All We Have

Jun 25th, 2006 2:51 am | By

So the upshot of all that is (since the implied question was, if I understand it correctly, how do atheists manage to believe in objective moral standards?) that I do think there are objective moral standards, if ‘objective’ means generally applicable, and generally applicable for sound, articulable, sharable reasons; but I don’t think they’re guaranteed by anything external to humans; I think we have to give reasons for them; and I think they are human artifacts, not something in nature or part of the fabric of the cosmos. That’s sad, in a way. It would be nice if animals had a moral sense, but they don’t. (They have affections, or something like affections, which prompts them to treat some conspecifics well within certain limits, but that’s about it, and that’s a pretty rudimentary version of morality.)

But thinking moral standards are human artifacts doesn’t weaken them. On the contrary. Theists have the option of thinking that god will make things come out all right eventually (or after we die), that wickedness doesn’t, finally, flourish like the green bay tree; atheists don’t have that option, so we know damn well that we have to keep the old moral standards in good repair, because they’re all we have.

The External Guarantor

Jun 24th, 2006 8:16 pm | By

A Christian reader wondered in a comment on That Special Glow how atheists believe in “objective absolute moral standards/truths” and asked if I could elucidate. Being short of time, I noted that it’s a large subject and gave a sort of place-holder answer. He expanded on his own view: “The point about objective truths and religious belief is not that we only believe these things because we are believers and thus taught to believe them, whether or not they are right, but that this is an assurance that these standards/truths/rights are, indeed universal and always apply.” Now it’s my turn to wonder. I wonder how that works. Because in fact it seems to me that it doesn’t. It seems to me there is no assurance that moral standards (the commenter actually said ‘objective truths’ in the second comment, but he started off with moral standards/truths, which is a confused way of putting it, since it’s not clear if he’s talking about moral standards and moral truths, or moral standards, and, separately, truths; at any rate, I take him to be talking primarily about moral standards [or moral truths], so I’m addressing that) are universal and always apply. If there were such a thing, I don’t think religious belief would provide it, but I don’t think there is such a thing in any case.

The truth is (and this is a general point about the [widely-held] view, not a specific one about my interlocutor), I think the invocation of an external guarantor of this kind is just lazy, in the same sort of way that Barthes’s cited views are lazy: it’s an evasion of argument. If you want to make a case for a moral view, if you want to try to convince someone else to agree to a moral view, it’s a lot easier and simpler to say ‘god said so’ than it is to offer reasons; but the ease is precisely what’s wrong with it. It’s easy because it’s empty, and because it’s empty, it doesn’t do the work it is thought to do. It amounts to a hollowing-out of content, leaving just a shell of words behind, and using the shell of words to compel assent. But what we need is the content. Why should I persecute or refrain from persecuting homosexuals? Why should people have or not have certain rights? Why is assisted suicide acceptable or unacceptable? Why is torture acceptable or unacceptable? You have to offer reasons, and furthermore, once you have offered them, there is no guarantee that anyone will accept them. They’re necessary but not sufficient. Saying ‘because god’ is an escape from both of these irksome conditions – the effort of giving reasons, and the frustration when people don’t accept them. ‘Because god’ is, therefore, frankly just a cheat, and it ought to be more widely recognized as such, because to the extent that it’s accepted as valid, that just undermines rational discourse ever more.

The idea seems to be that the ‘assurance’ that moral standards are universal and always apply is added on to other reasons for adhering to them. But what is it that is added? What is it that provides the assurance? I don’t see it, myself, for one reason among several because the moral standards have conspicuously changed over time, and are still highly contested to this day. If god were a provider of assurance, then why would there be change over time, and why would there be disagreement? Why does it all seem to be so fallible? And if it is fallible, in what way is it assurance?

The Story of S

Jun 24th, 2006 2:29 am | By

I mostly admire Martha Nussbaum, except when she’s talking about religion or about the need for a Rawlsian tender regard for the religious sensibilities of our fellow citizens – I mostly admire her, but there are times when she gets kind of coy, or cozy, or personal, or ingratiating, or something that gets on my nerves. The opening paragraphs of this review of Harvey Mansfield’s book about manliness is not her finest hour. It might be one of her most skin-crawling. She tells us to suppose a scholar, then proceeds to give an admiring description of herself. Um…why did she do that?

Suppose a philosophical scholar–let us call this scholar S–with high standards, trained in and fond of the works of Plato and Aristotle, wished to investigate, for a contemporary American audience, the concept of “manliness,”…following the lead of Aristotle, S would probably begin by laying out the various widespread beliefs about the topic, especially those held by reputable people. S would also consider the opinions of well-known philosophers. In setting down all these opinions, S would be careful to get people’s views right and to read their writings carefully, looking not just for assertions but also for the arguments that support them.

Good. Good S. Well done, S. Good job.

S’s inquiry would uncover much fuzziness and equivocation…(“Don’t use your feminine logic on me,” I can already hear my partner saying teasingly in the background, as he typically does when words such as “necessary condition” are wheeled onto the stage.)

Oh, gosh – did you have to tell us that? Did you have to use the word ‘teasingly’? Does he have a boyish grin when he says things teasingly in the background? Do you both chuckle? Oh dear – I so don’t want to know.

Finally S would try to produce an account that seemed to be the best one, preserving the deepest and most basic of the opinions, and discarding those that contradict them. S would then hold this definition out publicly, inviting all comers to try things out with their own reasoning, and then accept the proposed definition or improve upon it. Being a friend of the Greeks, S would naturally have curiosity about the cross-cultural aspects of this particular topic.

Naturally. Of course. Because S is a good scholar, not like those other scholars who don’t do things the right way and don’t have curiosity about the cross-cultural aspects of this particular topic, because they’re not like S, which is shocking of them, and kind of pitiful.

So S would investigate these differences, and these would naturally lead S to the copious cross-cultural literature on manliness that by now exists: to the work of, say, Daniel Boyarin, on how Jewish males refashioned Roman norms of manliness, making the astonishing claim that the true man sits still all day with a book, and has the bodily shape of someone who does just that; or to work on Indian conceptions of manliness, contrasting the sensuous Krishna, playing his flute, with the tougher norms of manliness recommended by the Raj. A scholar with S’s curiosity and love of truth would find in this material rich food for reflection.

Of course! Of course S would! Because S is good, and cross-cultural, and thorough, and has read exactly the same books that Nussbaum has.

