About Me

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

Monday, April 30, 2012

On free will at Talking Philosophy

Quite a debate going on at Talking Philosophy, where I created a thread about free will and Sam Harris. I continue to be amazed at the way we get individuals making stuff up from their armchairs about what the folk think free will is - without any evidence from actual studies of what they think, or any study of how free will and related subjects have been understood historically by philosophers, or any study of how such themes seem to be/have been treated in myth, literary narrative, and popular culture.

All of those would seem to me to be reasonable sources of evidence of what kinds of things are really being bugging ordinary people - and have bugged them historically - when they think about free will and related ideas (such as fate, determinism, and moral responsibility). We might also get into some good old-fashioned conceptual analysis comparing our theories to our intuitions about examples. That's a good start to refining how we must be conceiving of some idea, though it has its limitations. But instead, it seems that some of my interlocutors (and Sam Harris is also rather guilty of this) just know the answers to these questions, apparently based on their own idiosyncratic life experience and whatever intutions it has given them about how other people must think.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy - meet the new Nick Fury

Fans of the recent Marvel universe movies up to and including The Avengers will be familiar with the character Nick Fury - played by Samuel L. Jackson. The trouble is, Nick Fury in the main Marvel universe is a white guy who doesn't look much like Samuel L. Jackson at all (though he does have an eyepatch, like the movie character, and his personality is similar enough to that of movie-Fury).

By now, though - and certainly once The Avengers is finally released in the US - the general public will immediately think of Samuel L. Jackson when it hears the name "Nick Fury" ... which creates a small problem for selling comics (hey, who's this frakking white guy?).

In fact, Marvel used the likeness of Jackson for the alternative Ultimate Universe version of the character some years ago, before any of these movies were made. But that doesn't help make the main "616" universe accessible to new readers who might wander into a comics shop after watching some of the movies.

Enter a new character, Marcus Johnson, who turns out to be the orginal Nick Fury's illegitimate son. Johnson was, in fact, named by his (obviously black) mother "Nicholas Fury, Jr.", and the "Marcus Johnson" name was to protect his true identity. He's now reverted to his real name, shaved his head, grown a beard, and ended up looking like ... well, Samuel L. Jackson. So, Marvel now has a new Nick Fury character, with Nick Fury, Sr., being shunted gracefully into semi-retirement (like many of Marvel's characters, he's incredibly old anyway, though until now he's been kept fit and relatively young by a special life-extending chemical formula).

We're told that Nick Fury, Sr., will still have a role now and then, so his dwindling number of middle-aged fans don't lose out entirely (it's nice that they didn't kill simply him off). But commercial reality evidently rules here. I'm good with it, but there it is.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sun-Herald review of The Avengers

At this stage, I seem to be about the only person (at least of those expressing opinions on-line) who has any reservations about The Avengers. The reviewer at the Sun-Herald, Leigh Paatsch, apparently loved it without reservations:

It is not often you can say this, but The Avengers is one $200 million-plus event flick where not a single cent has been wasted.

The special-effects work is spectacular, especially during two truly awesome set-piece battle sequences.

The first, aboard an airborne weapons carrier, is brilliant enough.

The second, an all-stops-out skirmish on the streets of a busy city, will leave viewers gasping.

Overall, The Avengers is a fist-pumping cause for celebration for comic-book hard-liners and action fans alike.

Responding to Sam Harris on free will

I have a long response - I say "response" because it's more than a "review" - to Free Will by Sam Harris ... over on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal. Do I agree with Harris that there is no libertarian freedom of the will? Yes. Do I think Harris knows what he is talking about when he discusses compatibilist theories and accuses compatibilists of "changing the subject"? No.

On the Krauss brouhaha re philosophers

This Atheist Examiner piece - with relevant links in case you don't know what I'm talking about - reports an apology from Lawrence Krauss for his incautious words about philosophers recently. Just as well, because I met Krauss briefly when I was in Melbourne and kind of liked the guy. I have yet to read his new book, A Universe From Nothing, however, and I'll be looking at it dispassionately.

I must admit that a lot of philosophy seems like pretty crazy stuff to me - as does most theology. But, once again, I'm not referring to, say, Peter Singer, or Daniel Dennett, or A.C. Grayling.

For any wild idea you care to imagine, you'll probably find a philosopher to take it up. That may not be a bad thing. Perhaps more importantly, for every piece of common sense, you'll find a philosopher to doubt it. But then again, I'm sometimes one of those who do the doubting. For example, I doubt (to say the least) that there are objective moral truths of the sort: "X-ing is morally wrong." I doubt lots of other things that are widely believed. I dispute the existence (and even intelligibility) of libertarian free will (though I also doubt that this is the folk conception of free will ... and it's not the philosophical meaning of "free will"). I dispute the existence of gods, which was an unthinkable position in the West only a few hundred years ago.  The sceptical doubts of philosophers have been of enormous value to our culture, and I'm glad to be in that tradition.

However, I do agree with Krauss that philosophers generally do best to follow the science where it leads. Scientific arguments are, of course, always open to criticism on the basis of the soundness of their logic. Still, we generally have to rely on what science reports back to us about the empirical facts of the universe, rather than thinking we can do better in our armchairs.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Avengers movie

I've just seen The Avengers, so let me say a few not-very-spoilerish things about it while it's fresh in my mind. First, it's a lot of fun - all the main characters are cast well, and their personalities, powers, and skills are displayed vividly. As a showcase for the movie versions of this particular Avengers roster (plus the various S.H.I.E.L.D agents led by Nick Fury, plus Loki as the villain), it's successful - probably worth seeing for this alone, at least if you're a fan of the characters. Robert Downey, Jr. (as Iron Man/Tony Stark), Samuel L. Jackson (as Nick Fury), and Tom Hiddleston (as Loki) are impressive, and I was especially pleased that Scarlett Johansson put in a more than creditable performance as The Black Widow - a character who might well have been overshadowed by the male superheroes but actually kicked butt throughout. The settings were magnificent, particularly the huge S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, which is the location for the middle part of the action.

So, that's the good news.

But second ... well, I was a bit disappointed. Despite the great cast and high production values, and despite the engagement of Joss Whedon to direct the action and write the script, The Avengers falls a bit flat. We want to see big fights between the heroes and the villains, and between the heroes and each other ... but even for a superhero movie, much too much consisted of fighting, with buildings, military platforms, and whatever else being demolished spectacularly. Too little of it actually advanced the plot, and too little depth was given to the relationships (though Iron Man and Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, were touching). Worse, the villains, other than Loki himself, who was shown as powerful and dangerous, scheming and mad, were incompetent to the point of absurdity - it seemed that they were just there to be smashed up by the heroes. Honestly, these guys (they all seemed coded as male) made the Star Wars Imperial Stormtroopers look like badass tactical geniuses.

At the end of the initial set of closing credits (don't bother staying for the full credits to roll to the end) there's a scene that suggests what villain we're going to be treated to in a future Avengers movie, and it will gladden many hearts.

All in all, though ... see this one if you're a fan of the characters, or just for the spectacle. Enjoy your Coke and popcorn. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother.

Loki pulled some clever tricks, and some dirty ones, and always seemed formidable (though he stuffs up big-time at one point that I won't say anything more about). Most of the time, however, the heroes never really seemed in any danger. Also, as with a lot of modern action movies, it could probably have been improved by being half an hour shorter - which could have been accomplished, I suspect, just by editing down the fight scenes.

