstream media. The other - i.e. Wilson - is a relatively unknown blogger and occasional writer of online op.ed pieces. If this is a David and Goliath situation, Melinda Tankard Reist is no Daniel, and Wilson is far from looking like Goliath.

And let's not forget that Tankard Reist is the one who invoked defamation law to try to control what her opponent can say. There are many other ways she could have handled things. These included simply ignoring the obscure blog post that she objected to. Alternatively, she could have used her ample access to the media to reply to Wilson's views on their merits ... or she could have allowed her various cronies to do so.

There's not much doubt who is the bully in this case, and who is the underdog being bullied. Nor is there much doubt that people like Cathy Sherry enable bullying by rushing to the defence of the bully (it's remarkable how often this happens!). Sherry doesn't even mention that the dispute blew up in public when Tankard Reist's lawyers sent Wilson a letter of demand, with a threat of a defamation action, over content that their client objected to on Wilson's blog.

Perhaps I could find something to agree with in Sherry's article if it were not so fundamentally wrong about the key issues and the power differential that's involved. Yes ... I, too, don't like orthodoxies. I, too, dislike debate that takes the form of crude personal attacks (I'm sure that Tankard Reist has received some of these, but of course so has Wilson). There are interesting discussions to be had about how people should conduct themselves in public debate. But sending a letter of demand with a threat of suing for defamation is, at best, a heavyhanded response, and the kind of thing that we should avoid. Except in extreme situations, the civil courts are not the place to settle such disputes between people taking part in public debate on matters of government policy.

It doesn't look like this issue is going away any time soon. I wish Tankard Reist would simply withdraw any threat of taking legal action, and the immediate issue would be resolved. But there's no sign, at the moment, of any such resolution. I guess we must stay tuned and be prepared to help Wilson if we can, should the legal side of it proceed that far.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think - on the Galileo affair

I'm currently reading this volume by Elaine Howard Ecklund. It's not quite what I expected, in that it's much more upfront than I thought it would be about the fact that scientists in the US are more likely - far more likely - than the general population to be atheists, not to be religious or spiritual in orientation, etc.

Ecklund is candid about that much, and indeed emphasises it repeatedly, but she wants to argue that scientists should be more publicly supportive of religion. Scientists who are believers should communicate more about why they find religion and science compatible. Those who are non-believers should learn more about religious systems and speak of them with respect. Or so she seems to think.

In any event, there are many individual things in the book that are getting my hackles up. Here is just one:
Many of the scientists I talked with gave Galileo's torture at the hands of the Inquisition as a central piece of evidence that religion and science are in entrenched conflict. But really, Galileo was never tortured; that's a myth. Misconceptions about religion and science abound.
Oh come off it! This is extraordinary. It's well known that Galileo was not physically tortured, but only threatened with torture - and perhaps shown the actual torture instruments. That was enough to get him to recant.

Perhaps the scientists whom she spoke to were a bit hazy on this point, but so what? Does Ecklund really think that the Inquisition was not prepared to go through with its threat to torture Galileo if he had held out further with his insistence on the truth of the heliocentric theory? If so, where is her evidence that showing him the torture instruments was merely a bluff or a sham?

And how is the Inquisition less culpable if it was merely prepared to torture Galileo - but did not actually need to do so to obtain a recantation from him? Indeed, if we are going to be technical, is it really so clear that threatening a prisoner with these fiendish instruments of pain ... is not a form of torture in itself? Even if, as is widely believed by historians, he was actually shown them to make the point? Even if you don't classify this as torture, exactly, it seems pretty damn coercive, doesn't it?

If physically torturing Galileo would stand as evidence of entrenched conflict between science and religion, how does "merely" threatening to do so, and apparently being prepared to do so, not provide similarly strong evidence? And how is similarly strong evidence not provided by the fact that Galileo was effectively gagged from speaking any more about heliocentrism, was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life, and had all his scientific works works banned from publication? Are we supposed to ignore the whole dreadful sequence of events merely because Galileo was never actually physically tortured?

Even if it is argued that the Inquisition showed some mercy to Galileo - yes, mercy by its atrocious standards - how does its behaviour in bullying him, suppressing his speech, threatening him with torture, placing him under permanent house arrest, and continuing to suppress his views not attract Ecklund's condemnation?

She dismisses the story - in its distorted "Galileo was tortured" form - as a myth, but does not tell us what really happened. To be fair, she does have an endnote in which she mentions a book chapter by Maurice A. Finocchiaro, and in the same endnote she quotes at length from Arthur Koestler's tendentious and downright nasty discussion of Galileo in The Sleepwalkers. However, she provides nothing further in the main text. The quote from Koestler provides no detail at all about the Galileo affair, but merely makes fun of a mythologised portrait of Galileo that some people may or may not believe in (the total narrative is evidently Koestler's synthesis).

Nor does Ecklund tell us how the Inquisitors' actions merit anything other than the severest censure, or how the actual events are any less evidence of a rift between science and religion than if the torture instruments had been physically applied to the scientist's fragile human body.

Really, this is deplorable. It never ceases to amaze me how religious apologists and accommodationists can just blow off atrocious actions by the Church as if they are insignificant. Ecklund's handling of the issue could not be much more intellectually and morally obtuse.

Perhaps there is something to be said as to why the Galileo affair, by itself, is indecisive in the case for an incompatibility between religion and science. In this particular post, I don't even want to get into that, one way or the other. But whatever we should ultimately say about the Galileo affair, it is not conveyed in the callous whitewash that Ecklund has offered for our non-edification.

One Law for All organises day of action for freedom of expression

You might like to sign on to this endorsements page (I am one of the original endorsers).

Freedom of speech and expression - especially, but not solely, the freedom to criticise and satirise religion - is under constant, ongoing attack. We need to say, "Enough is enough!" and push back against it. Signing this page is one small thing you can do.

(It hardly needs repeating, does it, that I have a long chapter on this very issue in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, complete with discussion of "Islamophobia", etc.)

Skepticlawyer on the limits and purposes of the law

This post by Skepticlawyer should be compulsory reading! Note that it is not about the issue of defamation law and its abuse, which I still consider the most urgent issue raised by the particular dispute.

Nor is it about the question of how much we are under some kind of obligation to reveal our comprehensive views of the world when we engage in debate on matters of public policy - which, in my opinion, breaks up into further issues about how much we are obliged to do this in an ideal world, and how far we are obliged to do it in various situations that arise in the messy real world where influence on public policy so often depends on emotion, public image, appeals to lobbies, etc.

Rather, the post is a valuable contribution to underlying issues about the purposes and limits of the law, and how these relate to the substantive questions in dispute between Melinda Tankard Reist and her opponents.