Harvey Mansfield’s credentials suggest to the reader that he will behave like S. He is a prominent political philosopher, recently retired from a chair at Harvard University, who has written widely about philosophical texts. He regularly taught a well-known class in the classics of Greek political thought…It quickly becomes evident, however, that Manliness is not the book that our imagined S would have written. To begin with, it is slipshod about facts–even the facts that lie at the heart of his argument.

Because Harvey Mansfield isn’t S, do you see? So he doesn’t do what S would have done, and he does do what S wouldn’t have done, and that is very wrong of him, because S is a shining example to us all.

I’m sure Nussbaum is right, the book sounds sloppy and silly, but the story of S is toe-curling stuff.

I Know, Let’s Ask the MCB

Jun 24th, 2006 2:15 am | By

Old news, but why do they keep doing it? Why do the BBC keep rushing to ask Bunglawala what he thinks about the latest survey of Muslim opinion? Especially when they don’t ask anyone else? Why do they keep on treating the MCB as the go-to outfit for questions of this kind? Why do they keep on pretending the MCB is 1) representative 2) elected or chosen in some way 3) sensible?

Look at the article. Nine paragraphs devoted to Bunglawala. And no one else. Why? Why not talk to some scholars, or even one scholar? Why not talk to a (gasp) woman? Why not talk to a secular woman, or a woman scholar, or a secular scholar? Or several of each? Why instead talk yet again to fokking Bunglawala? Why talk to the MCB, which was founded, don’t forget, to organize opposition to The Satanic Verses?

And while we’re at it, as long as I’m in complaining and loudly-saying-why mode, why do they talk about a study of ‘Muslims’ on the one hand and ‘the West’ on the other? That’s stupid. They might as well talk about a study of Chicagoans on the one hand and sky divers on the other. They might as well talk about a study of Fijians on the one hand and short order cooks on the other. They might as well talk about a study of short people and liberals, or red-heads and anarchists, or Hungarians and violinists. Muddle muddle muddle. They should have asked what O would have done – but they never do.

Idle Chat

Jun 23rd, 2006 1:58 am | By

Let’s talk. Then again, let’s not. Because with certain kinds of talkers, there’s no point. The kind who systematically talk nonsense, and stipulate ahead of time that nonsense is what they will be talking, remove the point and replace it with – ‘play.’

What’s critical to recognize, from a humanist viewpoint, is that [the laws of thought] comprise more than a particular methodological option, for they are invoked whenever a predicate is attached to a subject; the consequences of their rejection, in humanist terms, would be absolute cognitive silence–since the decision to reject the laws could not itself sensibly be uttered except by invoking them.

This is what I was noticing about Violet a couple of weeks ago – there she was flinging scare-quotes around with wild abandon, problematizing truth, evidence, right, wrong, true, false – and yet she went right on arguing, or pretending to argue, or playing at arguing. Well you can’t do both at once. You can’t announce your suspicion of the very idea of true and false and still go on arguing a position.

In Dissémination Derrida states: “It is thus not simply false to say that Mallarmé is a Platonist or a Hegelian. But it is above all not true. And vice versa”…The postmodernist critic Barbara Johnson illustrates the danger of attempting to paraphrase Derrida’s meaning in coherent humanist terms: “Instead of a simple either/or structure, deconstruction attempts to elaborate a discourse that says neither ‘either/or,’ nor ‘both/and’ nor even ‘neither/nor,’ while at the same time not totally abandoning these logics either.”

And not only the danger but the pointlessness. What is the point of talking about anything as lazy as that? ‘It’s not this, it’s not that, but at the same time it’s not not. See?’ Yeah – excuse me, I have better things to do.

If Derrida attempts to dance around the law of non-contradiction, a number of his postmodernist cohorts seem determined to stomp it into the ground. Roland Barthes, for instance, opens his book The Pleasure of the Text with an invitation to imagine the ideal reader as someone “who abolishes within himself all barriers, all classes, all exclusions . . . by simple discard of that old specter: logical contradiction; who mixes every language, even those said to be incompatible; who silently accepts every charge of illogicality, of incongruity; who remains passive in the face of Socratic irony (leading the interlocutor to the supreme disgrace: self-contradiction) and legal terrorism (how much penal evidence is based on a psychology of consistency!)”

That’s the kind of thing that gives lit-crit a bad name (to put it mildly). Just drone on about everything and nothing, declaring everything possible and included by verbal fiat, without bothering to think about anything. Cognitive laziness.

That Barthes is untroubled by laws of thought is evident. When asked by an interviewer about inconsistencies in his writings, Barthes replies, “I explained in my preface why I didn’t wish to give a retrospective unity to texts written at different times: I do not feel the need to arrange the uncertainties or contradictions of the past”.

No, naturally not, because it’s so much easier not to.

For I believe that the postmodern rejection of the law of non-contradiction is strategic: Without the law of non-contradiction, no one can ever demonstrate that you’re wrong. In an argument on any topic between a postmodernist and a humanist, each party will attempt to discover a logical contradiction in his opponent’s case. For the humanist, the discovery of a actual contradiction is deadly; he must abandon, or at minimum clarify, his position. But for the postmodernist, a contradiction is only a contradiction – a sign, perhaps, of the depth of his thought. The postmodernist’s position, in other words, becomes unfalsifiable.

Depth of thought again. The idea that depth of thought is (at least sometimes) somehow the opposite of the more ‘pedestrian’ kind of rational, logical, testing, checking, inquiring, evidence-seeking kind of thought that scientists and rational people go in for. But when you throw logic and evidence and testing out the window and just rely on your own brilliant insight or profundity or intuitive certainty or inner wisdom – you don’t get depth of thought, you get arid, dead-end, pointless, self-regarding blather.

Indeed, the postmodern rejection of the law of non-contradiction constitutes, from a humanist standpoint, not merely a rejection of logic but of the rational element in human nature. The humanist does not view logic as a cultural construct, a pattern of thinking inculcated by years of repetition; rather, he views it as the way in which the rational mind has always worked. To operate rationally is, instinctively, to rely on logical reasoning. There is, for the humanist, no getting around the laws of thought. The claim, often advanced…that the project of postmodernism involves suspending logic in order to call it into question skims over this crucial point: Nothing can be called into question unless it can be affirmed or denied. But to affirm or deny, as we’ve seen, is to invoke logic, to invoke the laws of thought. Just as you cannot suspend the rules of arithmetic in order to do calculus, you cannot suspend the laws of thought in order to do analysis–for these laws precede every rational epistemology.

