It’s not easy to write critically about humanism from a secular perspective.
The problem has to do with the fluid nature of the concept "humanism".
It has no single, precise meaning and there is little agreement about its constituent
elements. As a result, to criticise humanism is to run the risk of being accused
of a "straw-man" fallacy; that is, the fallacy of misrepresenting
a position or argument in order to make it easier to criticise. It is easy to
see how this might happen. Humanism isn’t any one particular thing. If
a good argument can be made against any one of the things, amongst others,
that it might be, then likely you’ll find that everyone disavows that
particular … Read the rest
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It’s not easy to write critically about humanism from a secular perspective.
The critics of modern life never cease to amaze us. Everyday there is a new
crisis of modernity that threatens our continued existence. Nowhere is this
more evident than in agriculture. We’re told that the use of pesticides is generating
soaring cancer rates, yet there is nothing in the statistics which confirms
this alarmist rhetoric. It is claimed that the Green Revolution led to a decline
in vegetable production. Never mind that in most areas where there were significant
advances in the production of modern grain varieties, there were also the largest
increases in non-grain consumption; and that the world’s population is eating
a more diverse diet than ever before. And also, never mind that without the
yield increases in … Read the rest
In these dark times holding out against the constant barrage of pop culture
has become more challenging than surviving a succession of carpet bombings.
Pop music seeps and swells from the ceilings and nooks of shops, offices, and
coffeehouses. Television sets are now permanent fixtures in airports, post offices,
saloons, and doctor’s offices – in fact, one dangled precariously above me as
I suffered a recent root canal, tuned to Oprah no less, which was far
more painful than the surgery itself. I commenced to pray the set would dislodge
from the ceiling and put me out of my misery, but Yahweh spared me – evidently
to continue His good work.
So much of popular culture is so indescribably bereft … Read the rest
Immigrant, ethnic minority, asylum-seeker – slivers of insinuation separate
the meanings of each term in contemporary Britain. Ethnic minority, black and
Asian, cultural diversity – clouds of obfuscation have distinguished contemporary
arts in Britain over the past 30 years.
That I draw an analogy between socio-political and artistic terminology is
not incidental: socio-political concerns have determined arts-funding policy
for the past three decades. Ever since, in fact, the publication of Naseem Khan’s
seminal report for the Arts Council in 1976, ‘The Arts Britain Ignores’. This
year sees the launch of yet another arts initiative, designed to heap attention
on ‘culturally diverse’ arts, aptly titled ‘decibel’ (noise). Why do we need
a showcase of ethnic arts? And what noise is decibel… Read the rest
The answer to the question in the title is "No one," but it will
take a while to get to the reasons. I thought about the Gepids as I drove through
the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico through incomparable scenery,
a lot of history, and often uncomfortable knowledge about the present, much
of it filtered through the novels of fellow Oklahomans, Tony Hillerman and Ron
Querry. Their books and other sources touch on problems of the contemporary
Navajo, but they are more noted for their celebration of the coherence of Navajo
culture and the sense of "hozho," of oneness with the beauty of the
world. This theme is attractive to many Anglos who buy into a nostalgia for… Read the rest
This is an edited version of the article, Debunking Edward Said – Edward
Said and Saidists: or Third World Intellectual Terrorism, which
is here. For the purposes of ease of reading, references and bibliographical
information have been removed from this edited version of the article, but the
longer version is fully referenced. Interested readers should follow the link!
Consider the following observations on the state of affairs in the contemporary
Arab world :
"The history of the modern Arab world – with all its political failures,
its human rights abuses, its stunning military incompetences, its decreasing
production, the fact that alone of all modern peoples, we have receded in democratic
and technological and scientific development – is disfigured … Read the rest
What was it you wanted from that big new novel? If you’re looking for an education
about Victorian brothels, Dante studies during the 19th century,
iconography and iconology in art history, the structure and function of railroads,
the Allied retreat to Dunkirk, British scientific expeditions in the Himalaya,
Bobby Thomson’s Brooklyn-crushing dinger or any number of other subtopics in
history, philosophy, business or law, then you’ll likely find it satisfying
enough. But if you’re looking for the promise of invention, for a world created
and set in motion, for characters who grapple with ethical and moral dilemmas
that radically transform their perspective – the elements that make a great
and true novel – you’ll be disappointed.