There's a lot to think about, and I'm not sure whether I agree with it all. That's not because there's anything that I especially disagree with, but only because I need to digest some of the distinctions made, the way Skepticlawyer makes them. But in any event, there is some great stuff in her post. She hammers the point that if you want to enact a law in order to produce some utilitarian benefit, such as reducing some widely experienced harm, you need to do a lot better than arguing that you dislike whatever the practice is that you want banned or regulated, or even that you find it harmful in some sense, or that some other people do.

Assuming the conduct you are targeting is not directly harmful conduct that has a clear victim - someone who is not consenting to it and may be resisting it if they have the opportunity and ability - you'd better do some actual research. You need to show not only what harm the practice does, but also that the best way to obviate the harm will be through enacting a legal ban - and that the net effect of a legal ban will not be even worse than leaving things alone!

For example, Skepticlawyer suggests that the actual research to date tends to show that beauty pageants for small children, at least the way they are currently run, do harm to the children involved. And we might add more explicitly that state paternalism towards actual children is a lot more appropriate than state paternalism towards adults or even more mature children and teenagers. So, an empirically-based case can be developed to support banning these pageants, or at least regulating them to an extent where they would have to take some very different form (and may lose whatever characteristics made them attractive to parents in the first place ... don't ask me what those characteristics are, as it's mysterious to me). Perhaps there's a good case for legal intervention here.

At the other end of the scale, consider someone who wants to ban abortion on the ground that it ends up harming (causing grief, psychological trauma, etc., to) the women who choose to have abortions. This is going to be much more difficult. Sure, you can find women who regret having abortions, just as you can find people of both sexes who regret doing all sorts of things. But you're going to have to do a helluva lot better than that if you want to make out this sort of paternalistic argument for banning or heavily regulating abortions. Among other things, you need to be confident (which means you need to do some research) that banning abortion won't produce harms of its own and perhaps make things worse.

As it happens, anti-abortion advocates often claim that abortion leads to "post-abortion syndrome" - a state of mind involving depression and feelings of loss - but there has already been a fair bit of research on how women actually feel after having abortions. Some do feel guilt (but surely this is a self-serving argument, given the source of some of that guilt in social condemnation!), but the most common feelings involve such things as relief. The "post-abortion syndrome" meme is best seen as a form of scaremongering and bullying.

More generally, these words from Skepticlawyer are worth taking to heart - I'll quote her at length:
When campaigners think there oughtta be a law, how do they go about it?

Very often, by not thinking very hard. This sounds cruel to Melinda Tankard Reist, but is not meant to be, for the thoughtlessness afflicts activists across the political spectrum. As someone with wonkish interests and experience, the process of campaigning seems to go like this:

1. An intuitive sense that a given activity is bad, for a variety of inchoate and unclear reasons. It is at this point — although much philosophy depends on intuitions — that the stupidity usually kicks in, becoming like a mistake made in the first two lines of a complex algebra equation: magnified, typically, at every step. When the hypothesis is poorly formed, then observations enlisted in its support can be seriously awry.

The intuition problem stems in part from a failure to appreciate that other people may not react to the activity in question in the same way, with the campaigner having great difficulty imagining him or herself into someone else’s head. When it comes to the objectification of adult women, for example (one of Wilson’s ‘categories’), we may be dealing with normal statistical differences both between men and women, and also statistical variation within the set, ‘women’. Many women dislike male attention, being ogled, say, or chatted up. They dislike porn and find it degrading of women. By contrast, many women like and want male attention. They have no problem with porn. There are also intermediate positions between the two.

The campaigner’s response, of course, is the one Wilson has already flagged: to argue that women who like porn or pole-dancing or whatever are victims of a form of false consciousness: that is, they are unable to see things, especially exploitation, oppression, and social relations, as they really are. It should be very obvious that this is an enormous claim, for embedded within it is one express argument: the pole-dancing and porn-loving woman’s mind is (a) unable to produce a sophisticated awareness of how it is developed and shaped by circumstances; and one implied argument (b) that the campaigner knows better than the pole-dancing, porn loving woman, and should decide for her. That’s where the law comes in, of course.

2. Realising that ‘I don’t like being objectified, so there ought to be a law against it’ won’t cut the mustard with policymakers, advertisers, politicians, business and legal drafters, the campaigner goes looking for a link between objectification and other harms.

This is the stage where the great bulk of the research cited by participants on all sides of this debate is at right now. The evidence points in fifty different directions. Much of it is very bad. Some of it has clearly been written by people who need desperately to read a statistics textbook. Tankard Reist’s book on grief after abortion, for example, is based on only 18 case studies. N=18, ladies and gentlemen or, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’. Others have no causality tests, or lack controls, or no regression analysis.

You are regressing…

Regression works by artificially holding constant every variable except the two the researcher wants to focus on, and then showing how those two co-vary.

Imagine you have 10,000 girls, 5,000 of whom have participated in child beauty pageants and 5,000 who haven’t. You want to see if there’s any meaningful difference between the two groups — in say, school test scores, or ability to delay gratification (the famous ‘marshmellow test‘), and whether any difference (there may not be one) is attributable to participation in child beauty pageants for the first 5,000. Regression analysis converts each of those 10,000 children into a circuit board with an identical number of switches. Each switch represents a single category of the child’s data: her year one maths score, her year-three reading score, her mother’s education level, her father’s income, whether she comes from an intact family, the relevant affluence of her suburb, and so on. The statistician lines up all the children who share many characteristics–all the circuit boards that have their switches flipped in the same direction–and then pinpoints the single characteristic they don’t share. This is how the effect of that switch and, eventually, of every switch, becomes clear.

Be careful with that Leviathan, Citizens!

This, as you may appreciate, is a long, slow process. Many activists don’t have the patience. So they revert to item 1, and spend a great deal of time arguing that their choices are better than other people’s while getting entangled in complex debates over freedom of expression. If they catch the ear of lawmakers, of course, they may even get their much desired law.

And if the law is bad enough, we, the people, all suffer — likely from both crimes and laws.
Indeed! And we need to talk more about these issues. What justifies our attempts to control people's behaviour through the coercive power of the law and the state? The test will be much harder to meet than many lobbyists are prepared to concede.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Tim Dean on Kitcher's The Ethical Project

Without offering you a lot of commentary at this stage, I present you Tim Dean's review (actually the first of two parts) of Philip Kitcher's The Ethical Project.

You can (once again) find my own review here if you want to compare notes.

I do agree that the pragmatic/functionalist approach to morality is the way to go, although one point that I'd want to make about this is that J.L. Mackie made the same points pretty strongly in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (without, however, Kitcher's elaborate conjectures about evolutionary and cultural history). I suppose my other point is just that I wonder how this relates to moral semantics. I agree with Kitcher that morality can be seen as something we invented (with a bit of help from our prior evolution) to serve what can be loosely regarded as a function (there's a lot to say about the "loosely regarded" bit). This may be the most fruitful way to see morality, and it may be at least approximately right as an account of how morality actually came to be.