So unless you’re just in the mood for some dadaist noise-exchange, you’re stuck with the pesky old laws. Suck it up.

Valor Words

Jun 21st, 2006 5:18 pm | By

So here’s Matt Yglesias noting another valor-word issue. This time the word is ‘principle’. I’m good because I have principles. Well that’s nice, but what kind of principles? What principles? Which ones? Be specific. Give details. Include time place and brand.

Indeed, most Lieberman supporters seem to have abandoned making the case for their man on the merits. Instead, the keyword is principle. A DLC press release called Lieberman “a man of utmost integrity who speaks and governs by his values and principles.”

And there’s another one – integrity. Integrity, again, is only as good as it is. Lots of people can have integrity. The integrity of an axe-murderer isn’t all that desirable. The integrity of a selfish conceited bullying windbag isn’t much worth boasting of either. Both of these are much like Bush’s vaunted ‘resolve’ – which is, again, only as good as it is. Blind stupid determination to go on doing what you’ve once decided to do no matter what, without paying attention to dissenting opinions or nonsupporting evidence, is not entirely a virtue, or a particularly good principle. They’re all valor words, they all need careful examination of particulars.

That’s the trouble with principles – they’re only good if you’re principles are the right ones. If Lieberman’s allies want to help him stay in office, they’re going to have to start convincing people that his are – just pointing out that he has some isn’t good enough.


That Special Glow

Jun 20th, 2006 2:11 am | By

I need a word to describe a category of word that (when used for rhetorical purposes) presumes to declare its own value in advance of judgment. Pre-emptive, or pseudo-hurrah, are the two I’ve come up with.

The one I have in mind at the moment is ‘family’. This is by no means the first time I’ve had hard thoughts about that word (there was the 2000 presidential campaign, for instance, when the Democrats completely dropped the word ‘people’ from their vocabularies in favour of ‘families’, so that working people became working families, as if they were all hired and paid in a bunch instead of one at a time), but they’re always being refreshed; at the moment it’s Faisal Bodi’s sinister crap about keeping families intact at the expense of the girls and women they push around that inspired this particular set of hard thoughts.

The community is bothered, both by the effect forced marriage has on the victims, and its unique ability to tarnish our image. We are also desperate for answers – but not the sort that take the form of edicts by government and voluntary agencies which have little or no empathy with our faith. Take women’s refuges. Not without cause do we view them with suspicion and mistrust. Refuges tear apart our families. Once a girl has walked in through their door, they do their best to stop her ever returning home. That is at odds with the Islamic impulse to maintain the integrity of the family.

Interesting use of ‘we’ there, too – who’s ‘we’? We in the community (community of course is another pre-emptive pseudo-hurrah word), except not quite all of us in ‘the community’ since ‘we’ clearly can’t include the girls and women who need refuge. So Bodi inadvertently lets slip the fact that he doesn’t consider ‘the victims’ part of ‘the community’ – which makes his ‘bothered’ feelings about the effect forced marriage has on the victims seem a little dubious. But never mind that for the moment; for now let’s just consider his worry over ‘our families’ (which ‘our’?) and their tearing apart and the threat refuges pose to the maintenance of their integrity. Let’s ponder that, and then ask so the fuck what? If a family is willing to trash a girl’s life despite her resistance, refusal, and finally escape, who cares if it ends up being ‘torn apart’ by her departure? (In fact – if she’s being forcibly married off she’s departed anyway, hasn’t she? Why is it okay and non-family-apart-tearing to force her to marry and live with a man she doesn’t want to marry and live with, but not okay and family-apart-tearing for her to leave and live somewhere else and not go back? We can probably guess why. Because it means she has taken possession of her own life instead of leaving it in the possession of the precious ‘family’. Well the hell with that.)

And that’s where the word comes in. The holy word ‘family’. It simply assumes – the way Bodi uses it there – that family is always and necessarily benign and benevolent and loving, so that it is always and necessarily a tragedy when a member departs and refuses to return. Well, that’s crap. Families vary, and a good many of them are quite damaging for at least some members of them. I would say that one which includes forcing a girl to marry against her will would be one of that kind. So the word comes in handy to distract the attention of the credulous by the little holy glow around the ‘family’. That’s the kind of work that pre-emptive pseudo-hurrah words are meant to do. They’re meant to cause us to forget to examine particulars – never mind families in general, what about the particular families in question, what are they like, how did they treat the girls who fled? – because we’re too entranced by the general.

So that’s a trick to watch out for.

Please Sir Can I Teach Nonsense?

Jun 18th, 2006 7:31 pm | By

So ‘faith schools’ want ‘exemption from new equality laws in order to carry on teaching that homosexuality is a sin’ do they. That’s interesting.

At the moment, many faith schools make children aware of different sexual practices, but underline that anything other than heterosexuality is a sin. In a submission to the unit, the CofE said that it would not wish to discriminate against pupils or parents on grounds of sexual orientation in the context of admissions or in disciplinary procedures. But it insisted that schools should be free to teach that homosexuality is at odds with the Bible.

Thus we see why the realm of education, if it is to be real education, has to be secular. It’s like politics in that way. Because ‘education’ has to mean teaching things that there is good reason to believe are at least approximately true. That means public, sharable reasons have to be given for them, or capable of being given for them. (Yes, even in literature classes. That’s why our teachers always asked for more evidence – quotations – on our papers and exams, remember? They were teaching us to back up our claims.) ‘Teaching’ that homosexuality is a sin doesn’t fit that description. It’s meaningless except in religious terms, hence it’s not teachable except within a religion, hence it’s not education properly understood. Claims that are based purely on faith and nothing else aren’t really education. It’s deceptive advertising to call them education.

But what about morals and values, ‘faith’ fans will squeak. Yes but even morals and values require something more than ‘because god’ if you’re going to teach them to everyone. And if you’re not what is the point? What is the point of parochial group morality? Good morality should be universal and crap morality should be done away with. If ‘because god’ is all you have, you can’t call that education, because it isn’t. Even religious people admit this, often defensively – they often say ‘yes but we do give reasons, we don’t just say “because God said so” and leave it at that’ – but then ‘because God’ is superfluous. It’s one or the other, and either way it’s out of place in education. ‘Because god’ is either superfluous because there are other (public, valid, groundable) reasons, or wrong and bad because there aren’t. There is no moral truth-claim that can adduce no secular public reasons but is nevertheless valid and convincing. Demands for the right to teach false and discriminatory nonsense make a mockery of the word ‘teach.’