I’m not arguing … Read the rest
Early on every thinking man makes the conscious or unconscious decision whether
to view the cup of life as half full, or dry as the Garagum Desert. Those whose
cup is half full are the world’s optimists, the Pollyannas and the kind of people
to be avoided at all costs, particularly at parties. In America they are, according
to Gallup, the majority (64 percent). These are the same folks who wave flags,
join the PTA, bet on the Cubs, and get caught in thunderstorms without an umbrella
and hopefully catch pneumonia. Pessimists, by my estimate, make up about 10
percent of the American population. The other 26 percent couldn’t care less,
and were probably too busy watching professional wrestling to … Read the rest
You say, as I have often given tongue
In praise of what another’s said or sung.
‘Twere politic to do the like by these;
But was there ever a dog that praised his fleas?
William Butler Yeats
Some years ago, a mentor of mine put forth the argument: “Would you try to build a cabinet when you did not posses even the rudimentary woodworking skills or knowledge of the tools necessary to build the cabinet? Of course not, then why do so many people think they can write poetry without an iota of preparation?”
Still, many do. “Pop vocalists pose as opera singers. Important art museums exhibit installations that the cleaning staff mistakes for trash. Obscenity-riddled recitations, imposed over rhythm … Read the rest
There is a certain caricature of philosophers which has it that they spend
their time arguing about whether things like tables and chairs exist. This is
just a caricature, but nevertheless there is an element of truth in it when
it comes to the debate about realism and anti-realism. Put crudely, realists
– or, more precisely, external realists – think both that the world exists
independently of our perceptions of it and thoughts about it, and that we can
reliably know about the world. Anti-realists, for a variety of reasons, doubt
both these propositions.
The philosophical debate about realism and anti-realism – which involves arguments
about, for example, sense experience, language, and the nature of knowledge
– is complex and … Read the rest
There is an old Chinese folk tale in which a fool
deposits 300 pieces of silver in a hole. In order to conceal his largesse, he
puts up a sign nearby to announce that “300 pieces of silver do not lie here.”
The moral of the tale was that the more you try to cover something up, the more
obvious it is that something is being concealed.
The Chinese government, fiercely vigilant when
it comes to any manifestation of press freedom, are learning this lesson the
hard way with regard to the viral condition known as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory
Syndrome. It used to be thought that in China, the only way of confirming if
a story was true … Read the rest
Postmodernist anti-science thought was once primarily associated with European
and North American academics in the humanities. Now not only has its influence
become international, but it has become integrally intertwined with a number
of other issues such as anti-globalization, anti-transgenic technology in agriculture,
and conservation. Nobody can fault the prevailing internationalism of postmodernists
and their respect for different cultures and peoples (except for the culture
of those who are committed to modern science/technology and its benefits). Nor
can we fault their argument that all of us have biases, though they fail to
comprehend the vital role that scientific method plays in helping to overcome
the limitations which personal and cultural biases impose. Their belief in the
worth and dignity of … Read the rest
One day in 1995, biologist Armand Leroi walked into Manhattan’s Strand Bookshop
and made a remarkable discovery. He came across a rather plain-looking remaindered
volume bearing the title Cancer Selection . The postdoc student had not heard of the book or its author, James
Graham. But, Leroi recalls: “I’m a sucker for odd theories of evolution, so
I bought it.” It was an impulse decision that was to have profound implications.
For buried in the book was a bold new idea that has become a muse to the young
The book was lying on a table in front of him when I visited his South London
flat. Leroi, a reader in evolutionary developmental biology at London’s Imperial
College, is … Read the rest
A committee has met behind closed doors in London over the last two years to
decide the future of old bones in British cultural and scientific institutions.