But the implication seems to be that moral norms are norms that they historically served the function and are now socially entrenched. Even if some moral statements are true in some sense (on a pragmatic conception of truth), they may not be true in the sense that the folk imagine they are, and if the folk are taken as asserting their truth in a sense in which they are not true ... well that's interesting, is it not? Error theory keeps lurking around, it seems to me, unless we are going to offer some very fancy moral semantics. I'd have liked to have seen Kitcher address this, and more generally to have addressed Mackie's views - and to have offered a bit more in the way of moral semantics. Given the considerable strengths of The Ethical Project this might have been a helpful and fruitful tack.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday supervillainy - Save Louie the Fly!

Oh noes! Mortein is threatening to kill Louie the Fly once and for all, and as part of its evil, unscrupulous ... um, beware of defamation actions ... capitalist promotional activities is demanding that you vote to save his life.

Louie the Fly is, perhaps, not a supervillain, strictly speaking, but he's an Australian icon. This can't be allowed to happen!

The GetUp survey

I imagine that many of my readers in Australia are members of GetUp, in which case they will have written to you about their current survey. That survey gives you a chance to nominate issues of your own that you'd like to see them focus on, apart from their list that they ask you to prioritise.

If you "do" the survey, please consider proposing something about the defence of freedom of speech. Your concern might be the power of defamation law to chill public debate, or the vulnerability of the arts and the media to censorship on a whole range of bases, or some other aspect. You may be especially worried about the new online media and the free speech of bloggers.

Whatever your specific concerns might be, I do respectfully ask that you keep free speech issues in mind as you fill in the survey form - and pass this on to others.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Cheers for Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi

Authors Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi read some passages from 'The Satanic Verses' on the first day of the festival, after Salman Rushdie pulled out of the event citing death threats.

What I hadn't realised - though it makes sense - is that The Satanic Verses is currently banned in India. Shame on India. How can it pretend to be a liberal democracy when it fails, in such a flagrant way, to protect freedom of speech? Shame on the organisers of the conference for (apparently) halting the readings. Shame on the parliamentarians in India who have protested at the readings and called for arrests of the readers.

This whole episode is yet another disgraceful example of bullying to shut people up. We need to protest against these events at every possible level. Add your voice however you can.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Lawrence Krauss does a guest blog post for Readings

This is the first, I believe, in a series of guest blog posts that Readings are doing in connection with the forthcoming Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. It is basically about Krauss's new book, A Universe From Nothing.

More on Jennifer Wilson's substantive views

Wilson says this:
Tankard Reist is a Baptist. Their belief system includes the second coming of Christ, end times, evangelism, and the belief most relevant to this post and a central tenet of the Baptist faith: the Virgin Birth.

Tankard Reist believes that the woman chosen to bring the boy god Jesus into the world was a virgin. Mary did not conceive the baby Jesus through sexual intercourse. The boy god required a fresh, unsullied virgin to inhabit throughout his gestation.

Why? Because the followers of the doctrine of the virgin birth believe that sex filthies the human female, and renders her impure. The inherent impurity of female sexuality can be tempered by the sacrament of Christian marriage, wherein sex is a means of reproduction, and offers relief for the male. It is better to marry than to burn, advised St Paul, demonstrating how little he thought of female sexuality.

The boy god needed a pure vessel, unfilthied by sexual experience. In this sense Mary was the most famous objectified woman in the history of the world, for to dehumanize a woman to the extent that you perceive her sexuality as filthy is objectifying indeed.

The Virgin Mary was in fact co-opted as a dehumanized life support system for a foetus.

It is from this fundamental position that Melinda Tankard Reist advises women and girls on sexual matters.
Again, why not debate this rather than threatening to sue? If Tankard Reist is not a Baptist, then she can simply say so, perhaps with some plausible corroborating detail about where she does stand theologically. It doesn't have to be a lot of detail, just enough to deal with the general issue.

In my opinion, the issue of whether or not she is, specifically, a Baptist is something of a red herring. In my experience of Baptists (which is considerable), they vary quite a bit in their theological positions, and they don't actually put a huge emphasis on the doctrine of the Virgin Birth (though they do formally subscribe to it). It's more a Catholic thing to put a huge emphasis on the Virgin Birth, the importance of Mary as an iconic figure, and the great moral significance of chastity and purity.

That said, conservative Christianity in general does tend to be permeated by ancient ideas of the shamefulness of sex and the body. Those ideas can be found in the writings of St. Paul, Augustine (in particular), and (to a lesser extent) Aquinas, and they go very deep in Christian approaches to sexuality and gender roles. That's the point that Wilson really needed to make, and it is really, in essence, what she is relying on.

Tankard Reist's best reply is to explain at least something about her theological position, to assert clearly that her social and political views are not, in fact, influenced by theological ideas of the shamefulness of sex and the body, and to try to show how those views can be justified in entirely secular terms.

Of course, we might be sceptical about this, even if she said it - after all, her overall set of concerns and policy views is very typical of a theologically conservative Christian, and ideas of sex and the body being shameful can be picked up unconsciously. They are deeply embedded in our moral traditions and are continually reproduced in numerous ways.

But there are ways that Tankard Reist could debate all this without having to spell out the entirety of her theological position (I agree that this would be burdensome and unnecessary).

As I said in a comment just now, on another post, the one thing she should not be doing is threatening to sue opponents for defamation. At least, not over something like this.

Another post about #MTRsues

This post at Black Dog asks where the money is coming from - how does Melinda Tankard Reist finance her activities, including getting an expensive lawyer to write to a critic and threaten her with legal proceedings? Who is backing her? What financial interests does she have in all this, beyond whatever she is paid for her books and articles?

These are pretty good questions. Unfortunately, with an issue like this some things get a bit murky. At one level, I don't care about Tankard Reist's theological views. As long as she puts purely secular arguments about alleged harms to women and children, it might even be said that she's doing the right thing. I.e., the electorate and the legislators can consider those arguments (and the counter arguments) on their merits, and, at one level, everyone is happy. The political system is operating on the basis of secular considerations, and all's right with the world.

In practice, of course, it gets murkier. Some of the arguments are only going to make sense on the basis of moral attitudes that are entangled with religion, we're going to find people who are swayed for religious reasons in any event, and as I said the other day high-profile activists like Tankard Reist do not merely put the secular arguments in a detached way - they appeal to emotion, attempt to cultivate a certain attractive public image, and so on. So inevitably, people are going to ask whether her viewpoint makes sense on a purely secular basis, whether she is actually biased by theological considerations, how sincere she is, whether her conclusions fit into some larger agenda, and on and on.