Gain and Loss

Jun 18th, 2006 7:00 pm | By

Jean Drèze notes an important fact that’s worth keeping in mind:

Sen is praised as a “feminist economist” but it is not very clear what “feminist” actually stands for (except for a general concern with gender issues) and why Sen qualifies. A notable exception is Martha Nussbaum’s bold assessment. Taking issue with the notion that freedom is always a desirable social goal, she points out that “gender justice cannot be successfully pursued without limiting male freedom”.

Fer sher. And that’s one reason there is so much Faisal Bodiesque blather about keeping families intact and dealing with problems within the community, cluttering up the place – because improvement of the lot of women (whether you call it justice, or freedom, or capabilities, or all those and more) brings with it some disimprovement of the lot of men. Men have less ability to demand services of their female relatives, and to tell them what to do, and to shut them up. They also have less ability to control how women who are not their relatives dress, behave, think, write, and travel. There’s also some (considerable) gain, for men who can value it: they get to live around women who are more worth living around as opposed to women who are like angry sheep. But not all men want that; lots of men prefer the angry sheep. Who cares what the sheep thinks, after all? We don’t talk to our mutton or our sweaters, do we.

Whose Life Is It?

Jun 18th, 2006 1:20 am | By

Go, Sunny.

…annoying cultural traditions have a distinct knack of clinging on through generations. It would be no exaggeration to say that thousands of young British Asian women are forced into marriage every year…I have seen well educated and well adjusted friends slowly become nervous wrecks as their parents pile on the pressure…last week the Home Office decided a specific law to ban forced marriages was not needed. To put it mildly, the decision was not only a travesty but an unbelievably stupid fudge…Yet once again Labour has fallen victim to an army of Asian apologetics who prefer this muddle and like to pretend that the practice is very rare. Complete rubbish.

Go on.

For example, Pragna Patel from the Southall Black Sisters, is quoted as saying on Radio 4: “We don’t see the need for criminalisation of forced marriage, which is yet another way of stereotyping and criminalising entire communities at a time when there is heightened racism in this country.” When a women’s rights group is more worried about stereotyping than the well-being of thousands of women, alarm bells should be ringing within their offices.

Yeah. It’s also quite an odd idea that forced marriage should not be criminalized. It’s not as if it’s a trivial thing. It’s not like forcing a woman to sit next to someone she doesn’t like at dinner, or like forcing her to stay home for an evening when the relatives are coming over. It’s deciding the entire shape of her life; it’s handing her over to someone who will have authority over her (clearly people who think forced marriage is appropriate for girls are not going to think an egalitarian marriage is a swell idea) for the rest of her life (or his) without allowing her the right of refusal. What if she has other plans? What if she wants to go to graduate school and become a physicist or an historian? What if she wants to become a journalist and work on the foreign desk, spending a few years in Africa maybe, then a few years in Latin America or Asia? What if she wants to become a musician, or a surgeon, or a computer scientist? What if she simply wants to shape her own life rather than having her parents shape her life? Well, she doesn’t get to. So, what is that? It’s slavery, or else imprisonment. Slavery and unlawful imprisonment are both crimes, so why should forced marriage not be a crime? Because it’s okay if it’s your parents who do it to you? I don’t think so.

Many of the respondents felt naming and shaming of coercive parents would lead to communities being “unfairly labelled” and creating a negative stereotype. Such daft responses are not surprising once you consider that most of those opposed were middle-aged men considered to be our “community representatives”…It is racism of the worse kind – a tacit acceptance that vigorously affording them the same protection as other women is not necessary because of their colour or culture.

Yup. See (as I have said several times in the past) Susan Moller Okin’s Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?. Clearly, yes, it is.

If you think it’s not, check out the comment (at 10:26 p.m.) of FaisalB – would that be Faisal Bodi?

Another article betraying your thirst to gain secular liberal acceptance. Where’s imprisoning parents going to get anyone? The whole idea behind the government’s culturally and religiously sensitive approach to the subject is to try and keep families intact during times of severe stress. Only in the most extreme cases should external assistance be offered. Even then it should be applied in such a way as to try and maintain the integrity of the family.

Secular liberal bad, culturally and religiously sensitve good, keeping families intact (at the expense of the coerced girl or woman) good, integrity of the family (but not the girl or woman) good. Yes, multiculturalism sucks for women. Next question?

Reliability? Expertise? Whatever Next?

Jun 16th, 2006 2:14 am | By

Scott has a very apropos column this week. Well, apropos from my point of view anyway – and in a very real sense, is not my point of view the only one that matters? Of course it is. And from that point of view Scott’s column reads like a sly follow-up to his column last week, the one in which he interviewed some bore who co-wrote a book about truth. Some of the commenters on that column, as you may or may not remember, rolled up their sleeves and got to work casting doubt on the whole idea of truth by breaking out the capital letters and the incredulous modifiers (certain, absolute) and the fleering quotation marks (“truth,” “real,” “get it right,” “wrong,” “right,” “evidence,” “fact”) by way of argument – I mean “argument.” So it was very amusing (however shocking) to see Scott brazenly and without a scare-quote in sight write a whole piece on Wikipedia and questions of accuracy, reliability, expertise, accountability, trustworthiness, and similar naïvely unsophisticated and decidedly prepostmodern stuff.

You could really get the impression from reading that piece that there is such a thing as a difference between an accurate encyclopaedia entry and an inaccurate one, that a false one is different from a true one, that experts know more about the subjects they know more about than non-experts do, that not all data-wells are equally reliable, and similar dominating power-ridden hegemonic unFoucauldian ideas. Scary, isn’t it. Looky here.

With Wikipedia, only a very modest level of control is exercised by administrators. The result is a wiki-based reference tool that is open to writers putting forward truth, falsehood, and all the shades of gray in between. In other words, each entry is just as trustworthy as whoever last worked on it. And because items are unsigned, the very notion of accountability is digitized out of existence.