Their deliberations and decision will have consequences for all of us. The skeletons
in the closets could tell us about history, humanity and our health, if only
we would let them.
There is a growing feeling amongst many in the museum profession that
old human remains should be returned to where they were originally found. Tony
Blair raised the issue of repatriation in 2000 when he agreed to increase efforts
to send back remains from Australian indigenous communities. The Department
for Culture Media and Sport subsequently set up a working group to examine … Read the rest
Ever since science became a going concern in the ancient world, people have
asked: “What is this thing called science?” An early answer was given by Aristotle
in his Organon, its focus being largely on the logic and methodology
of scientific reasoning. Even if its substantive claims are now no longer central,
it inaugurated a tradition of philosophical thought about science that has had
wide acceptance by many scientists and philosophers; in their different ways
recent philosophers such as Carnap, Popper, Lakatos and the Bayesians are all
within this tradition. It involves belief in, and the application of, principles
of logic, methodology and of rationality generally; on the whole such principles
have been instrumental in leading scientists, if not … Read the rest
Here is a story you probably haven’t heard, about how a team of American researchers
inadvertently introduced a virus into a third world country they were studying.(1)
They were experts in their field, and they had the best intentions; they thought
they were helping the people they were studying, but in fact they had never
really seriously considered whether what they were doing might have ill effects.
It had not occurred to them that a side-effect of their research might be damaging
to the fragile ecology of the country they were studying. The virus they introduced
had some dire effects indeed: it raised infant mortality rates, led to a general
decline in the health and wellbeing of women and … Read the rest
There are philosophers (‘absolutists’) who like to stress truth, objectivity, rationality, and knowledge. Then there are others (‘relativists’) who like to stress contingency, mutability, culture, historicity, situatedness. The first group think that the second group have no standards. The second group are accused of encouraging ‘postmodernism’, or the licentious thinking and bullshitting that goes on in some parts of the humanities. The second group think the first group are conservative and complacent, and that their words simply mark fetishes.
I like to illustrate the way these groups talk past each other with an anecdote of a friend of mine (I apologise to readers of my book Being Good, where I also tell this story). He was present at a … Read the rest
Peter Singer looks a very tired man. It’s not
so much the early morning start of the interview, but the weeks of media scrutiny,
misrepresentation and criticism, which seem to have taken their toll.
Singer came to England to talk about “A Darwinian
Left”, but no sooner had he stepped off the plane than the Daily Express
was reviving the old controversy over Singer’s view that in certain circumstances,
it may be better to end the life of a very severely handicapped baby in a humane
way, rather than use all modern medicine can do to let it live a painful and
often brief life. Singer tried to defend himself on Radio Four’s Today
programme, but in such a brief … Read the rest
During the last decades of the twentieth century researchers showed that much
of the received history of psychoanalysis consisted of stories that were largely
mythological. Perhaps the most enduring of all these myths is that Freud postulated
his seduction theory as a result of hearing frequent reports from his female
patients that they had been sexually abused in childhood. In this article I
want to focus on this story, one that for most of the twentieth century was
taken as historical fact, and is still widely believed to be so.
According to the traditional account, in the 1890s most of Freud’s female patients
told him that they had been sexually abused in early childhood, usually by their
father. How the … Read the rest
political correctness (noun): conformity to a belief that language and
practices which could offend political sensibilities should be eliminated.
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
I’ve been invited to write about political correctness and philosophy
in the North American academy. What qualifies me? I’m a refugee
from political correctness. I emigrated from Canada to the USA because
of an insidious quota system, euphemistically called ‘employment
equity’, which decrees that there are too many white male philosophers
in Canadian universities. The Nuremburg Laws excluded Jews from
Nazified German universities because we were ‘non-Aryan’; Jews are
now excluded from Canadian universities because we are ‘white’.
This is a compelling irony. It compelled me to get the hell out.
Before quitting Canada in 1994, I … Read the rest