That's not really how I'd like it to operate in an ideal world. If Tankard Reist were merely writing books and academic articles, I wouldn't see much merit in probing beneath the surface of her alleged facts and the arguments that she uses. We don't all have to disclose a whole lot of personal background every time we put an intellectual argument.

But in the murky world in which we live, interrogating the ideological backgrounds and worldviews of outspoken, high-profile public figures is a fact of life, and is often necessary. I can even see how Tankard Reist might think that it's unfair, if she genuinely believes that she's been confining herself to secular arguments - I can't say how far she actually has done that, because I'm not very familiar with her work, and I certainly don't know what she subjectively thinks.

But what I do know is that she crossed an important line when she threatened to sue an opponent for speech that is pretty normal in public debate in the world that we actually live in. Even if - per impossibile - I agreed with her on everything else, I could not agree to that line being crossed. At this point, freedom of speech issues come into play.

If Tankard Reist is offended, or thinks she's being treated unfairly, because she thinks she's used nothing but secular arguments ... or whatever ... well, let her make her point and try to substantiate it. After all, she has no problem getting a public platform.

Admittedly, responding in that way to a relatively obscure blogger like Jennifer Wilson might have been counterproductive. But there you go - sometimes it's better to hold your peace if you're not really taking damage.

Tankard Reist now has the worst of both worlds - she's seen as an opponent of free speech, someone who is prepared to use the law to shut up a critic. At the same time, she's given the critic a much higher profile than she had to begin with (before this week, I for one hadn't heard of Jennifer Wilson). And she's drawn attention to the possibility that she might have strong biases, that her analyses might be distorted as a result, that there is now additional reason to scrutinise them, that they (and she) may suddenly look different when various dots are connected, and so on.

All in all, it wasn't a smart move. She should withdraw the threat to sue, and move on.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


You might like to sign this petition about the #MTRsues issue.

OTOH, you might not. I did, in this case, but I expressed a reservation in my comment.

I've discussed before - though I'm too lazy to dig it out - my frequent discomfort about petitions, manifestoes, etc., which often contain more points than I think are strictly necessary, and often contain specific points that I don't entirely agree with or am not sure about, and which go beyond whatever has me signing the petition in the first place.

In this case, the main point is that intimidatory use of defamation law to stifle debate on matters of public interest is a Bad Thing. A Very Bad Thing. It's not necessary to go further and say whether defamation law should itself be reformed (and the petition doesn't talk about that) or whether public figures should or should not come clean about their religious views (the petition does get into that, but I don't see it as necessary ... and my views as to what disclosures people should make would probably be both complicated and tentative).

Whether or not a public figure has come clean about her religious views, someone who joins the dots and makes comment should not be vulnerable to a defamation action. In the case of Ms Tankard Reist, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that her particular parcel of issues and views looks like those of someone who has been influenced by conservative Christian theology of some kind. Whatever her theological position may actually be, that's how it looks from here.

Anyway, if you agree with it, or agree with it in substance, do by all means sign the petition.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jennifer Wilson's substantive views

For a moment, forget any allegations that Jennifer Wilson has made about Melinda Tankard Reist's religious background, etc., etc., and whether or not the latter has been evasive about it.

Wilson's substantive views, in opposition to those of Tankard Reist, are also worth considering and discussing, so let's pass some of them on for consideration and discussion:
While I don’t like seeing little girls dressed as sexy adults anymore than MTR, what concerns me is that in campaigning as she does against the “sexualisation” and “pornification” of women she’s preaching her religion’s belief that there is something inherently wrong with female sexual expression.

I am also suspicious of her conflation of girls and women, when the two situations are entirely different and should be treated as such. Exploiting the sexuality of children (and children are sexual beings) is a whole other matter from the so-called epidemic of “sexualisation” and “pornification” of adults. I would like to see a journalist question Tankard Reist on her persistent conflation of the two. I believe it is deliberate.

We are sexual beings. Many of us, male and female, like to express our sexuality. It’s a big part of our identity. The ways in which we’ve chosen to do this have varied according to the style of the time. The ways some of us choose to do it in 2012 are, I would argue, no more or less scandalous than at other periods of human history. Yet a new sexual dysfunction called “sexualization” has entered the social discourse, driven initially in this country by Tankard Reist. She then gathered around her a motley crew of radical feminists and middle class moralists who tacitly ignore their considerable differences in the interests of the greater goal of fighting the twin evils they claim are destroying our society: sexualization and pornification.

I am unaware how many of her supporters are religious, but I would argue that they have in common an inclination towards zealotry, and an ethic of purity, both of which are to be found in non believers.

Are Tankard Reist and her supporters in reality pathologizing all expressions of female sexuality? Genuine sexualization we may well get upset about, as a particular form of dehumanization, but are they using that word to obliterate the perfectly normal concept of female sexiness?

Does Tankard Reist believe that being sexy and feeling sexy is pathological behaviour outside of the marital bedchamber? And why does nobody ask her this question?

“Sexualization” and “pornification” are done to women, according to Reist. Women don’t choose to dress, work and play in ways that fit these pathological categories. They’ve been forced into them by men for male gratification. If you think you choose to wear high heels and a short skirt and learn pole dancing, you’re wrong. The patriarchy made you do it. If you think you like to show off your legs and breasts because it feels like sexy fun to do that, you didn’t make that choice, you know. You are actually so brainwashed that the whole concept of choice passed you by long ago. You are a victim.

If you want to look sexy because you’d like to have sex, if you earn your living as a sex worker or perform in porn, in short, if you express your sexuality in any way at all outside of marriage, you are dysfunctional, immoral or both.

Somebody needs to ask Tankard Reist just what she considers an acceptable public expression of female sexuality. I suspect the reality is, she doesn’t have one. For religious fundamentalists, there is no such thing. A woman must be modest and pure, but definitely not sexy and enjoying it.

What kind of a lesson is this to teach our girls about their sexuality?

Having thus far failed to take control of the sexy and eradicate it’s [sic] expression through the invocation of morality, defining it as a pathological disorder is the next step in the reactionary battle for control of female sexuality.
This is worth thinking about in its own right. And there's more! The post that Ms Tankard Reist took exception to has many interesting observations that are worth airing, considering, discussing, debating, etc. Even if you disagree with them, they are timely - and should not be suppressed in any way.

Edit: link corrected.