Oh god. I feel faint. The room is swimming, the walls are shimmering, I have spreckles before my eyes. He said truth. And falsehood. Without any quotation marks. As if he meant them just straight, just the way one might say right or wrong instead of (the “correct” way) “right” or “wrong” (cf. Violet’s comments for a good example to follow). That’s scary stuff. Bad things happen to people who say “truth” and “falsehood” straight like that. And then, as if that’s not enough, he goes on ahead and talks about whether each entry is “trustworthy” or not (only without the scare quotes). What kind of mad power trip is he on? And what’s with the accountability thing? What’s he going to do, bust people who put in “lies” or “mistakes” or “fairy tales” or “self-promoting bullshit”?

And it gets, if possible, even worse.

Basic cognitive literacy includes the ability to evaluate the strengths and the limitations of any source of information…Wikipedia is by no means a definitive reference work, but it’s not necessarily the worst place to start.

Ohhhh…I feel my lunch coming back on me. Basic cognitive literacy? The ability to evaluate? The limitations? Wikipedia’s not definitive? As a reference work? Where’s this guy been? Has the whole second half of the twentieth century passed him by? Doesn’t he ever read a book? Like, oh, Foucault’s History of Sexuality for instance? Doesn’t he know how oppressive and dominant all those words are? Doesn’t he know about power-knowledge and knowledge-power? What’s his problem?

Consider a recent discussion between a reference librarian and a staff member working for an important policy-making arm of the U.S. government. The librarian asked what information sources the staffer relied on most often for her work. Without hesitation, she answered: “Google and Wikipedia.” In fact, she seldom used anything else. Coming from a junior-high student, this would be disappointing. From someone in a position of power, it is well beyond worrisome…Sure, we want our students, readers, and fellow citizens to become more astute in their use of the available tools for learning about the world. (Hope springs eternal!)

There again. Same thing. Hierarchy. Judgmentalism. Elitism. Wanting people to become more astute, for christ’s sake! And babbling about learning about the world – what kind of disgusting elitist crap is that?

And yet, oddly, in spite of all that heresy and stuck in the 1940s-ness, Violet hasn’t turned up to sprinkle some soothing scare quotes around. Maybe she turned so sick and faint from reading just the first few paragraphs that she couldn’t go on. That would be sad.

No Such Thing as Deep Knowledge

Jun 14th, 2006 8:39 pm | By

I’m not the only one who thinks so, either. Frederick Crews’s article says much the same thing, only better.

Although the follies discussed in my chapters are mild when judged against the total historical record of homicidal zeal in the service of misapprehensions, they display most of the features that characterize religious fanaticism, such as undue deference to authority, hostility toward dissenters, and, most basically, an assumption that intuitively held certitude is somehow more precious and profound than the hard-won gains of trial and error.

This is, it seems to me, the lurking danger behind the innocuous-seeming idea that there are ways of getting at the truth about the world that are radically different from ‘the scientific method.’ If every component of ‘the scientific method’ is ruled out for such ways, then not much is left other than fantasy and stark subjectivity, neither of which can really persuade other people without recourse to intuitively held certitude.

…many spokesmen for entrenched interests subscribe to a two-tiered conception of truth. They make a token bow to empirically grounded knowledge, but they deem it too pedestrian for mapping the labyrinth of the soul or for doing justice to the emotional currents coursing between interacting persons. Instead of merely avowing that the subjective realm is elusive, however, they then advance their own preferred theory, which is typically sweeping, absolute, and bristling with partisanship.

Bingo. It’s this idea that empirically grounded knowledge is too pedestrian for certain subjects that tips people into pseudo-profundity.

This book means to suggest, through sample instances in a number of subject areas, that there is no such thing as deep knowledge, in the sense of insight so compelling that it needs no validation. There is only knowledge, period. It is recognizable not by its air of holiness or its emotional appeal but by its capacity to pass the most demanding scrutiny of well-informed people who have no prior investment in confirming it.

Isn’t that great? There is no such thing as deep knowledge, in the sense of insight so compelling that it needs no validation. Well exactly. So let’s everybody stop pretending otherwise.

I’m looking forward to reading Follies of the Wise.

Whereof we can speak

Jun 13th, 2006 7:12 pm | By

One reason I’m insisting on this idea that rational inquiry and discussion and argument are continuous rather than discontinuous with ‘the scientific method’ and empiricism is that non-rational, evidence-free truth claims are not arguable or discussable, which means that they’re authoritarian and coercive. That’s all obvious enough, but I think it needs spelling out. So people who try to argue that humanist truth-claims are radically discontinuous with scientific ones (apart from giving the game away by arguing themselves) are giving hostages to fortune. They risk handing us all over to people who make ‘faith-based’ arguments and expect the rest of us to accept them. You know, the ‘homosexuality is a sin and that’s all that needs to be said’ crowd. The ‘because god said so’ crowd. The ‘it’s in the Bible/Koran/Vedas/Talmud’ crowd. The crowd that free people don’t want to take orders from.

What would such claims look like, anyway? The commenter at Inside HE who offered the ‘material gain’ proverb as an example of an unscientific claim followed it up with ‘If you read a few serious novels you’ll find many such statements and they’ll be expressed much better this one.’ But is that what one finds in serious novels? Can we sum them up that way? ‘From my protracted reading of novels I have learned that’ – what? What paraphrasable nuggets do we take away from our reading of serious novels that we couldn’t get anywhere else? Compassion is good? Life is complicated? There’s nowt so queer as folk? What? What special walled-off non-researchable evidence-free uninvestigatable unverifiable claim emerges? I would really be curious to know.

It’s not that we don’t learn or get anything – but that to the extent that it can be put as a truth-claim, it’s not ineffable, it’s not special. Literature itself perhaps is (I think, although that’s a highly contested claim, and I actually get very skeptical of it myself at times), but the truth claims one can derive from reading it? I don’t believe it.

What special ineffable opposite-of-empirical but still validly persuasive truth claim can one derive from Emma, for example? Or Wuthering Heights? Or King Lear? Apart from anything else, any paraphrasable truth claim one can think of (at least any I can think of) instantly reduces the novel or play in question to a boring heap of dust. That’s not why we read them. They’re not homilies. And if they were, those homilies could still be derived in other ways. No, they say themselves, and that’s enough, that’s what they’re for.

You can say that serious novels and literature in general do all sorts of things: deepen our understanding of human nature; teach us empathy; provide experience; and so on; but none of those is radically alien to and different from and cut off from empirical rational inquiry. Literature is different in other ways. Maybe that’s where the confusion comes in. Reading literature is a different kind of experience from doing science – different, and as special as you like. But that doesn’t mean it throws up any miraculously weird different arational truth claims.