Would I watch The Avengers again? Maybe, but only because I like some of these characters quite a lot - and, to repeat, they were well-presented, and with a pleasing balance among them. Apart from that, not so much.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ditmar Awards ballot

The 2012 ballot is as follows: Best Novel
* The Shattered City (Creature Court 2), Tansy Rayner Roberts (HarperCollins)
* Burn Bright, Marianne de Pierres (Random House Australia)
* Mistification, Kaaron Warren (Angry Robot Books)
* The Courier's New Bicycle, Kim Westwood (HarperCollins)
* Debris (The Veiled Worlds 1), Jo Anderton (Angry Robot Books)

Best Novella or Novelette
* "The Sleeping and the Dead", Cat Sparks, in Ishtar (Gilgamesh Press)
* "Above", Stephanie Campisi, in Above/Below (Twelfth Planet Press)
* "The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burnt", Paul Haines, in The Last Days of Kali Yuga (Brimstone Press)
* "And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living", Deborah Biancotti, in Ishtar (Gilgamesh Press)
* "Julia Agrippina's Secret Family Bestiary", Tansy Rayner Roberts, in Love and Romanpunk (Twelfth Planet Press)
* "Below", Ben Peek, in Above/Below (Twelfth Planet Press)

Best Short Story
* "Breaking the Ice", Thoraiya Dyer, in Cosmos 37
* "Alchemy", Lucy Sussex, in Thief of Lives (Twelfth Planet Press)
* "The Last Gig of Jimmy Rucker", Martin Livings and Talie Helene, in More Scary Kisses (Ticonderoga Publications)
* "All You Can Do Is Breathe", Kaaron Warren, in Blood and Other Cravings (Tor)
* "Bad Power", Deborah Biancotti, in Bad Power (Twelfth Planet Press)
* "The Patrician", Tansy Rayner Roberts, in Love and Romanpunk (Twelfth Planet Press)

Best Collected Work
* The Last Days of Kali Yuga by Paul Haines, edited by Angela Challis (Brimstone Press)
* Nightsiders by Sue Isle, edited by Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press)
* Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti, edited by Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press)
* Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts, edited by Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press)
* Ishtar, edited by Amanda Pillar and K. V. Taylor (Gilgamesh Press)

Best Artwork
* "Finishing School", Kathleen Jennings, in Steampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories (Candlewick Press)
* Cover art, Kathleen Jennings, for The Freedom Maze (Small Beer Press)

Best Fan Writer
* Tansy Rayner Roberts, for body of work including reviews in Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus! and Not If You Were The Last Short Story On Earth
* Alexandra Pierce, for body of work including reviews in Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus!, Not If You Were The Last Short Story On Earth, and Randomly Yours, Alex
* Robin Pen, for "The Ballad of the Unrequited Ditmar" * Sean Wright, for body of work including "Authors and Social Media" series in Adventures of a Bookonaut
* Bruce Gillespie, for body of work including "The Golden Age of Fanzines is Now", and SF Commentary 81 & 82

Best Fan Artist
* Rebecca Ing, for work in Scape
* Lisa Rye, for "Steampunk Portal" series
* Dick Jenssen, for body of work including work in IRS, Steam Engine Time, SF Commentary and Scratchpad
* Kathleen Jennings, for work in Errantry (tanaudel.wordpress.com) including "The Dalek Game"
* Rhianna Williams, for work in Nullas Anxietas Convention Programme Book

Best Fan Publication in Any Medium
* SF Commentary, edited by Bruce Gillespie
* The Writer and the Critic, Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond
* The Coode Street Podcast, Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe
* Galactic Chat, Alisa Krasnostein, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Sean Wright
* Galactic Suburbia, Alisa Krasnostein, Tansy Rayner Roberts, and Alex

Best New Talent
* Steve Cameron
* Alan Baxter
* Joanne Anderton

William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review
* Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene, for "2010: The Year in Review", in The Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2010 (Ticonderoga Publications)
* Damien Broderick and Van Ikin, for editing Warriors of the Tao: The Best of Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature (Borgo Press)
* David McDonald, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessely for "Reviewing New Who" series, in A Conversational Life
* Alexandra Pierce and Tehani Wessely, for reviews of Vorkosigan Saga, in Randomly Yours, Alex
* Russell Blackford, for "Currently reading: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke", in Metamagician and the Hellfire Club

The official ballot paper, including postal address information, may be downloaded as a PDF format file from:


Once voting opens, votes will be accepted via email to:


However, if possible, please vote online at:


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Alexander Aan case - I urge you to write

I am in the process of sending a letter in the following terms to the Indonesian authorities. It should be self-explanatory. If you want to send something similar, go here. I have somewhat modified the suggested text provided. I encourage you to use your own words to whatever extent you think appropriate.

Name of victim: Alexander Aan
Names of alleged perpetrators: Police officers of Pulau Punjung Sub-District Police Station, prosecutors of Sijunjung District Prosecutors Office, potentially the panel of judges at the Muaro Sijunjung District Court involved in examining Mr Aan's case.
Date of incident: 18 January 2012 - present (ongoing)
Place of incident: Dharmasraya, Padang, West Sumatra

I am writing to voice my concern regarding the case of Alexander Aan, an atheist civil servant in Dharmasraya, Padang, West Sumatra. Mr Aan was arrested, charged and tried for posting a status on Facebook questioning the existence of God. He is also alleged to have disseminated religious hatred on the internet by posting a note and comic on Facebook entitled "The Prophet Muhammad was attracted to his own daughter-in-law" and "The Prophet Muhammad had been sleeping with his wife's maid."

Mr Aan's postings were an exercise of free expression on matters relating to religious beliefs, and Indonesia is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of religion. His posts did not incite, condone, or glorify violence or persecution of anyone, Muslim or otherwise. Though some have found his posts insulting, there is no human right to freedom from feeling offended.

According to the prosecutor's Letter of Indictment, Mr Aan's actions have insulted Islam as well as caused outcry in the community. His posts are also considered as persuading others to embrace atheism, which is a crime under article 156a (b) of the Indonesian Penal Code (KUHP). In addition to this, Alex is also charged with article 28 (2) of the Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) Law for disseminating religious hatred on the internet and article 156a (a) of the KUHP on religious defamation.

I deplore the fact that the KUHP criminalises activities pertaining to persuading other people to embrace atheism. Article 156a (b) of KUHP is not only open to arbitrary interpretation, but it also contradicts the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression. I would like to remind you that Indonesia is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guarantees these rights.

According to the UN Human Rights Committee's General Comment No. 22, freedom of religion also includes the freedom to have and adopt atheistic belief. Mr Aan's Facebook status questioning the existence of god is merely an expression of this belief, which should not be punished.

Furthermore, Mr Aan's posts on Facebook should be seen as an exercise of his freedom of expression. While I am aware that such freedom might be subjected to restrictions, I would like to emphasise that these restrictions apply only when it is necessary to respect the rights or reputations of others and for the protection of national security, public order, health, or morals. In this case, Mr Aan's action do not pose a threat to any of those; neither do they amount to an advocacy of religious hatred, incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

I would like to draw to your attention the Joint Declaration on Defamation of Religion which was issued in 2008 by the representatives of various human rights bodies who deal with the issue of freedom of expression (UN, OSCE, OAS and ACHPR). According to this declaration, "the concept of 'defamation of religions' does not accord with international standards regarding defamation, which refer to the protection of reputation of individuals, while religions, like all beliefs, cannot be said to have a reputation of their own". The Declaration also establishes that "restrictions on freedom of expression should be limited in scope to the prediction of overriding individual rights and social interests, and should never be used to protect particular institutions, or abstract notions, concepts or beliefs, including religious ones".

Accordingly, I urge you to stop all legal proceedings against Alexander Aan as well as to release and provide him with adequate compensation. I strongly recommend that you withdraw any laws and provisions which are not in accordance with freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Only by so doing can the Indonesian government comply with its international obligations concerning the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

I was alerted to Alexander’s situation by the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a nonprofit organization based in the U.S. that stands for science, reason, and secular values such as the separation of religion from government and the basic freedoms of thought, conscience, and speech. CFI has affiliate organizations and branches all over the world, and holds special consultive status at the United Nations under the UN Economic and Social Council.

I look forward to seeing swift action on this matter.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Russell Blackford

Harlan Ellison on paying the writer

Somehow I don't think Harlan Ellison would be paying out of his own pocket - in unpaid travel and accommodation expenses - for the privilege of turning up to speak at a conference.

Pay the Author! Or how writers get treated like dirt...

This page is from the website of the Australian Society of Authors; it contains suggested payment rates for authors for writing, public appearances, reimbursement of travel costs, etc.

Now, I actually don't have any complaints about my current book publishers - that isn't what the post will be about. Phew! You guys can sigh with relief. Nor do I expect to be paid for academic articles, whether in journals or chapters of academic books (the latter often involves at least some sort of free or discounted book offer, which is very welcome). That's a bit different. And there are many circumstances in which writing without a fee is appropriate if it's to help a cause that I believe in. I can consider it charity.

Okay. Okay. My gripe is actually with people who expect writers to turn up and speak at their events. So often, it's assumed that writers somehow don't deserve payment, despite the time and energy that has to go in. I'm sure the same people who ask writers to speak at their various forums pay their plumbers, lawyers, pest control people, caterers, etc., etc., but writers are expected to work for nothing.

Now, I realise that if we all demanded fees on all occasions many activities could not go ahead. So we often waive fees as a gesture of goodwill and with the comfort that at least we get some publicity and that it all helps to get the message across. We tend to be like that; we're reasonable that way. In fact, we realise that some organisations that ask us to speak can't even pay our full expenses ... and we may be prepared to cover some costs if asked nicely and with some reasonable attempt by the organisation to cover what they can. It all depends.