The world has far too much morality

Quote from Steven Pinker (p. 622 of The Better Angels of Our Nature): "The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest. The human moral sense can excuse any atrocity in the minds of those who commit it, and it furnishes them with motives for acts of violence that bring them no tangible benefit. The torture of heretics and conversos, the burning of witches, the imprisonment of homosexuals, and the honor of killing unchaste sisters and daughters are just a few examples. The incalculable suffering that has been visited upon the world by people motivated by a moral cause is enough to make one sympathize with comedian George Carlin when he said, "I think motivation is overrated. You show me some lazy prick who's lying around all day watching game shows and stroking his penis, and I'll show you someone who's not causing any fucking trouble!'"

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Jennifer Wilson offers more thoughts on being sued

She offers them here. What all this is showing is how defamation law can be used to chill legitimate debate on matters of public interest. This is an atrocious situation that is out of whack with liberal/democratic values.

At the moment, ordinary people who are sued by others who are wealthier and more powerful can easily be driven into financial ruin - such is the cost of defending a defamation claim.

It's time for a thorough and decisive overhaul of our defamation laws to deter these sorts of actions - not just to rationalise them between states. We need a community campaign for freedom of speech, with the aim of paring back the multitude of laws that restrict what we can say to the very minimum of what is needed to protect people from the social death of serious damage to reputation (such as being falsely accused of pedophilia) or very serious embarrassment (as when the media snoop into your bedroom).

Criticising the motivations of public figures, or calling on them to be more candid about their motivations, should not be actionable. If you're a public figure, you should be open to criticism of that kind. It comes with the territory, and it should be put beyond doubt that this sort of thing is legally acceptable.

Pass it on.

Again, there may need to be some sort of community mobilisation to raise money for Wilson's legal costs if she defends the action. We'll wait and see. I'm not flush with loot, but if push comes to shove I'll give at least something. Further, if I can help in some other way, by giving some time and effort to her gratis, I'll do that.

You might like to start thinking about what you could do.

The attacks on freedom of speech have to stop. It's time to draw a line in the sand over this. This could be Australia's equivalent of the Simon Singh case.

Freedom of Religion and the Secular State now published

I say just a leetle bit more about it over here at Talking Philosophy.

Michael Brull on abuse of defamation law

Michael Brull has an interesting post over at The Drum, in which he criticises the abuse of defamation law and calls for law reform. He concludes (and I certainly agree with this bit):
However, whilst the law remains as it is, there is also the weapon of public opinion. We should regard with scorn any public commentator who wishes to shield him or herself from public criticism. A journalist – or editor of a media outlet – who wishes to criticise others, and advocate controversial political views – but wishes to prevent others from speaking back – deserves derision and mockery. Such behaviour, in my view, is utterly unacceptable bullying. Australians have to start defending the rights of people to disagree with each other, and to say things that other people don't like.

Leslie Cannold on disclosure

A timely article by Leslie Cannold. It's something to reflect on as Melinda Tankard Reist seems to be doing her best to avoid discussion of her religious background and motivations in campaigning against pornography, abortion, etc. How far are we obligated (in some sense or other) to reveal our background worldviews when taking part in public debate on these heavily-moralised issues? Should a public figure who is deeply involved in such debates, and who attempts to hide her religious views be seen as evasive, duplicitous, or some such thing?

There's an argument, of course, that arguments on these issues should simply stand or fall on their merits. I see some attraction in this, especially if we're talking about papers in, say, academic journals. But in practice, political debate is rather different - isn't it? Public figures involved in these debates typically attempt to persuade through creation of an attractive public image. What if that image is disconnected from what might reasonably and responsibility be taken to be their true motivations?

Personally, I don't want to have to dredge out my full motivations every time I talk on public issues. Then again, I don't cultivate a cuddly public image. You pretty much get me warts and all, though what you don't tend to get is a lot of blather about my personal life experience (as opposed to my view of the world).

Furthermore, if someone who has read what I have to say about a variety of subjects wants to join the dots - even if they get it wrong - I'm most unlikely to sue them for defamation. And this is from someone who is far less a public figure than Ms Tankard Reist.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sunday, January 15, 2012

More from No Place for Sheep

An update and comment from No Place for Sheep on Reist Tankard's legal threats, etc.

I get scam mail

Some of these "Nigerian scams" are hilarious. Does anyone ever fall for them?
Head, Planning, Research and
Review Department of ICPC.

Dear Sir/Madam.

This is to inform you that the united state government authority (USA) in collaboration with the Nigerian government and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been alleged to monitor all transaction. I am here by instructing you to stop whatever transactions you are having in regards of your fund.

This information is reaching you because from our investigation we discovered you have been involved in a transaction with an internet fraudster. Note we have deposited a check of Eight hundred thousand dollars through the appointed bank for easy transfer of your fund, (Barclays Bank London or Citi Bank of London) will remit this to you as soon as possible with the sum of Eight hundred thousand dollars (US$800,000.00) for your compensation to avoid giving our country bad name.

All that is required from you is to send your current home address, your full name and your phone number for effective communication.

Hon. Jerry Ego.
Head, Planning, Research and
Review Department of ICPC.

Skepticlawyer on Melinda Tankard Reist's legal threat

A long and useful post by Skepticlawyer.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Melinda Tankard Reist threatens to sue No Place for Sheep

The Christian anti-porn campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist has apparently threatened a defamation action or something of the kind against the blog No Place for Sheep (NPS).

NPS is the blog of Jennifer Wilson, an Australian academic, psychotherapist, and writer. It suggests that Ms Tankard Reist's threat relates to true claims that she is a Baptist who attends the church in Belconnen - what this really amounts to, I think, is that the blog suggests she is motivated in her anti-porn campaign by her adherence to a conservative Christian belief system.

There may be more to it than that. I don't claim to have researched all the claims made by the blog about Ms Tankard Reist. Perhaps some genuinely defamatory imputation can be found there somewhere ... or not.

In any event, she is a public figure and a forthright campaigner for her cause, one who makes plenty of robust statements of her own (I'm wording this carefully, as I'm not especially interested in being slapped with a letter of demand or a defamation suit myself).

I submit that legal threats by public figures that attempt to silence opponents' speech about matters relating to social and political policy are abusive of the court system. We need to reform defamation law to make it much harder for this kind of chilling action to take place. I suggest that it should be easier for courts to strike out intimidatory and facially unmeritorious claims by public figures at a very early stage - and that in such cases legal costs should automatically be assessed against the plaintiff on an indemnity basis. That would provide some real disincentive to one class of attempts to use the court system to stifle debate on matters of public interest. Come to think of it, this could be extended beyond defamation actions to cover other actions where freedom of speech is at stake. Policy should lean against the use of the civil courts to silence speech, unless the speech concerned meets some very tight criteria (I'm not going to propose them here, but it's something we can return to).