Not Entirely Fuzzy, Actually

Jun 13th, 2006 1:24 am | By

One interesting and valuable current in the comments on Scott McLemee’s interview at Inside Higher Ed was the discussion triggered by Adam Kotsko’s comment:

I’m glad to see that she at least concedes the existence of more fuzzy kinds of truth at the beginning and restricts the empirical kind to science and history — too often, arguments “defending” the existence of scientific empirical truth head down the slippery slope of asserting that such truth is the only real or worthwhile kind and that anything else is mere charlatanism. There are ways of making interesting and even (validly) persuasive claims about the world that do not mimic the scientific method. It would be great if everyone could agree on that principle.

Well…that depends on what is meant by ‘mimic the scientific method,’ I would say. When people make claims of that kind it is usually defined very narrowly; perhaps as something necessarily involving either petri dishes or centrifuges. But the kinds of claims that are meant are claims that do in fact rely on rational thought and evidence; they’re not claims that are entirely untethered from, shall we say, the real world. When you look at them more closely this becomes apparent. So I was pleased when ‘we are all scientists now’ set about doing just that, by asking for ‘a precise example of a validly persuasive claim about the world that doesn’t follow something very much like the (a?) scientific method’. The answer came, ‘There is more to life than material gain. This says something about the human condition and it means more than its literal rendering gives.’ ‘We are all’ replied:

It certainly hints at (controversial) claims about the human condition, but I’m not pursuaded. How would we persuade the Wall Street hedonist driving a kickass car that there’s more to life than money and positional goods? Well, we might appeal to evidence: many people, even very rich and powerful people, find that there is more to life than material gain. Ergo…But that anecdotal claim alone cannot be persuasive, because I’m willing to bet that a carefully designed and sufficiently representative survey of a great many people will find at least a few reasonable folks who, after due consideration, think that material gain really is all they need to live a satisfying life. Are these people simply wrong? Are they morally deficient? [etc] No doubt, once we had a better idea of the correlates of variation in claims about life satisfaction in our sample, we’d be tempted to make a moral argument about character and virtue, to the effect that some sorts of life really are better than others, and these more worthy ways of life feature more than simply material gain. We might then be tempted to use this moral framework to explain the variations in our survey data. But notice that, if we followed this path in turning your pithy aphorism into a persuasive claim, we’d end up making precise philosophical arguments and sociological hypotheses in light of careful empirical research. That sounds a lot like a scientific approach to me…

Exactly. I’m always irritated by this rather unexamined idea that literary or moral or aesthetic claims are completely different from empirical or scientific claims, as opposed to being, say, more tentative, more fuzzy in parts, more reliant on guesswork and personal commitments and the like, but still not completely untethered to any rational forms of inquiry or exploration or verification or checking at all. If such claims were like that they would be of no interest, and they would be undiscussable; but they’re not, are they. When people make moral or aesthetic claims we disagree with we jump right in and argue, don’t we; we give reasons; we cite counter-examples; we may even cite studies or surveys or statistics. We mostly don’t just make stuff up from scratch out of nowhere and fling it down in a ‘take it or leave it’ manner. If we did it wouldn’t get us anywhere. We would have to talk gibberish to do that, and people would just shrug and talk about something else (so there goes your ‘validly persuasive’).

This attempted radical separation between the two kinds of truth seems to me to be quite mistaken, but it’s popular. The discussion went on, and it’s a good read.


Jun 11th, 2006 8:11 pm | By

Strange anti-anti-‘postmodernism’ is cropping up everywhere today. (Okay three places that I’ve seen. That’s postmodernist for ‘everywhere.’) The scare-quotes on postmodernism are because the postmodernism in question seems in every case to be some kind of weird ragbag or catch-all term that is so elastic it means pretty much nothing, or anything, or just ‘whatever I feel like making it mean for the purposes of this particular sentence or this particular non-argument.’ But the fact that the word is being used as a ragbag doesn’t mean it doesn’t function as a sower of suspicion of dastardly enemies of (unspecified and very very blurry) postmodernism. (The word is also being used, confusingly, to mean ‘various forms of skepticism and critical scrutiny that have been around for twenty or thirty centuries at least but that I, because I haven’t read very widely, think are all the invention of something called postmodernism.’)

Iain Macwhirter on Stephen Law’s new book for instance.

Now, postmodernists and structuralists might say that Law is naive and reductionist and that he fails to recognise the social context of morality. It’s all very well laying down absolutes, but you have to take into account people’s different viewpoints…Law is impatient with all this. “Postmodernists accuse me of authoritarian conservatism; that as a white male I shouldn’t be telling people how to live. But I don’t have a lot of time for that.” Perhaps he should find the time, because as an author of popular philosophy he can’t ignore the most influential strand of modern philosophy in British universities. “Structuralism” doesn’t even appear in Law’s index, and there is no discussion of the popes of postmodernism, such as Louis Althusser or Michel Foucault.

But part of the reason ‘postmodernism’ is ‘influential,’ if it is (which depends for one thing on how it’s defined, and for instance whether or not one considers Althusser a postmodernist), is for the same sort of reason the head of the MCB is ‘influential,’ which is that newspapers like the Telegraph keep calling him influential. This business of being influential is very much a self-fulfilling prophecy – very ‘constructed,’ in fact, in good postmodernist (according to some ragbaggy definitions) fashion. And the more newspapers and journalists keep repeating that one ‘can’t ignore’ postmodernism because it is influential, the more influential it will become, thus making it even more mandatory that one not ignore it, in a tightening spiral of influence and mandatoricity and thou shalt not ignoreism, all quite independent of any merit inhering in postmodernism itself. And is Althusser really a pope of postmodernism?

Then there’s Marc Mulholland, commenting on the utter inanity of a Florida law barring the teaching of ‘revisionist’ history.

This is outrageous. Historical knowledge is approached by the interplay of evidence, scholarly protocols, and veracious argument. The state has no useful function to play in determining academic procedures. This seems rather to confirm my long standing concerns regarding the obscurantist uses the mundanities of militantly anti PoMo can be put to use.