But it really can become a joke. Recently, a fairly prestigious organisation that cannot be totally without money asked me to attend a conference interstate and to speak on a panel. I said I'd be more than happy to do it, but I'd need my travel and accommodation expenses covered (it would have been impossible to do the job without staying interstate for at least one night, most conveniently at the hotel where the conference was taking place). I was fobbed off on the basis that the organisation is a not-for-profit one and therefore could not pay expenses.

Well, really - the fact that it is a not-for-profit organisation is irrelevant; it must still have some source of funding to conduct its activities, with some kind of annual budget. If it doesn't budget to cover such costs that is hardly my fault or the fault of other speakers. I will not be speaking at that conference.

What's more I find it downright insulting to be asked to speak at a conference interstate on the basis that I will not only not be given any payment for my time and trouble but will also have to pay for taxi and plane fares (several hundred dollars at least) and accommodation costs (probably another couple of hundred dollars) out of my own pocket.

Let's get this straight: you want me to do something for you, something that involves quite a bit of work on my part, plus taking time out to go to a conference that I was not otherwise planning to attend ... and then you want me to pay a thousand dollars or so out of my own pocket for the privilege of helping you out? What on earth are you thinking? The arrogance of this really boggles my mind.

Like other writers, I'm prepared to be very reasonable, depending on the circumstances of the people or organisations that ask me to speak. But there are limits. Why on earth should I, or anyone, agree to be treated in such a contemptuous way? Why wouldn't I take offence at this?

This sort of thing happens too often, and I think it's about time writers started to protest. We get treated like dirt, all too often, and I think we are too nice about it. Let's make some public fuss about the way we are so often treated. This post is my small contribution. I encourage other writers to speak up.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Bruce Everett's review of the final day of the Global Atheist Convention

Over here - once again, a detailed review, although he didn't make it to the morning session.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Kenan Malik interviewed on hate speech

This is a long interview - but it's a very interesting one, worth having a look at and reading right through. Malik argues the case for banning only speech that, in the circumstances, creates an immediate danger of physical harm.

The meaning of ‘imminent danger’ clearly depends upon circumstances. What constitutes imminent danger in, say, London or New York, where there exists a relatively stable, relatively liberal society, and a fairly robust framework of law and order, may be different from what constitutes imminent danger in Kigali or even in Moscow. And the meaning of imminent danger for a Jew in Berlin in 1936 was clearly different from that for a Jew – or a Muslim – in Berlin 2011. At the same time, in those times and in those societies in which particular groups are being made targets of intense hostility, this debate becomes almost irrelevant. In a climate of extreme hatred, as in Rwanda in 1994, or in Germany in the 1930s, it may be easier to incite people into harming others. But in such a climate, the niceties of what legally constitutes “imminent harm” would, and should, be the least of our worries. What would matter would be to confront such hatred and prejudice head on, both politically and physically.

What I am wary of is that in accepting the commonsense view that what constitutes danger is dependent on circumstances, we should not make the concept so elastic as to render it meaningless. Whether in London, New York, Berlin, or Kigali, speech should only be curtailed if such speech directly incites an act that causes or could cause physical harm to others and if individuals are in imminent danger of such harm because of those words. What is contextual is that in different circumstances, different kinds of speech could potentially place individuals in the way of such harm.

Popper on science as falsification

It's worth going back and reading this now and again. Popper may not have the entire truth about how science is separate from non-science, but he scores some good points. I always love the little story about Adler:
As for Adler, I was much impressed by a personal experience. Once, in 1919, I reported to him a case which to me did not seem particularly Adlerian, but which he found no difficulty in analyzing in terms of his theory of inferiority feelings, Although he had not even seen the child. Slightly shocked, I asked him how he could be so sure. "Because of my thousandfold experience," he replied; whereupon I could not help saying: "And with this new case, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold."

What I had in mind was that his previous observations may not have been much sounder than this new one; that each in its turn had been interpreted in the light of "previous experience," and at the same time counted as additional confirmation. What, I asked myself, did it confirm? No more than that a case could be interpreted in the light of a theory. But this meant very little, I reflected, since every conceivable case could be interpreted in the light Adler's theory, or equally of Freud's. I may illustrate this by two very different examples of human behavior: that of a man who pushes a child into the water with the intention of drowning it; and that of a man who sacrifices his life in an attempt to save the child. Each of these two cases can be explained with equal ease in Freudian and Adlerian terms. According to Freud the first man suffered from repression (say, of some component of his Oedipus complex), while the second man had achieved sublimation. According to Adler the first man suffered from feelings of inferiority (producing perhaps the need to prove to himself that he dared to commit some crime), and so did the second man (whose need was to prove to himself that he dared to rescue the child). I could not think of any human behavior which could not be interpreted in terms of either theory. It was precisely this fact—that they always fitted, that they were always confirmed—which in the eyes of their admirers constituted the strongest argument in favor of these theories. It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Jacques Rousseau on the Global Atheist Convention

Among other things, he thinks, but I assume independently of me, that there was a tad too much comedy in the mix. He liked the convention, though, and I think justifiably.

Sexual openness vs. sexual prudery

Interesting article by Alex Henderson. See for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

H/T RD.net.

New short story from Jenny Blackford

Jenny's short story, "The Dragon in the Tent", is the cover story for the May edition of Orbit (the NSW School Magazine edition for 10-11-y-os)! The cover and internal illustrations (by Craig Phillips) are beautiful.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Kylie Sturgess posts the wonderful tribute to Hitchens video...

... from the GAC. Thanks for that, Kylie - it was very moving at the time and I hope it is viewed widely now it's on the internet.


That's all. Well, that and lots and lots of work to do. Oh, and it was great catching up with my lovely friends in Melbourne (but then again, it's also great to be home).

Long drive coming up

Long drive ahead today. Vroom! It's been a great week here in Melbourne, catching up with friends (special thanks to Alison and Tony for putting us for several of the nights), doing a stray presentation, and managing to slip in attendance at the Global Atheist Convention. Now, though, I need to get on home and get a lot of work done.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A million laughs at the GAC

Bruce Everett writes about the first night of the Global Atheist Convention. Funnily enough, as it were, I did not see the comedy shows. Someone had asked me if I could give her any advice about a book she has written, and I ended up having a long conversation about it while the comedy acts were on.

This means that I cannot give an opinion of my own about Jim Jefferies' routine, which Everett comments on, which became a matter of controversy through the convention, and which Ophelia Benson comments on here. Perhaps I'll watch the video that she has embedded in her post when I have time.

It seems that Jefferies uttered numerous misogynist comments. The issue seems to be whether his act is constructed in such a way that we are supposed to laugh along with these comments, as if recognising them as taboo truths, or whether he plays the role of a misogynist character - so his act is one of what we in the English department (well, I'm in the philosophy department these days, but you know what I mean) call "ironic impersonation".

I did talk to several people of both sexes who had seen the act. Some people, not all of them women, favoured the taboo truths theory. Some people, not all of them men, favoured the ironic impersonation theory. The latter did seem to me to have more detail in their favour - they seemed to think that he said at least some things that could only be said in character and could not possibly apply to the real Jim Jefferies. Still, there is a further theory possible, that he used a character as a megaphone for his real views, making the ironic impersonation interpretation available for the purpose of deniability. I suppose the important question is who in the audience was laughing at what they considered taboo truths and who was laughing at a character who thinks this way. If it's really this difficult to work out, maybe Jefferies needs to rethink his act to make the irony a bit more obvious. But that's all I'm going to say, since I wasn't there.

It does raise a more general question, though. Why were so many of the presentations in the very limited time of the convention comedy routines? Over the 48 hours, about a third of the presentations took that form. This may be written off as sour grapes on the part of someone who was not asked to speak at the convention (a number of people asked me why I wasn't on the program, but that wasn't my decision). But I genuinely do wonder.

I know that we (many of us) think religion is funny and all, but couldn't we have used some of the 48 hours of the convention for some presentations that might have challenged us in some way (other than by making us wonder whether we were laughing with or at misogyny)? Tamas Pataki was sorely missed, for example. He did a great job in last year's IQ2 debate, arguing the atheist side, but he also did a great job at the last GAC, probing uncomfortably at some of our assumptions.

Fortunately, Richard Dawkins did a wonderful job of this in the final session - a panel in which he conversed with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. In fact all four of them asked some hard questions about the future of the atheist movement.