If Melinda Tankard Reist does go ahead and pursue any sort of legal action against No Place for Sheep - or anyone else whose speech she disapproves of - I expect that there will be some kind of appeal for money to cover the costs of defending the case, which could be very large (some of you will be aware of the Simon Singh case in the UK as an example of the sums that can be involved in defending unmeritorious defamation cases). At that stage, it would be worthwhile having a closer look at exactly what is involved. It's still early days, but this just could turn into a case where important freedoms are at stake and something needs to be done collectively to defend them.

I'll await developments, but please keep this one in the back of your minds.

Currently reading - Plantinga v. Dennett

Yes, I've been reading this little book by Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett, which includes and expands upon their debate at an American Philosophical Association conference a couple of years ago.

Plantinga has a new book coming out in which, apparently, he expands further on his views. I'll need to look at this, though he's already expressed the same views in various other places.

As far as I can make out, the debate is about two theses that Plantinga wants to argue for. Although they're ostensibly arguing about whether religion and science are compatible, they end up arguing different points, because Dennett actually agrees that religion and science are compatible in the sense defined by Plantinga. I probably do, too, given the very weak thesis that Plantinga puts forward.

It's difficult getting a handle on what, exactly, the first thesis is. Irrespective of how he words it, the idea seems to be just that evolutionary theory does not logically rule out the existence of God and some role played by God in the process. As far as Plantinga is concerned, evolutionary theory and religion are "compatible" even if the former renders the latter less plausible, as long as it doesn't logically rule it out.

Based on that understanding of "compatible" ... sure. If you are prepared to do enough work you can prevent almost any small set of claims from being ruled out, logically, by pretty much any findings whatsoever, whether those findings come from the sciences or the humanities.

First, you should define your claims as narrowly as required to make them a small target. You can also do other things. You can defend claims about historical events where the historical record is patchy, but jettison any claims where it is not and where the evidence is strongly against them. You can introduce ad hoc hypotheses to explain any results that seem to falsify your claims. If sufficiently desperate, you can even engage in selective forms of radical scepticism, refusing to accept even very plausible propositions that seem to be evidence against you.

If you're prepared to do all these things, you may end up with a bizarre view of the world, but you'll be able to avoid any outright logical inconsistency between your claims and whatever scientific or historical, etc., facts you are prepared to acknowledge as well established.

Thus, great resources are available to people to avoid their religious beliefs - or at least a core of them that they consider most important - ever being logically ruled out. Therefore, it's not surprising that Plantinga is able to demonstrate to his own satisfaction that there is no inconsistency in his view of the world ... even while holding on to a Christian worldview and some of the basics of evolutionary theory. The main point that Dennett seems to be making in response is, "So what? None of this shows that religion is at all plausible in the light of our modern, scientifically informed knowledge of the world." Indeed, he suggests, many ridiculous ideas could be "compatible" with science in the weak sense that science cannot logically rule them out once and for all to the satisfaction of somebody who is committed to defending them.

Religious believers may have sufficient resources - such as those I've sketched above - to avoid their main claims being logically ruled out by evolutionary theory or anything else. And yet, what you end up with as you conduct the defence of religious claims may be a system of beliefs sufficiently ad hoc and just plain weird that you can no longer, in good faith, believe in it as a whole ... while it is completely implausible to a well-informed outsider. If you want to describe this situation as "science and religion are compatible" then go for it. But don't be surprised if many people think that such "compatibility" is beside the point.

In fairness to Plantinga, he does seem to understand that the plausibility of religion is on the line - it increasingly becomes a focus of the debate - and he makes an attempt to defend it.

Let me also add that many statements that "science and religion are compatible" involve an attempt to insulate them from each other entirely, such as by claiming that religion makes claims only about a supernatural world, while science makes claims only about the natural world. Accordingly, they can never conflict.

Or they are insulated from each other by a theory that religion is restricted to matters of morality and meaning, and the like, while science has no authority in these areas. According to this argument, no scientific finding can ever make a legitimate religious claim less plausible.

These are much stronger claims about "compatibility" than anything Plantinga defends, and I think they are pretty clearly false.

That leaves me with Plantinga's other thesis to comment on. More about that later.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A progressive statement by Tennis Australia, re Margaret Court

Tennis Australia has issued a statement distancing itself from Margaret Court's widely-publicised homophobic views. This is a good gesture, and let's praise the organisation for it.

I won't be able to get along to the Australian Open, in Melbourne, this year (I did last year, even though I now live 600 miles away, but I can't see it happening often). Hopefully it will be a great tournament.

I've been enjoying the warm-up event - which is actually a star-studded tournament on the women's side - in Sydney. Not driving down for it, but at least watching a fair bit of it on TV, when I'm not thinking about Plantinga's views on evolution and the historical record of human atrocities. Those are my favourite topics right now.

H/T Jason Ball.

Just a reminder to people in Melbourne...

This gig at Embiggen Books in Melbourne is kind of sneaking up now - it's three weeks away at this point - so you might think of booking a seat if you're planning to go along.
"In his new book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, Russell Blackford argues that religious freedom is more than a crude quid pro quo arrangement – 'We won’t persecute you if you don’t persecute us.' Instead, it goes to the heart of what we think state power is really for. Do we think it’s to give citizens spiritual guidance, or is the state an essentially secular institution? That question lies at the heart of many intransigent hot-button issues that cause so much angst in current societies. What, if anything, should we do about the burqa? Should anti-religious satire be allowed? Should our laws enforce religious notions of morality – as with abortion restrictions, attacks on gay rights, and opposition to stem-cell research? Dr. Blackford proposes a way ahead that should be acceptable to most religious people, as well as to non-believers.

"Embiggen Books is proud to be launching this important new book by one of Australia’s most important philosophers and commentators. Please RSVP to events (at) embiggenbooks (dot) com or call 9662 2062 or even drop in to the shop in person."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A review of The Better Angels of Our Nature in Foreign Affairs

This review by Timothy Snyder contains food for thought, though some of the points that it makes are, as far as I can see, nit-picks. After all, Snyder seems to think that Steven Pinker is correct overall in his view that the violence of human societies has tended to decline.

The main point seems to be that Pinker underestimates the contribution that has been made to the decline of violence by the rise of the welfare state. Snyder then blames this failure on what he sees as Pinker's tendency towards political libertarianism.

I'm going to re-read large amounts of The Better Angels of Our Nature over the next few days, as I've promised a review for the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal. I'll watch out for the points that Snyder makes. How far does Pinker ignore the rise of the welfare state? How plausible is it, in any event that the rise of the welfare state has had an effect in reducing the violence of human societies? My gut feeling is that it has had some effect (and, for the record, I favour the welfare state) ... but how well does attributing a large or even decisisve effect fit the data sets that we have? And how far does Pinker really seem to be showing political libertarian biases?