But know-nothing fits about ‘revisionist’ history in the US have no need of postmodernism. Such fits have been going on for decades, and they don’t necessarily have anything to do with putative postmodernism at all. They simply boil down to ‘any interpretation of history that I don’t like.’ Again, one needs a terribly ragbaggy, capacious, sagging, world-size definition of postmodernism to make it central to this issue. One also, perhaps, needs to adopt this irritating and uninformed idea that putative postmodernism invented every single skeptical or critical thought anyone ever had in order to think it is central to this issue. One, postmodernism has no monopoly on either skepticism or critical thought, and two, postmodernism often abjures and even reviles critical thought rather than recommending and embracing and making use of it. Norm has a comment here; I saw the post via his.

And there is the (very interesting, I must say) discussion at Inside Higher Ed, where the ‘postmodernism thought of everything and without it we’d all be credulous robots’ line keeps coming back, along with a repetitive insistence that people who defend the idea of truth don’t mean truth but Truth or Absolute Truth or certain truth. No matter how many times I say ‘no, just truth,’ the capital letters and transcendent adjectives keep returning. Like the repressed.

One of [Foucault’s] mind blowing and truly innovative arguments centers on the creation of homosexuality as a social category. Foucault contends that the articulation of homosexuals as a distinct and scientifically identifiable group occurred in the late 19th century; “homosexuals” were “created” in 1870s. This doesn’t challenge the “truth” of same-sex attraction or its pre-1870s history. BUT, it suggests that the scientific way of understanding same-sex eros is history-bound and culture-bound. The sexologists in the late 19th century didn’t suddenly just “get it right” by turning sexuality into an object of scientific inquiry. As I see it, that’s the “post” of the “postmodern” part; after reading Foucault, we don’t have to slavishly buy into a modernist/scientific reading of sexuality – a reading that’s likely to be reductionist, determinist, essentialist, and some other bad word.

As if (as ‘we’re all scientists now’ points out) we would have had to before reading Foucault. Sometimes (often) one wants to stop arguing with self-declared postmodernists and just urge them to read more widely. A lot more widely.

How Green Was My Yurt

Jun 10th, 2006 9:30 pm | By

Excuse me a moment.




Oh, christ. That’s a good one. Dylan Evans – remember him? – has ever such a good idea. He’s going oop north with his cat to live in the mud, no I mean he’s going oop north with his cat to set up Utopia. And a very nice Utopia it does sound.

He has banned TV and mobile phones, but sanctioned the internet (because he believes that the web could re-knit itself after a disaster). Medicines are fine (“this is play-acting, not religious cult”), and if the community collectively decides to import other conveniences, that’s OK too…Evans will be converting a barn (on farmland belonging to a friend) for communal living, erecting yurts, and installing toilets and solar-powered showers. He has already visited eco-villages, ashrams and monasteries to see how other “intentional communities” operate…“Our wild, or primary, nature, which has been stunted by the way we live today, is much more trustworthy than we think. And it flourishes brilliantly in our natural habitat. Look at the way hunter-gatherers make decisions, punish transgressors and counter dominant people — they know how to put people in their place. I want to explore whether those social mechanisms will work.”

Can’t you just not wait to stay away from that? I sure can! Dylan Evans is a funny, funny guy. I’ve said it all along. JS said he was sane once upon a time, but that was clearly a good long while ago.

“I began to think: could the same thing happen to our industrialised civilisation? So far, hundreds of civilisations have collapsed — why do we think ours is immune? And what would life be like in the aftermath? It suddenly struck me that such a collapse might not actually be a bad thing. It would be terrible while it happened because millions of people would die, which is obviously horrible, but those who survive might have the best chance of creating Utopia that we’ve ever had. I realised that if I was going to explore this issue, I’d have to act it out.”

Oh dear. Shame about the millions. Terrible, terrible; dear oh dear. Now – now that that’s out of the way; god damn, mama, what fun! We get to create Utopia! Yurts! Internet! No tv! Pizza! No hamburgers! Dishwashers! No stoves! Everything just perfect how I like it, with lots of this and none of that, according to my preference, oh boy oh boy oh boy, I can’t wait.


Staring at the Rod in Wonder

Jun 8th, 2006 9:12 pm | By

I’ve been known to disagree with Giles Fraser (when he tries to tell us Christianity is naturally opposed to slavery, for instance), but he’s right this time.

“We are told that in England it is a crime to spank children,” writes Debbi Pearl from No Greater Joy Ministries, following a row that has erupted over the distribution of their literature in the UK. “Therefore Christians are not able to openly obey God in regard to biblical chastisement. They are in danger of having the state steal their children.”

See, that’s why people like me get so hostile to religion. One reason anyway – but probably the biggest one. Because it is (of its nature, and cannot help being) so useful to people who want to use it to justify and protect their desire to do nasty things. Because the central claim there is not corrigible or negotiable or subject to discussion or thought, so there is just no way to teach or persuade people who believe that claim that it is mistaken. With other kinds of claim it is possible, however difficult and challenging that may be. But with unarguable religious claims, it isn’t. So if people are convinced God wants them to hit their children with a stick, they are not going to listen to people who try to tell them they’re wrong. If people are convinced God wants them to write books defending the practice of hitting children with sticks, the same applies. If people are convinced God wants them to blow people up in wholesale lots, same applies. It’s no good.

Chastening begins early. “For the under-one-year-old, a little, 10- to 12-inch long, willowy branch (stripped of any knots that might break the skin) about one-eighth inch diameter is sufficient,” writes Michael Pearl. With older children he advises: “After a short explanation about bad attitudes and the need to love, patiently and calmly apply the rod to his backside. Somehow, after eight or 10 licks, the poison is transformed into gushing love and contentment. The world becomes a beautiful place. A brand-new child emerges. It makes an adult stare at the rod in wonder, trying to see what magic is contained therein.”

Hmm. I might have to read this book.

For, as evangelicals, the Pearls believe that salvation only comes through punishment and pain. God punishes his Son with crucifixion so that humanity might not have to face the Father’s anger. This image of God the father, for whom violence is an expression of tough love, is lodged deep in the evangelical imagination. And it twists a religion of forgiveness and compassion into something dark and cruel.

Well – they could turn that back around on you, Vic. Frankly. Because Christianity is only partly a religion of forgiveness and compassion. This is that slavery thing again; you’re reading selectively. There is plenty of very cruel, cold, vindictive stuff in the New Testament, including in the Gospels, including in the speeches of Jesus.