Still, in a conference with only one strand of programming and only about 48 hours of time (it started on a Friday night and finished on a Sunday afternoon) is it really a great idea if about a third of it is comedy acts? I guess I'm the only one who feels this way, but we'll see.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

At the Global Atheist Convention

Bruce Everett is guest blogging at Butterflies and Wheels, covering his visit to Melbourne (he lives in Adelaide) to attend the Global Atheist Convention. His first contribution appears here.

Bruce attended the panel at Embiggen Books, where I spoke on Thursday night, along with Meredith Doig and Graham Oppy. He begins:
My Thursday night’s event of choice, which meant missing out on Dan Dennett and Peter Singer, was a discussion of Sean Faircloth’s ‘10 point plan’ on how to push secularism forward, and how a similar approach could be adopted in Australia, held at Embiggen Books. The discussion featured secularist power-houses Russell Blackford, Meredith Doig and Graham Oppy.

Near-consensus seemed to be reached that a series of such points should, at least in an Australian context, represent underlying secular principles from which specific policy points emerge, rather than being a shopping list of policy wants (which is pretty much what Faircloth’s list is). The difficulty in this however, it was suggested, was making such a series of points politically relevant and attractive to Australians. Abstract political concepts aren’t the easiest thing to sell, especially when you’re running up against savvy evangelicals and Australian Rules football.
... and goes on from there (I've gotta say that I do like the label "secularist powerhouse").

Meanwhile, there is much other discussion of the convention on the internet, which I'll leave readers to hunt out for the themselves. Apparently there is a fair bit of coverage, predictably negative, at the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal. Speaking for myself, I am happily ensconced in the convention's hotel, and I attended the reception last night - but got involved in conversations that kept me away from the first evening's opening comedy acts (apparently these created some controversy overnight, but at this stage I have no idea why).

I ran into various of the great and the good, among them Anthony Grayling, Jane Caro, and expect to meet up with many more people over the next couple of days. As I write, I am missing Peter Singer's presentation (why start the program so early?), but I've read many of Peter's books, so I have a fair idea of his views. Hopefully I'll be briefed by someone if he said something that was unexpected.

It looks as if I am actually going to miss a fair chunk of the morning at this rate, but hopefully I'll at least start getting to sessions soon - coming up today are presentations by, among others Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A good night at Embiggen Books

Last night we had a panel discussion at Embiggen Books in Melbourne, looking at the idea of a 10-point plan for secularism in Australia. The discussion was videoed, so I assume it will be available on the internet at some point fairly soon.

Meredith Doig had proposed the particular topic, so she went first, introducing it in the context of Sean Faircloth's plan for a secular America. She discussed this in some detail, pointing out aspects that did not translate well to Australian circumstances as well as to common problems between the two countries.

I went next, developing the view that a secular government - one which pursues this-worldly goals through this-worldly means - tends to become a liberal government. I argued for the importance of defending fundamental liberal principles such as the harm principle and freedom of speech (noting that the latter was not so relevant in America, where freedom of speech already enjoys strong constitutional protection).

Graham Oppy developed an argument based on core liberal notions of accepting social pluralism and controlling people's behaviour only where needed for the functioning of government itself or to protect fundamental rights. He suggested that this simple concept could be used to support most of what is contained in the Faircloth points.

Discussion ensued among the panelists, and then with the smallish but enthusiastic audience. The issues ranged across the entire range of problems confronting us in societies where religious organisations and ideas still influence government policies and the law. We spent some time on the problem that some religious people seem to be beyond any appeal to our sorts of arguments because they begin with criteria for truth that are totally different from ours. We'd have to tackle them on a deeper level and persuade them to change their epistemologies before we could argue with them in support of secularism.

For my part, I think this is the situation that we confront. I didn't get into this last night, but it would be extremely difficult to argue for a secular government in a society like that of Saudi Arabia - not just because such arguments would be suppressed, but because most people would probably not even grant the premises of any argument that conflicted with their religious views. It will be difficult for people in those societies to make progress toward secular government through argument (though other forces might make them unhappy with the governments that they actually have).

Even in Western societies, many people may not accept the premises of good arguments for secularism (if, for example, your theological position is that the state has a duty to please God, then I probably cannot reach you with arguments based on ideas that the state is best seen as an historically emergent institution whose point is to protect its citizens' interests in worldly things). However, the good news is that even religious people in Western societies are prepared - perhaps in the vast number of cases - to accept the sorts of premises on which secularism is based. They may, admittedly, not be prepared to take these to their full logical conclusions or be entirely consistent, but they are open to argument. Perhaps the majority of religious people in the West have reasons to accept secular ideas, at least to an extent.

Part of the reason for that is the engrained Western traditions of at least partial secularism: traditions which respond, historically, to the horrendous experiences of persecution and sectarian struggle in medieval and early modern Europe. This has taught us a lesson, and has, still speaking historically, helped open minds to the merits of secular models of the state. (On the other hand, as Graham Oppy mentioned to me, perhaps too many people have forgotten about this history, and we really need to do more to teach it.)

In the discussion, I made the point that we can't easily reach people with radical epistemologies, etc., with our arguments, but we can reach most people and rally them to think that secular government is an important value. That applies to religious people who accept the idea of secular government, not just non-believers. Furthermore, people in Australia do feel strongly about principles such as freedom of speech, which can be used to protect our liberties - e.g. our liberty to criticise religion.

I promised at the end of the panel that I'd provide a forum for further discussion on my blog - so here it is. Those who were there, feel free to report your own impressions and analyses of the evening, or to continue the debate back and forth.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Another long thread about free will and compatibilism ...

... at Why Evolution is True. I thank Jerry for the civil way in which he discusses this.

I don't see a lot of point in responding at length right now, as there are plenty of people involved in the debate on the thread who are making the sorts of points that I'd want to make. It's not as if the points are not getting made unless I have another go at it. There are some excellent contributors there, and I won't try to identify them all. Among them is one Gregory Kusnick - I don't know him, but he's one who seems to "get it". If Jerry is reading this, I urge him to have a look at Kusnick's comments, among various others along the same lines.

Also, I'll be reviewing Free Will by Sam Harris, fairly soon, and that will give me a chance to talk at some length on various issues that have arisen in these debates. A long post here at this stage (or at Talking Philosophy) would be duplicating effort.

But I do think that it's worth noting one point. I keep seeing dogmatic statements about the "real" meaning, or the "traditional" meaning, or the common meaning (supposedly the meaning of most ordinary people) of the expression "free will" - sometimes accompanied by claims that anyone who departs from this definition is playing games, changing the subject, or engaging in some sort of slippery quasi-theological casuistry ... all, it is sometimes suggested, because of some ulterior motive. This claim, which is tantamount to saying that people like Daniel Dennett are intellectually dishonest, could not be further from the truth. What we are seeing from people like Dennett are careful attempts to sort out difficult, potentially confusing expressions and concepts, and to see how the concepts match up with our actual world. It's not surprising if the result is rather messy.

In an interview in the current issue of Free Inquiry, the mild-mannered and careful Dennett sounds a bit pissed off at the way some recent authors approach the problem, and I think he has reason to be (the interview is not available on the internet - you'll need to buy or borrow a copy to see what I mean).

There is a long history to these debates about free will (or what is "up to us"), fatalism, and determinism - a history that goes back thousands of years. The record is there for anyone who wants to see the range of concerns emerging in this rich ongoing discussion. The concerns have been addressed in myth and literary narrative, and in the various schools of philosophy since ancient times. They are reflected in popular culture, often in seemingly confused ways. What the record shows is that compatibilists are not changing the subject at all - they stand squarely within the tradition.

Indeed, the main compatibilist points (points about the sense in which our actions might be "up to us" even if causal determinism is true) were known to Stoic thinkers, and discussed by them, in classical antiquity. In Enlightenment modernity, you can see them discussed by David Hume. The problem is not a new one, and philosophers did not suddenly realise a few decades ago that the world may - shock! horror! - be deterministic at the level of us and our actions. This was discussed by philosophers some two thousand years before the emergence of the modern field of neuroscience.

As well as the record of the history of ideas, we now have some empirical studies of folk conceptions of free will. These studies are open to interpretation, but it is arguable that the folk conception is actually a compatibilist one, or at least that it has a mix of compatibilist and incompatibilist elements that need to be sorted out (partly, I think, because it is easy for people who are not trained in philosophy to conflate determinism and fatalism). Perhaps we need further empirical research; perhaps we need further exercises in conceptual analysis, and in interpreting the current data; most likely, we need both. But one thing now seems clear: the folk are not universally and straightforwardly incompatibilist in their conceptions of free will.

Given these facts about the long history of the discussion, and given the current state of empirical research on what is probably conveyed to people by the term "free will" in ordinary conversations, I'm very surprised when I see dogmatic, ex cathedra pronouncements about what the expression means. Especially when it is combined with suggestions of intellectual dishonesty on the part of compatibilists.