Moreover, could Snyder himself be showing certain biases in his interpretation of Pinker, and of the historical record? We shall see.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Some Australian schools are dropping chaplains

With changes to the federally funded school chaplaincy scheme, to allow schools to employ welfare workers rather than chaplains, some schools are now dropping chaplains. According to the Canberra Times:
The schools are taking advantage of changes to the Federal Government's $222 million chaplaincy scheme, which previously stipulated that a welfare worker could only be appointed if there was proof that no chaplain was available.

Government figures show that of 2512 schools that have reapplied for funding under the scheme, 208 - or 8per cent - have proposed to employ a welfare worker.

Most of the others - 2236 or 89 per cent - indicated they wanted to stick with a chaplain or religious pastoral care worker, while 3 per cent said they had not decided which they wanted.
H/T Cary Lenahan

Anwar Ibrahim acquitted of sodomy charge

The Malaysian criminal justice system has acquitted Anwar Ibrahim of the latest sodomy charge against him (a conviction on an earlier charge was quashed some years ago).

This is a good outcome, but it would be a lot better if Malaysia - which is attempting to be a modern country - did not have a law against homosexual conduct in the first place. The acquittal seems to be based on a very high level of judicial scepticism about DNA evidence (and about evidence in sex crime cases more generally). It's easy to imagine cases where that sort of judicial attitude could lead to perpretators of truly harmful sexual crimes getting off unscathed. That, in turn, raises doubts about the ability of the Malaysian criminal justice system to protect victims of sex crimes.

In this case, even if Anwar did what was alleged against him ... there was simply no victim. What he allegedly did should not have been criminalised. As so often, the most important thing is to reform the substantive law to remove victimless crimes from the statute books and the common law. There is also - I freely acknowledge - some point to ensuring that accused persons are not confronted with unfair tactics by police and prosecutors, but not to an extent that can leave genuine victims unprotected. Notoriously, rape victims can find themselves treated badly in criminal courts.

Getting the balance right in giving an accused person some reasonable procedural protections, without leaving victims unprotected, is ... well, a difficult balancing act. But above all we need to think hard about what should be illegal in the first place. Having consensual sex with a 23-y.o. person of the same sex as yourself is pretty much a paradigm example of something that should not be illegal.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Michael Ruse on moral philosophy

When I posted about this the other day, it was in a very preliminary manner, since I had not even read Michael Ruse's post in response to an earlier one by me.

Ruse puts a view that seems to me to have some points in its favour, and he concedes that it may, formally, make him a moral error theorist. I can't quite see how his view allows (as he thinks it does) for absolute (in some sense) moral truths that cannot be discovered through science but only in some other way. And exactly what this way might be has been left mysterious - is it some sort of process of conceptual analysis? Is it openness to the insights to be found in myth and literature? Or what? Still, the general view is one that at least seems to be arguable on its merits.

I've made a couple of comments on the thread, and I do have a bit more to say on the thread when I get a moment. I continue to have some problems with the overall theory, at least in the form that Ruse has developed so far. But I'm not so out of sympathy with his approach as to think that discussion and clarification is useless. (OTOH, I wonder whether he is planning to engage his commenters at all ... since he hasn't as yet. Oh well.)

On thing that does strike me as strange is that Ruse seems, if I follow him, to think that there are moral absolutes for us, though not absolutes simpliciter. As far as I can work out, these absolutes are bedrock psychological features that human beings all share, and which are basically non-negotiable (even if some rational but non-human creature did not share them, and was not making a mistake about the world in not doing so). Okay, that's possible, I suppose, if we bracket off a small class of exceptions such as psychopaths ... but how plausible is, it given the wide variety of moral views that we actually see if we study the historical and anthropological record? It looks from here as if any evolved human psychology that we all share is going to be, to say the least, rather "thin" or minimalist.

And even if I'm wrong on this - even if there is some more substantial and rich evolved human psychology, how do we know this? The humanities might be of some help, I suppose - e.g. scouring for information about old or strange cultures might reveal clues about a transcultural human nature - but isn't this sort of question primarily a matter for science, in particular psychology? In which case, how are moral truths a good example of the epistemic power of science being limited? That was, remember, Ruse's initial claim.

I don't see how Ruse can go on using supposed moral absolutes, or objective moral truths, as an example - or at least as a clear-cut one - of things that the humanities can find out but the sciences can't. At best (and I'm happy to accept this scenario) it's a situation where scientists, humanist scholars, and philosophers who have some comfort with both the wider humanities and the sciences, should cooperate to get a clearer picture of human nature and of how it feeds into human moral systems.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Sunday supervillainy - currently reading The Great Big Book of Horrible Things

You can't get much more villainous than the stuff of history described in this book. Author Matthew White takes us in historical order through the hundred most horrific events in human history, as estimated by him based on the bodycounts and rationales of more orthodox historians. Occasionally he gives us small digressions in the form of essays on such topics as genocide. The writing is clear, rather journalistic, with a certain kind of wincing humour that doesn't prevent him from getting into reflections about the sheer awfulness of it all.

Much of this may be familiar to you - quite a bit of it is to me - but it's (morbidly) fascinating, and certainly illuminating, to see it all in one place, with the likely facts and historical interpretations filtered through a single sensibility, that of a person who clearly knows this stuff backwards.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Santorum opposes contraception

Rick Santorum says that the US state legislatures should be free to ban contraceptives. Needless to say, this means that he wants these legislatures to be able to interfere in very intimate matters relating to people's private lives.

But as you can see if you follow the link, this is not just a theoretical point in constitutional law - he actually dislikes contraception and makes pretty clear that he wishes the legislatures would actually ban it.

Note this line:
“One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country,” the former Pennsylvania senator explained. “It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
Hmm ... "are supposed to be, eh?" Hmm ... are supposed to be according to what authority? It's one thing to blather about the supposed "dangers" of contraception, whatever they are, because at least that sounds like the government acting to address some real or imagined civil or secular interest. But when you start talking about "how things are supposed to be" you are moving beyond the role of government in protecting people's civil interests into protecting some kind of divine purpose or some teleological concept of how the universe functions, or some such thing. This is well beyond what the state should get involved in.

Then again, I'm not the first to mention that all of the Republican candidates this year appear to be (a) to greater or lesser extents, theocrats; and (b) nutjobs. If heaven did exist, we'd have to pray for it to help the USA if one of these people became its next president. *Shudder.*

Hawke slows down...

... but not by all that much - I love Bob Hawke's performance here.

Kazez on Santorum on Polygamy

Good post by Jean Kazez. I'm somewhat more cynical about the role of the state in the marriage business (as I discuss in a comment there). Still, some irrational arguments are used against same-sex marriage, and the post brings this out well.