But, needless to say, I agree with your basic point all the same. This is nightmare stuff.

According to Ted Tripp, in his monstrous bestseller Shepherding a Child’s Heart, even babies who struggle while having their nappy changed are deemed to be rebellious and need punishment. Last month Lynn Paddock of North Carolina was charged with the murder of her four-year-old son, Sean. She had apparently beaten him with a length of quarter-inch plumbing line – plastic tubing. Like many in her church, Paddock had turned to the Pearls’ resources on Biblical parenting. The Pearls say chastisement with plumbing line is “a real attention getter”. Sean Paddock’s autopsy describes layers of bruises stretching from his bottom to his shoulder.

Theocracy’s got to go.

Casus irae

Jun 8th, 2006 9:11 pm | By

This seems like a bizarre reason for being angry:

Washington was angered by Mr Malloch Brown’s references to middle America, and the influence upon it of conservative commentators such as Mr Limbaugh. Mr Bolton said the speech demonstrated a “condescending, patronising tone about the American people. Fundamentally and very sadly, this was a criticism of the American people, not the American government, by an international civil servant. It’s just illegitimate.”

Did it? Was it?

“Much of the public discourse that reaches the US heartland has been largely abandoned to its loudest detractors, such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News,” Mr Malloch Brown said in a speech in New York on Tuesday. Depending on the UN while tolerating “too much unchecked UN-bashing and stereotyping” was “simply not sustainable”, he said. “You will lose the UN one way or another.”

If the Guardian is reporting what Mr Malloch Brown said accurately, then what Mr Bolton said looks like yet another instance of sloppy reading (or hearing). Yet another instance of translating X into Y and then railing at the speaker for saying Y. If that quotation and paraphrase is accurate, Malloch Brown wasn’t criticising the American people, he was criticising the Bush administration’s failure to defend the UN against people like Limbaugh. That’s a different thing. But…of course the folksy pseudo-populist schtick is way popular with the Bush admin, because it mostly works. There is simply no bottom to the weirdness of Bush successfully pretending to be a reglar fella merely via presentation of self, but there’s no denying it’s worked. This looks like another entry in that continent-size dossier.

Postmodernist Domination

Jun 8th, 2006 1:15 am | By

Dave asked if I planned to say anything about the comments on Scott’s Inside Higher Ed interview. I thought I would mention just one item, in the most recent (at the moment) comment, because it has a certain risible typicality. It comes from someone who calls herself, matily, ‘Violet’, an associate professor in the midwest, addressing another commenter.

I’m sorry to hear that postmodern thinking wasn’t for you. I suppose it’s up for debate whether or not we should abandon the teaching of postmodernism, a cultural movement which dominated the latter half of the twentieth century, solely based on your negative experiences.

There. I like that. I didn’t know postmodernism had ‘dominated the latter half of the twentieth century’ – did you? I also don’t know what that means – did postmodernism dominate plumbing in the latter half of the twentieth century, and transportation, and chemical engineering, and ecology, and the weather, and wars, and rumours of wars, and demographics, and epidemics, and revolutions, and medicine, and tv, and agronomy, and everything? Just, everything about the latter half of the twentieth century, every event, every object, every pattern, everything? And if so how did this domination manifest itself? Did everything, like, cower before the massive power and bulk and teeth of postmodernism? Or what?

Well, that’s probably not exactly what she meant, she probably just wrote carelessly. She certainly reads carelessly, as you can see if you read her first comment – she misreads every single answer of mine that she elects to comment on. Maybe she meant something far more modest, such as that postmodernism dominated, let’s say, intellectual life in the latter half of the twentieth century. I’m betting that’s what she meant. That seems like a fair reading, don’t you think? Not uncharitable? Or perhaps she meant only academic endeavor? Or perhaps she meant only academic endeavor within the humanities and social sciences? That would certainly be radically narrower and more modest than what she did say. And yet, even narrowed down that drastically, it’s still not true. But her thinking it is true is absolutely typical of ‘postmodernism’ at its preening worst. (If you don’t believe me, just remind yourself of that letter Judith Butler wrote to the NY Times about its Derrida obit. Go on. We’ll wait.)

And then, amusingly, having been so opaque herself, she goes on to ask a commenter who is less than fond of postmodernism a lot of sharp questions about what exactly he means. That’s a postmodernist thing to do.

(I have to say this though. What’s with the first name bit? Who invited her to call me by my first name? Eh? I certainly didn’t. Is that a postmodern thing too?)

Don’t Ask Questions, Just Sign Up

Jun 7th, 2006 4:57 pm | By

This is good. A letter to the Times.

John Wainwright (letter, May 31) states that “tolerance implies that we have no right to challenge the behaviour of individuals or organisations that we disagree with or deem harmful”. However, the word tolerance has not been defined in this way until very recently. The traditional dictionary definition of tolerance is “the ability to endure”; that is, the ability to endure someone else’s expression of an opinion, even if we find it insulting, demeaning or offensive. This does not preclude criticism of their beliefs but it should preclude censorship of them.

We’ve encountered this muddle many times. It comes into play with the use of words like ‘offensive’ and ‘respect’, too, and now with this new use of ‘human rights’. There was for instance that discussion about what kind of ‘respect’ people should be required to commit to for job purposes. I disputed the idea that employers get to demand signed promises to ‘respect and value the differences among us’ with no specification of what kind of differences were meant – or, for that matter, of what was meant by ‘respect and value’. No doubt what they meant was non-persecution and non-tormenting of people for stupid reasons such as their race or gender or sex pref or hairdo – but that’s not what they said, and it’s risky to sign things on the assumption that they mean some vague thing that hasn’t actually been said when there is ample room for them to mean something else. But that’s just what we keep being gently but firmly pushed to do: to tolerate and respect and value anything and everything, and at the very same time (look sharp, now) support the human rights of religious groups to demand respect for their most profound beliefs, and to enforce that demand by censoring and closing down plays and art exhbitions. Erm – but aren’t those expectations in tension? Yes, of course they are, but that’s your problem, not ours; just sign the promise and shut up. So it is our duty to respect and value and tolerate Ruth Kelly’s human right to have her personal profound beliefs which are in sharp tension with the duties of her job but of course that is her business, not ours, and if we press her on the point, why, we might as well say that people of ‘faith’ can’t do jobs like hers, and that’s absurd!

One can’t help noticing a certain lack of clarity in all this.