Embiggen Books gig tonight

Do come along if you're in Melbourne - I gather there are still seats available. This is likely to be a cosy setting to meet people, too, so it has that advantage over other gigs that are happening tonight.

The topic is about a plan for secularism in Australia (though it will be interesting to think about how this differs from secularism in other countries). It does seem to me that policy in Australia is generally driven by secular goals, to be pursued in secular ways - but are there lingering influences from more theocratic times? I think there are. I think there's much to do if we recommitted ourselves to the notion of secular government.

Come along and hear about it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

And there was an earlier thread at RD.net I see

Just for completeness, RD.net already had this thread going, and it is attracting post-debate discussion.

A couple of other threads on Dawkins/Pell

On at RD.net ...

and one at Why Evolution is True.

I expect that most readers will have seen these already, but I'm providing them just in case some of y'all have missed them. Richard Dawkins himself has some words to say on the second of the two threads.

Bruce Everett reviews Freedom of Religion and the Secular State

Great review of the book over here.

Brull eviscerates Dines

Michael Brull does a great job here of eviscerating the anti-sex nutjob Gail Dines.

For the record, and bearing in mind how freely defamation suits sometimes flow, let me add that my view that she is viscerally anti-sex - that she finds human sexuality distasteful - is an opinion formed about her personality, based on hearing her on the radio, reading things she has written, and reading Brull's article. Perhaps I am wrong, as with all matters of opinion, but I don't think so. You may judge for yourself if you sample her spoken interviews, etc., and her writings, and read Brull's article, which at a minimum exposes what appears to be a kind of moralised dogmatism.

This leads to me the word "nutjob", which is not to be taken literally - no nuts, as such, are necessarily involved - and is intended mainly as vulgar abuse (though I do also think that there's a certain fanaticism about Dines - my opinion based on similar evidence to the above). In any event, just occasionally, vulgar abuse seems to me to be the way to go.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A couple of posts about sex slavery and prostitution...

... for you to mull over, while I'm on a blog break for a day or two.

One from Taslima Nasreen, commencing her association with freethoughtblogs.

And a reply by Greta Christina, who insists that prostitution can't necessarily be equated with sex slavery.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Dawkins and Pell on Q&A

I've been watching the special Q&A program with Richard Dawkins and George Pell. I'm not actually going to say much about it, at least tonight. I could debate Pell's points, but it's not as if any of them were terribly new to me (nor were the points made by Richard Dawkins or by the audience). The only thing that surprised me was how strongly Pell claimed that religious belief is not necessary for spiritual salvation, and that even atheists are likely to go to heaven if they have been honest about it. That's a far more liberal position on that particular point than I would have expected him to take.

I don't think either of them was as sharp as might have been hoped - Dawkins said that he was jet-lagged, and he did actually seem tired and a bit prickly, though he was engaging whenever he was able to get on a roll in explaining something.

Pell was often maundering when confronted with difficult questions, e.g. about his climate change scepticism, and about the Problem of Evil. As to the former, it was (slightly) interesting that he strongly denied being influenced on climate change by any non-accommodationism from scientists like Dawkins (Chris Mooney please take note). It seemed to be more based on his intuitions about how the weather is always changing or some such thing. On the latter, he twisted away from the question pretty quickly after admitting the difficulty in giving a satisfying answer.

But Pell did do a good job of seeming calm, indeed almost placid, throughout, with just a couple of debating points that he'd obviously prepared. He probably did himself some damage when he tried to explain transubstantiation in terms of medieval metaphysics, so that was a good debating point for Dawkins to use. He also shot himself in the foot a couple of times with highly unscientific claims about evolution.

Both panelists got a lot of applause from the studio audience, but there were no real fireworks.

War on drugs has failed - Latin American leaders

The Guardian reports that Latin American political leaders are increasingly concluding that the war on drugs has proved counterproductive in its effects on human welfare, and that some leaders will be calling for alternatives to prohibition in a summit to take place in Cartagena, Colombia. One example is Otto Pérez Molina:
Otto Pérez Molina, the president of Guatemala, who as former head of his country's military intelligence service experienced the power of drug cartels at close hand, is pushing his fellow Latin American leaders to use the summit to endorse a new regional security plan that would see an end to prohibition. In the Observer, Pérez Molina writes: "The prohibition paradigm that inspires mainstream global drug policy today is based on a false premise: that global drug markets can be eradicated."

Pérez Molina concedes that moving beyond prohibition is problematic. "To suggest liberalisation – allowing consumption, production and trafficking of drugs without any restriction whatsoever – would be, in my opinion, profoundly irresponsible. Even more, it is an absurd proposition. If we accept regulations for alcoholic drinks and tobacco consumption and production, why should we allow drugs to be consumed and produced without any restrictions?"

He insists, however, that prohibition has failed and an alternative system must be found. "Our proposal as the Guatemalan government is to abandon any ideological consideration regarding drug policy (whether prohibition or liberalisation) and to foster a global intergovernmental dialogue based on a realistic approach to drug regulation. Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that drug consumption and production should be legalised, but within certain limits and conditions."
Importantly, Barack Obama will be attending the Cartagena forum.

Unfortunately, decades of hysterical anti-drug propaganda now make it difficult for politicians to introduce any but the mildest reforms. Drugs have come to be a moral issue in many people's minds, and there is a popular view that it is the role of governments to enforce morality, rather than to protect and promote the ordinary welfare of their citizens (and relevant others). If we combine an acceptance of legal moralism with the view that using certain drugs is inherently wrong, we end up with bad policy that does more harm than good.

I'm pleased to see so many influential people coming to their senses on this - it was predictable decades ago that the war on drugs would do more harm than good - but the question is where the world's political leaders go from here. It won't be easy turning around the (largely) successful attempts, over many, many years, to demonise most recreational drugs. There's no real choice, though, but to start trying.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

On Jerry Coyne writing back on free will

In case you otherwise miss it, I'll just direct you over here to my latest post in my free will series at Talking Philosophy.

Sunday Supervillainy - AvX gets underway

Here is an interview with Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, focused on the Avengers vs X-Men event that has just got underway.

Alonso says:
An event is only as good as the story it presents, but part of the challenge of "keeping reader interest" is, of course, getting readers interested in the first place. And that’s where marketing comes in. With an event of this scope and length, part of the challenge is coming up with a marketing strategy that drives readers into stores well after the event is underway.

That said, the story drives the marketing campaign, never the other way around. You start with the story. Where does it begin and what road does it take you down? As details emerge, you break the story down into acts, and big moments emerge. In the case of "AvX," we came up with some big moments that ended up signaling act breaks, oh-$#!% moments that changed the trajectory of the story so each act became, in its own way, its own story.

Our marketing efforts will focus on this aspect of the event: Each act challenges the reader in a new way. A while back, I said I wondered how many readers would stick with their side once the story unfolded, and I wasn’t joking.
Now, my side is absolutely the X-Men ... at least as a starting point. But having now read AvX #1, I've gotta admit I'm a bit worried about what the hell their leader thinks he's doing. The Avengers are acting in a high-handed way early in this story, but Cyclops appears to be losing it a bit. Doubtless you need to portray both sides overstepping the mark if you're going to end up with two teams of superheroes beating the crap out of each other, with some ambiguity about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. But the overstepping is kind of extreme here (not necessarily out of character, or unrealistic as these things go, given the pressures all the characters are under, etc., etc. ... but still kind of extreme).

The gist of the story is that the Phoenix Force is destroying entire planetary civilizations in its path as it returns to Earth, apparently planning to bond with young Hope Summers, who has shown a superhuman affinity for it, similar to the late Jean Grey's. As leader of the X-Men, Cyclops wants to train Hope - brutally pushing her beyond her limits - for the role of host for the Phoenix Force. This might save the Earth from destruction as well as helping mutantkind recover from its horrendous setbacks in recent times. Hmmm, this sounds a leetle bit like a Magneto-ish, supervillainish approach to mutant affairs.

Conversely, the Avengers turn up at the X-Men's island with a display of seemingly overwhelming force - they arrive with huge military weapon platforms, mutant-hunting technology, and an expanded roster that includes at least the following: Captain America, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, The Thing, Spider-Woman, Giant-Man, Wolverine (!), Hawkeye, The Red Hulk, Luke Cage, Mockingbird, Iron Fist, The Black Widow, Spider-Man, The Black Panther, and Daredevil. (A separate group, including Thor and Ms Marvel, has been sent into space to confront the Phoenix Force directly.)