I'm happy if we send the discussion over there, but by all means comment here if you prefer.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Malik replies to Greenpeace's reply to Malik

Over yonder. I get that Greenpeace had to use whatever arguments were likely to be successful in court, but this is not a good look for it. It has publicly argued on exactly the basis that Malik describes and is now stuck with that as its position.

This is all a bit obscure, I suppose, but if you're not up with the detail of what is being talked about in his post, go here. The post I just linked to, my first one at Talking Philosophy, copped some criticism for getting too deep into the legal technicalities, but this stuff is important, and it's important to try to get it right.

Guest blog post at Printasia - Religion under Scrutiny

Here! Pssst, pass it on?
"We should go on putting the strong arguments for secular government — I most certainly will. But religion itself also merits our scrutiny. There are now many people who do not believe in any God or gods, or in the truth of any doctrines involving supernatural entities and forces, and are prepared to say so in public. Many have interesting reasons for their views, and it’s valuable for all of them — for all of us, I should say — to speak up. We should tell our stories and offer our arguments.

"This is a good time for atheists and religious skeptics to join the public debates. There’s no time like now to voice our disbelief."

My top twelve atheists of 2011

This list of a dozen atheists who made powerful contributions in 2011 will actually be a baker's dozen for reasons that will become obvious when you reach number 5. Let's hand out some tributes.

Note that the contributions don't have to be specifically for the cause of atheism if they are more generally in support of a science-and-reason based, naturalistic view of reality.

Those listed below are not in any order - well, except for the first name on the list. There was only one atheist of the year for 2011, though sadly he is no longer with us. Of course, it's...

1. Christopher Hitchens - for his courage, energy, and dignity right up to the end, as death approached.

2. Leo Igwe - for his strong and courageous campaigning on one of the most crucial issues of religious oppression in the world right now: the witch hunting of women and children in Africa. I hope to meet up with him in 2012.

3. Maryam Namazie - for her tireless campaigning for the the rights and freedoms of women in the face of political Islam.

4. Steven Pinker - particularly for The Better Angels of Our Nature, which is my "book of the year" and a monumental contribution to our understanding of history and ourselves, and more generally to the cause of reason.

5. Michael Nugent and Grania Spingies - for their efforts in running the major atheist convention in Dublin, by all accounts one of the biggest and best freethought gatherings ever.

6. Leslie Cannold - she continues to hold down her position as one of Australia's most prominent and outspoken intellectuals. Her new book, The Book of Rachael, is an important contribution of its kind.

7. Richard Dawkins - you can't ignore his words and actions last year or any year. Always a huge presence as one of the major public intellectuals in the world, and with an important new book, The Magic of Reality, explaining science to children and young adults.

8. Cristina Rad - she was suddenly everywhere in 2011. To be honest ... she has a bit to learn, as shown in a TV appearance in Australia where she got talked over by her opposition, but 2011 was a breakout year for her.

9. Tanya Smith - deserves all credit for her work with Atheist Alliance International, for which she is currently President and General Manager.

10. Geoffrey Robertson - agree with it or not, we mustn't overlook his campaign to bring the pope and the Vatican to face international justice (continuing in the wake of the publication of The Case of the Pope in late 2010).

11. Jane Caro - this list is a bit Aussie heavy, but attribute it to the fact that we Aussies have been punching above our weight. She was a huge media presence in Australia last year, and has been outspoken (and effectively so) as an atheist. Arguably the star of the Intelligence Squared debate on atheism.

12. Udo Schuklenk - chaired the Royal Society of Canada panel that recommended legalising physician-assisted suicide. Whatever ultimately comes of this, it is the kind of towering intellectual, yet practical, contribution that merits recognition and honour.

Obviously there are many others who deserve to be on such a list. For example, I'm conscious of being somewhat out of touch with many current events in the world. For example, a more considered list would have to take account of what the likes of Prabir Ghosh have been doing lately. Much is happening throughout the world, all the time, and it would be a difficult job continually keeping tabs. My apologies in advance for any glaring or stupid omissions.

There are also people who would have been on a similar list for, say, 2010, but who appeared (to me at least) to have relatively quiet years in 2011. That probably means that they were hard at work, and that we'll see the fruits of their work later. Daniel Dennett comes to mind in this category. So does Taslima Nasrin. But perhaps their most recent activities have simply gone under my radar.

In any event, my listed 12 (or 13) all made particularly noteworthy contributions in 2011, even if there are others whom I've missed and who are equally deserving. Loud cheers for them all, please! And now let's astonish the world as we defend reason, freedom, and science in 2012.

Edit: And as so often happens, I want to make an addition. A.C. Grayling should have been on the list somewhere. I was thinking that his The Good Book came out in 2010 and that 2011 was a quiet year for him by his usual standards. But that book actually came out in early 2011, apparently, so my mistake.

More on free will from Jerry Coyne

Here, Jerry Coyne replies to his commenters at USA Today. The most important thing from my viewpoint is his response to Tom Clark, whose views probably aren't too far from mine. Jerry is actually quite conciliatory towards Tom.

In part, it probably is a matter of semantics. Jerry Coyne, Tom Clark, and I all agree that determinism probably prevails to a very large extent at the level of the brain. We probably all agree that if the brain has some indeterministic element to it - that even if its outputs are somehow affected by quantum level events that are "caused" only in the sense that they had some probability of occurring - then this does not, in itself, make us more "free". We all think that the processes by which human beings make choices are purely naturalistic and that a lot of the process (perhaps a hell of a lot of it) is unconscious.

The issue is how to interpret this in terms of the historical language of free will, etc. Should we simply say that human beings do not have free will? To me, that runs the risk of conveying something that is not intended and is not actually true. It can easily convey something fuzzy that is in the direction of fatalism. Of course, it's also possible that when compatibilists say to the folk, "You have free will," that something is conveyed that may not be intended and is not actually true.

It becomes, I think, a question of trying to understand the situation as clearly as we can, while also working out how best to convey it to others without misleading them. That does, inevitably, get us involved in efforts in clarifying concepts, making distinctions, grappling with the existing philosophical literature, and so on. Given some of the issues that are stake in the contemporary debates among academic philosophers, it can involve grappling with other difficult concepts, such as responsibility, desert, and fairness - and the relationships among them.

I only get upset when the efforts of people like Daniel Dennett, Tom Clark, and by extension me are dismissed as "changing the subject" or as being some kind of sophistry analogous to the efforts of theologians, which do seem to me to be sophistry - not always, since some useful work gets done under the broad rubric of "theology", but very often. A lot of stuff that I've been reading in the process of researching 50 Great Myths About Atheism seems to me to be sophistry, but I'd never say this of Daniel Dennett, even when he leaves me unconvinced.