The Avengers, via Captain America, "ask" to take Hope into their "protective custody", and are not willing to take No for an answer ... either from the X-Men's leadership or, presumably from Hope herself. Given the way they are invading the island to kidnap Hope, if so required, you can see them as the bad guys.

But meanwhile, even the villains/ex-villains on the X-Men roster are looking worried about how driven and ruthless Cyclops has become, and whether his plan for dealing with the Phoenix Force as it returns to our planet will be workable. In fact, the voices of reason at this stage are actually Magneto and Emma Frost, so I wonder if they might change sides try to take matters into their own their own hands, later in the story.

You also have to wonder whether everyone on the Avengers roster that we've seen is going to be prepared to engage in an all-out war. E.g. is someone as inherently non-fanatical as Spider-Man going to be sufficiently convinced of the righteousness of the Avengers' cause to take a war over custody of one teenage girl to its logical conclusion - perhaps with people being maimed or killed?

So I look forward to twists and turns, and maybe to some challenges to what side I take as it all pans out. Good times!

Saturday, April 07, 2012

How I've been spending Easter

In a family-oriented way, as it happens. At lunch earlier today we have my dad, my sister, me, and my brother-in-law.

More family stuff coming up tonight - involving Jenny's side of the family.

The alleged evils of modern art

As I mentioned the other day - in the editorial insertion - Chris Berg from the IPA drew my attention to a piece on the IPA site.

This article, by Ben Hourigan, does, in fact, suggest (among other things) that the police butt out of art galleries. Hourigan gets a great deal right, including his description of the moral panic that arose in 2008 over Bill Henson's much-celebrated (and much-denounced) photography:
Australia's most recent dramatic controversy over freedom of artistic expression centres on veteran photographer Bill Henson's images of nude and semi-nude pubescent boys and girls. Following a complaint by Hetty Johnston of the anti-child-sexual-assault organisation Bravehearts, in May 2008 police seized photographs from a Henson exhibition due to open at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney. Just under two weeks later, police dropped all charges after the Office of Film and Literature Classification gave nearly all the images in question a rating of G (general). The sole exception, the image of a naked thirteen-year-old girl circulated on exhibition invitations, received a rating of PG (parental guidance recommended). Receipt of any rating at all is enough to quash charges of child pornography or indecency, but the awarded ratings are the broadest recommendations of suitability for any audience available under the Australian scheme, and mean that the Henson photos are subject to no legal restrictions on their exhibition or sale.

When professional, government-appointed classifiers place Henson's images so clearly within the law, it's astonishing to see politicians whip up such a media storm and inspire such heavy-handed action from police. The moral panic went all the way to the highest levels of our political system, with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd telling the Nine Network that he found the image of the thirteen-year-old girl ‘absolutely revolting.' NSW premier Morris Iemma called the photographs ‘offensive and disgusting.' The politicians' foray into amateur art criticism continued when Art Monthly Australia used a photograph by Polixeni Papapetrou of a naked-but relatively modestly shot-six-year-old girl as its cover in July 2008. This act of defiance against the attitudes that had victimised Henson prompted the prime minister to comment: ‘frankly, I can't stand this stuff.'
Hourigan goes on to say useful things about this particular episode and others, such as the famous Andres Serrano photograph "Piss Christ". Most notably, he sums up at one point:
The Prime Minister shouldn't be intruding on civil society by parading his uninformed opinions of contemporary photography in the mass media. The police shouldn't be confiscating artworks and tarnishing Henson's reputation with charges relating to child pornography when they should have been able to tell how clearly the images in question fall within the law. Crazy people should have more respect for private property and not go smashing up artworks with hammers, and newspapers shouldn't do so much to feed a public perception that the art world is impossibly depraved.
However, he segues into his own rant about the evils of modern art and the culture within which it is created and promoted. The attitudes of hostility to Henson and others are understandable, he thinks, because: "Whether they see it as a way to turn a profit or, more nobly, as their moral and artistic duty, the core of their art practice is the activity of violating, however subtly, mainstream reasoning, taste, and morality."

So far, so good. Some artists, especially more avant-garde ones, doubtless do consider it their duty to challenge and trangress mainstream reasoning, taste, and morality. That, however, seems to me altogether a good thing as far as it goes. Mainstream ideas and values should not go uncontested, and we do rely on artists to contest them. The result may not always be pretty, and sometimes boundaries that should not be crossed will be - or at least that is a risk. For example, contrary to the moral panic at the time, Henson's photography does not demean or blatantly sexualise its subjects, but what if it had? At some point, these images could have become child pornography, even though that never actually happened.

The point is that there are some limits, even if broad ones, to what can be done even in the name of high art. There is an edginess about much serious art, and it is, indeed, understandable that this makes many people uncomfortable. At the same time ... within those broad limits, art plays a valuable role, and it is one that requires defence all the more because of the edginess aspect. Without that defence, it is very easy to imagine the boundaries closing and constricting, as populist political leaders like Rudd appeal to the wider community's prejudice and ignorance.

And this is where Hourigan's emphasis is all wrong. His ultimate point seems to be that the messages conveyed by transgressive art are banal, and that this makes it more difficult to defend art and the artistic community. He makes much of the claim that Henson's message can be reduced to "puberty is a time of uncertainty, and that even though we might want to treat teenagers as children, their bodies are capable of carrying an adult sexual charge" OR even to something so simple as "puberty is difficult and thirteen-year-olds have a budding sexuality."

Now, there is something right about this. Perhaps these are the messages conveyed by Henson's work, and the second formulation in particular sounds rather trite. But it won't work to reduce any artistic production to a message that could equally be expressed as an abstract proposition. Imagine where most popular art and culture would stand if we did this - much of it could be reduced to simple propositions such as "hurting people is bad and romantic love is good". By stating this proposition, I have now saved you the trouble of reading numerous books and watching numerous TV shows and movies.

That is not how it works, of course, though exactly how it does work is a complicated issue for critics, philosophers, and artists themselves in their introspective moments. It's not that we can really expect modern art to embody more surprising or arcane social, moral, or philosophical insights. The power of any artwork is not going to depend on this but on its ability to move and provoke through mastery of technique. If we are moved by Henson's work to think thoughts along the lines of, "puberty is a time of uncertainty, and ... even though we might want to treat teenagers as children, their bodies are capable of carrying an adult sexual charge," the experience cannot be substituted by my writing those words in a blog post.

The beauty of Henson's work is that it provokes these thoughts, and doubtless others, perhaps many of them uncertain or mutually contradictory, through the power of its composition and other aesthetic qualities. The thoughts are not merely stated abstractly, perhaps in a dogmatic way, perhaps supported by arguments, but are brought home to us through surprise and emotion, delivered by the artist's mastery of his chosen medium.

Saying much more would lead us into controversial and intellectually murky areas of philosophical aesthetics, a subject on which I claim no specialist expertise. But it is obtuse and unworkable to demand of artists that they convey more profound and surprising messages. Hourigan has some useful and even incisive things to say, but his final admonition to artists misses the point.

Friday, April 06, 2012

The free will dispute continues with...

... among other things, this jumbo-sized thread over at Why Evolution is True, which I've only just found time to read through (and even then in a semi-skimming way) in its entirety.

Happy days! Really, it's good that we can have disagreements about these things and remain friends. Perhaps it's because the differences are largely matters of semantics ... though they are important ones. There are many contexts in which even the semantics matter considerably, and getting the non-semantic facts clear certainly matters.

Expect me to have another go at this soon over on Talking Philosophy. I've been writing a series of posts responding to some pieces on free will in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the post about Jerry's Coyne piece in the Chronicle has a long thread of its own.

Peter Craven on Easter ... and "our Christian cultural bedrock"

Peter Craven is all over the place with this piece. At one stage he starts to put an argument that, on balance, Christianity was good for the world, but then he decides not to press it.

For the record, I don't know whether Christianity was good for the world on balance or not. There are too many imponderables as to how history might have gone in the absence of Christianity. No one knows the answer to that.

To ask a slightly different question, was it an improvement on what went before? In Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, I say what I think is the only sensible thing:
All things considered, the moral ethos of Christianity may or may not have been an improvement on what went before. This is a large and controversial question, and involves difficult value judgments that are far beyond the scope of this book. Classical Roman civilization had its own dark side, which the pagan cults did little or nothing to oppose. From a Christian viewpoint, the cults were implicated in such abhorrent practices as gladiatorial combat, crucifixion of rebels and criminals, and neglect of the poor and diseased.

But whatever can be said in Christianity's favor, its obvious downside was its tendency to intolerance, demonization, persecution, and suppression.

I own a copy of the Geoffrey Blainey book that Craven refers to - as a matter of fact it was a Christmas gift from a friend. I haven't read it yet, mainly because it is a long and daunting volume that needs some time set aside. But I'll do so, and I'm looking forward to it. But even if it could be argued plausibly that the world, considered over historical time, has been a better place on balance because of Christianity, it would by no means follow that Christian morality (or some version of it) has been an unalloyed good, or that it is our best option now.

In any event, as I said, Craven does not press this point. So what is his real argument?

If he simply means that the Easter narrative is culturally important, and that it is meaningful to us as a work of fiction, open to secular interpretations, then I'm fine with it. You could, of course, say the same about the Iliad, or the works of William Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens, or J.R.R. Tolkien. Or perhaps - or perhaps especially - the story of the trial and execution of Socrates (where we don't really know quite what happened).

But who is supposed to be denying any of this? I doubt that Richard Dawkins, who has often described himself as a cultural Anglican, would do so. Why take the opportunity for yet another banal complaint about Dawkins, especially when it's not based on his actual position?

Yes, of course the Easter narrative is of cultural importance. Of course it is something that the next generation of Australians should be taught about (but in an academic and critical way, not in a devotional and dogmatic way).

Nothing follows about the narrative actually being true, notwithstanding whatever subjective intuitions Craven is reporting, rather cryptically, near the end of his ruminations.

And nothing follows about the people who place it at the centre of their religious beliefs and rituals possessing any moral authority to tell the rest of us how to live our lives. Indeed, we can be culturally appreciative of the Easter narrative while also being critical of some of the values that it seems to embody - values of suffering, submission, piety, etc. Something similar applies to the Iliad, with its seductive, but also repellent, glorification of military glory and its extreme (by our standards) valorisation of warriors and their martial valour. And of course all these narratives can be read in numerous ways, sometimes even without too much contrivance - thus, the Iliad may be taken as revealing the horrible outcomes when we overvalue military glory and the valour of warriors.

All of this could be discussed and explored in, say, a course on mythic narratives. Meanwhile, perhaps we could appreciate the Easter narrative (or the various inconsistent versions of it in the gospels) somewhat more if it were treated simply as part of our cultural heritage, not as the word of God. An important part of our heritage, yes - much like the Iliad and the story of the trial/execution of Socrates - but only one part.

As for Easter itself, for Australians this has become a kind of neo-pagan festival in which we spend time with our family, swap chocolates, and maybe go on a holiday with the kids (or just hang out for a few days with fewer concerns than usual). At the back of it, I suppose, is a celebration of fertility and life; though if so, even this is very far back in most people's minds in contemporary Australian circumstances.

I have no objection at all to cultural festivals such as Easter and Christmas, and I don't mind that they have mixed origins in pagan practice and Christian tradition. That reflects our history. But it doesn't mean that we need accord implausible ideas (resurrections, substitutionary atonements) any credence. And nor need we accord moral authority to individuals who patently lack it, such as bishops and priests.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Savulescu and Foddy on the war against drugs

Over on the Practical Ethics site, Julian Savulescu and Bennett Foddy put an argument against the war on drugs, lamenting the process the scarcity of moral arguments against it in the public debate. They call for such arguments in the light of a simple fact about the case against drugs: it is driven primarily by supposed moral imperatives:
Although experts have told us time and time again that things would be better without the drug war, politicians have ignored the expert advice because voters do not want drugs laws to be loosened. And voters feel this way not because they think they know better than the experts, but because they have moral objections to drug use. There is a hidden moral debate driving the war on drugs that we never seem to bring out in the open.
They go on to suggest that the original moral concerns were based on racism and xenophobia - the belief that white people should not indulge in the pleasures of, say, Chinese opium dens. The current moral rationale seems to be that certain drugs, but not others such as alcohol and tobacco, are socially constructed as "addictive".

Savulescu and Bennett do not merely challenge these socially constructed facts, such as by arguing that alcohol is just as much a drug of addiction as opium or that tobacco is no less addicting than marijuana. They go further and challenge the whole notion of addiction (citing a body of publications that they've built up on the subject).
People become “addicted” to gambling, videogames, internet use, exercise, sex, carrots, sugar and water. These substances or activities do not “hijack” the brain — they provide pleasure utilising the same brain pathways as drugs.

Every pleasurable activity is ‘addictive’.

The public discourse on drugs includes liberty, health, and crime, but it so rarely includes the value of pleasure. We do not have to be hedonists to believe that pleasure is one of the important goods in a person’s life. A liberal society should be neutral with regard to which pleasures people may pursue; it should not force people to conform to a particular conception of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pleasures. But more importantly, if every pleasurable behaviour can be addictive, then there can be no reason to believe that the pleasures of drug use are less important than the pleasures of good food and wine, of rock-climbing and football, or of browsing the internet. Each of these things is pleasurable, and hence each is addictive, and each can be harmful if done to excess. But we all have a right to pursue the pleasures we find valuable, even though each of these pleasures puts us at risk of addictions or addiction-like problems: alcoholism, pathological internet use, sex addiction, binge eating disorder, and so on.
I don't think I'd be putting it in quite this way - in particular, I'm suspicious of this kind of rights talk. If they mean that we should have a negative right against the state not to be prevented from doing anything that gives us pleasure, then that is far too broad. If they mean something else with the talk about a right to pleasure ... well, I'm not sure what it is that they mean.

Still, it's refreshing to see someone pointing out this particular elephant in the room - that pleasure actually counts, that the pleasure from an activity is a very good prima facie reason to allow, and even approve of, the activity.

An angry op.ed about theocracy (not from me, from Joseph Power)

Over at Digital Journal, Joseph Power has an angry (but not just ranty) op.ed piece about getting religion out of politics. Before I proceed any further, good for Joseph Power in raising this issue and making the points that he does. It warrants repeating that the churches have too much influence in politics even in a relatively secular country such as Australia.

But before someone else does so, let me note that some sentences have come out a bit oddly - and perhaps it's not too late to fix them. One says: "I challenge any member of this lobby to convince me that homosexuality is not a satanic influence on human lives (as a number claim), but rather a form of love." Since he is talking about the Australian Christian Lobby, which he clearly opposes, I'm sure he means something more like: "I challenge any member of this lobby to convince me that homosexuality is a satanic influence on human lives (as a number claim), rather than a form of love."

Here is another example, near the end: "It is a proud badge of the religious (more so the fanatic), to claim modesty and humility. The claim of divine communication warrants, imposing faith on others, seizing political power, lobbying politicians for humanist ideals and attempting to infiltrate the public-school classroom falls under neither category." This seems a bit garbled, partly because of poor punctuation, but also because there are just too many thoughts to be expressed clearly in only two sentences. Surely he means something like: "The religious (and even more so the fanatical) pretend to modesty and humility. But neither of these is shown when they impose faith on others, seize political power, lobby politicians against humanist ideals, and attempt to infiltrate the public-school classroom. They justify all this with dubious claims about communications from God."

I'm not trying to be picky or to act superior. These simply are places (and there are others) in the article where the meaning gets lost ... so I'm offering what I think is intended. All this shows the value of working with an editor, as it's easy to write something that you think is perfectly clear (after all, you know what you intended to convey) but is not so for someone coming to it cold.

That said, let's get back to the substance of it. The main point that I get from the article - not a new one here, but worth repeating to Power's audience - is that the current Gillard government continues to form policy about such things as marriage on a basis that has little if any secular justification (not even a crude populist one). Power also makes other important points that deserve an airing beyond the usual forums, such as his point about the dangers inherent in the Arab Spring phenomenon that has received so much uncritical praise. What, we might ask, is the benefit in overthrowing an authoritarian regime if it ends up being replaced by a nominally democratic but even more anti-liberal one?

I don't know anything about Joseph Power. But I do applaud him for making these points, which are often neglected or played down in the mainstream media.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Here's something you can do to support freedom of speech...

You can give some money to the IPA fighting fund. I'd be happy if you did this, as much of this seems to be activity that the IPA would not carry out under its ordinary budget. I don't think you'll be indirectly funding other activities by IPA that I'm less happy about, such as those to do with climate-change scepticism.

Knowing my readers, though, I suspect that a suggestion of giving money to the IPA will not go down well - not with most of y'all.

That's partly because the IPA is known as a right-wing think tank, taking lines on many political issues that cause me, and probably you, concern. In that regard, it doesn't help that the opening example on the IPA's page relates to Andrew Bolt's widely-publicised attack on a number of prominent Aboriginal Australians - an attack that seemed very reckless, at least to me, and might have been open to legal redress under defamation law even if the defamation law concerned were constrained considerably (as I advocate). You can track down my views about the Andrew Bolt case elsewhere on this blog.

In all, this is an economically right-wing organisation advertising in a way that is likely to appeal to people who are also on what is usually regarded as the Right. This fighting fund may not appeal to you as the best way to show your support for freedom of speech.

Fine. But here are a few points on the other side. First, whatever its faults may be, the IPA has been quite principled and consistent in supporting freedom of speech. This is not a case where someone is defending freedom of speech for a journalistic shock jock like Bolt, while opposing it for artists, creative writers, etc.

Or if I'm wrong on that, I'd like to see the evidence. While organisations have their priorities, is there any evidence that the IPA, and Chris Berg in particular, took the "wrong" side during the Bill Henson fracas? Until such evidence is shown to me, I'm going to give the IPA kudos for this one - for being on the side of freedom of speech as a matter of principle, and not merely as a matter of opportunism.

[Edit: Chris Berg sent me, via twitter, a link to this IPA piece on Henson. It has a lot of hedging and arse-covering, but so does the post you're reading. In the end, to the IPA's credit, it does, indeed, say that the police should have left Henson alone.]

On the other hand, I think there's a challenge here for the IPA to reach out to people who have my sorts of concerns about free speech, if it wants to create alliances with folks who are at least broadly on the Left.

(I do recognise that the IPA's priorities are never going to be the identical to mine - e.g. I place a very high priority on artistic expression, such as Henson's, on the freedom to criticise religion, and so on. In my opinion, there are better and clearer examples of attacks on freedom of speech than those used by the IPA ... and the fact that I think that shows, no doubt, that I, like you, probably come at all this from a different socio-political angle.)

Second, someone has to stand up for freedom of speech in this country. If you'd rather it was not the IPA, and that the likes of Andrew Bolt were not used as poster children for freedom of speech, how about taking the challenge to do something else, rather than donating to the IPA, as a contribution to the more general philosophical and political cause?

It might not involve any financial outlay. Zeus knows, I don't have a lot of money to use to support other people's work (supporting my own is difficult enough). Perhaps it will be writing letters to newspapers. Perhaps it will be blogging on the topic, or just linking to this blog (since I've been a forthright, though not especially well known, free speech advocate in Australia for many years now). Perhaps there's something you can do locally to organise. If you don't want to pay for the expenses of the IPA (you probably won't need to, to have them come to you, as they are fairly well financed), then, hey, pay for mine (I come cheap) to come and speak to your group.

Again, you can buy a friend a copy of The Australian Book of Atheism (which has my chapter arguing in defence of freedom of speech) and/or a copy of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (which has a long, very different, though complementary, chapter on the subject - it's one of the chapters in the book that I'm proudest of). The first option in this paragraph won't make me a cent, by the way (I was paid a one-off and fairly token fee for the chapter, and that's it). The second option does, in that I do get royalties on sales of the book, so by all means discount my remarks for the fact that every copy of the book sold earns me a couple of dollars.

Whatever you do, though, whether it's supporting the IPA or something else quite different ... well, do something, please. This is an important issue, and we won't make progress unless large numbers of people get involved.

The Australia21 report on drug regulation is worth reading

This report from the high-profile Australia21 group, dramatically, yet factually, entitled "The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen", tells it straight. I recommend downloading the full report, reading that whole thing (which won't take more than hour ... probably a fair bit less), and drawing other people's attention to it.

Even if you're not based in Australia, the report probably applies to the situation in your country (Portugal is one glaring exception).

Sample quote:
A substantial proportion of Australia’s street and household
crime is a direct consequence of the trade in illicit drugs and the
need for dependent users to find money to acquire drugs. Large
numbers of young people who experiment with these drugs
are criminalised by the enforcement of prohibition laws – even
though those thus criminalised are only a minority of the huge
numbers of experimenters. The current policy of prohibition
discredits the law, which cannot possibly stop a growing
trade that positively thrives on its illegality and black market
status. Our prisons are crowded with people whose lives have
been ruined by dependence on these drugs. Like the failure
of the prohibition of alcohol in the USA from 1920 to 1933,
the current prohibition of illegal drugs is creating more harms
than benefits and needs to be reconsidered by the Australian
community. Many other countries are starting to review this
area. A decade ago, and with excellent results, Portugal
decriminalised the possession of small quantities of all illicit
drugs consistent with personal consumption. A number of other
countries have adopted versions of this approach. In December
2011, the current Presidents of 12 Central and South American
countries called for the use of ‘market mechanisms’ in response
to illegal drugs. In a 2011 US Gallup poll, 50% supported the
legalisation of marijuana with 46% opposed.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Sean Faircloth's Ten Guiding Principles of a Secular America

These are worth listing, especially since Meredith Doig, Graham Oppy, and I will soon be doing a gig about equivalent principles for a truly secular Australia.

Here is Sean Faircloth's list:

1. Our military shall serve and include all Americans, religious and nonreligious, with no hint of bias, and with no fundamentalist extremism coloring our military decisions at home or abroad.

2. Any federal- or state-funded program, whether offering services domestic or foreign, that relates to reproductive health and sexual decisions shall be based on science and public health, not on religious bias or the denigration of women or sexual minorities.

3. Health-care professionals shall fulfil their ethical and professional oath to address the needs of patients, and they must do so with no hint of religious bias in respectful service to the patients they are sworn to serve - or they must find another job.

4. There shall be no bias based on religion or lack thereof in any land-use planning or environmental laws, and discrimination based on religion or lack thereof shall be prohibited in any employment setting.

5. While marriage can be defined by a religion as that religion chooses for the purposes of its internal ceremonies, our government shall never impose a religious bias on its definition of marriage.

6. When facing the end of life, all Americans shall be guaranteed control over their own bodies, without beng thwarted by religious bias.

7. America's youth shall never be subjected to religious bias in education. If there is one penny of government funds involved, there must not be one iota of religious bias or propaganda.

8. The composition of our Congress and legislatures shall include Secular Americans, and there must be no political bias against secular candidates.

9. There shall be one consistent standard pertaining to the health and welfare of children, no matter the religion of a child's parents, school or child-care center. Religious extremists can do whatever they want to their own bodies, but children shall be treated as human beings, not as pawns to be sacrificed in the name of religion.

10. Medical, technical, and scientific innovation shall be dedicated to the health and advancement of our fellow citizens and must never be impeded by religious bias.

I do, indeed, feel a need to tweak this ... but it's a pretty good starting point.

Secular Australia: A 10 Point Plan - forthcoming presentation in Melbourne

When I'm Melbourne after Easter, I'll be on this panel at Embiggen Bookswith two wonderful fellow panelists: Meredith Doig and Graham Oppy. It takes place on Thursday evening, 12 April, at 6.30 pm.

As you can see, the topic is Secular Australia: A 10 Point Plan. It probably won't escape you that the topic responds to Sean Faircloth's proposed ten-point plan for a secular United States of America. Indeed, the blurb (when you click on the link) says:
In the USA, Sean Faircloth, the new Richard Dawkins Foundation Director of Strategy and Policy, has put forward a 10 Point Plan for a secular America. In this vein, our top-shelf panel of thinkers asks: What could/should be Australia’s 10 Point Plan be for a truly secular nation?
I expect that we'll all be asking ourselves whether the Sean Faircloth plans needs tweaking (both in general, and if we were trying to apply it to Australian circumstances). There's going to be some great discussion and debate, so come along if you can.

End the "war on drugs"

I couldn't agree more with the current proposal to end the war on drugs in Australia. We should have learned a long time ago that, even from a utilitarian or harm reduction viewpoint, these kinds of prohibitions of things that people want to do and don't view as wrong will never work. They merely cause further suffering, not to mention police corruption, distorted priorities in the use of public resources, and a general disrespect for the law. That's before we even get to the offensiveness of legislators telling adult citizens (or even mature minors) how to live their lives and what to do with their own bodies.

There is a role for the government in enacting paternalistic legislation mainly aimed at protecting children. Parents may well welcome this kind of support. It might, for example, mean that certain products cannot be advertised during prime viewing time for kids, that some will not be available to teenagers below a certain age (though there's no need for it to be the full age of majority), and so on. Governments can launch their own propaganda education campaigns against activities that they dislike, and these can be effective up to a point in shaping what is seen as cool and/or socially acceptable. But there are limits - beyond a certain point, government action is offensive, oppressive, and counterproductive.

Our current drug laws are way, way beyond that point. It's time to decriminalise, and in fact legalise (but regulate), the main recreational drugs. That is a more liberal policy and a more humane one.