Mar 20th, 2007 2:57 pm | By

You’ll have seen this bit of wisdom before – possibly more than once.

In his conclusion, McGrath spoke of the limitations of science. Issues such as the meaning of life, he said, remain outside the scope of science.

In some senses, yes – but does it follow that religion is inside the scope of science? Is that what we’re meant to conclude? Probably, although the Baptist Press doesn’t say so (it’s not clear whether McGrath did or not). At any rate, let’s ponder what may be meant by that familiar trope.

I think what is meant by it is that science interferes with denial and therefore it interferes with certain ways of deriving meaning. I think that’s probably true – but that’s because reality interferes with certain ways of deriving meaning; science in this context is just a source of information about reality. There are others, which are just as likely to interfere with certain ways of deriving meaning. Life, the passage of time, experience, observation can all do that; can and are quite likely to. That’s how it is. We’re weak mortal entities with short lives who tend to love other weak mortal entities with short lives. That brutal set of facts always does tend to interfere with our efforts to derive meaning; it always does mess up ‘issues such as the meaning of life.’ So I would say that what is meant here is not so much that religion helps us to derive meaning, as that religion helps us to deny intrusive bits of reality that would otherwise smash our derived meanings.

Now, I think that’s true – religion does help us do do that. Religion does, and science doesn’t (mostly). But it’s interesting that that’s not the way apologists for religion usually put the matter. They don’t usually even say that religion helps us to protect some illusions and science doesn’t. I suppose that’s because it would be much like a doctor saying ‘I’ll give you a placebo for that.’ But still – it would be more honest.

Philosophy of religion or theology

Mar 19th, 2007 12:49 pm | By

There are a couple of posts at Talking Philosophy about Dawkins and theology and the former’s lack of interest in the latter. The basic issue is this comment of Dawkins’s in an interview:

Look, somebody who thinks the way I do doesn’t think theology is a subject at all. So to me it is like someone saying they don’t believe in fairies and then being asked how they know if they haven’t studied fairy-ology.

Which Talking Philosophy disputes:

So what about this claim? Is it necessary to know a fair bit about fairy-ology to show that belief in fairies is irrational? The answer is that it is certainly arguable that in some circumstances at least it is necessary.

I think it is true that it is necessary to know a fair bit about arguments about God to show that belief in God is irrational; but I’m not sure that means it is necessary to know a fair bit about theology. It has occurred to me that people may be talking about different things in that discussion (it’s a long discussion, with lots of comments). It depends what is meant by theology, perhaps, and what Dawkins understood to be meant by theology when he answered the question.

I’m thinking for instance of that Eagleton review in which Eagleton rebuked Dawkins for ignorance of theology:

Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?…As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.

But Eagleton is going back and forth between religion and theology there, and they’re not identical. Grace and hope are interesting subjects, no doubt, but are they arguments for the existence of God? Is Eagleton in fact talking about arguments for the existence of God, or is he talking much much more broadly about just talk about God? And more to the point, what did Dawkins have in mind when he answered that question?

It seems to me at least possible (and in fact likely) that he was distinguishing between philosophy of religion (and arguments for the existence of God) on the one hand, and theology on the other, and taking theology to be discussion of God. If that’s right – I don’t think he does need to know about that in order to show that belief in God is irrational. He needs to know about the arguments for the existence of God, but he doesn’t need to know (I would say) about claims about what God is like (unless they’re part of the arguments for the existence of God). There’s not much point in deep knowledge of claims about what God is like if you see no reason to believe God exists in the first place – is there? In that sense the fairyology simile is a serious comparison, isn’t it?

In short, I don’t think Dawkins was saying he had no need to know about the arguments, but rather that he had no need to know about detailed claims about God’s nature. That seems to me to be a reasonable claim. I could of course be wrong about what he meant though; it’s only a guess.

Simple history

Mar 19th, 2007 12:14 pm | By

History, truth, myths, nationalism, violence, what to teach the children. It comes up a lot, that set of issues.

These days, Irish history lessons are more sophisticated. They deal happily with facts that have no place in a plain tale of heroes and tyrants…Why the change? First because in the 1980s, some people in Ireland became uneasy about the fact that a crude view of their national history was fuelling a conflict in the north of the island. Then came a fall in the influence of the Catholic church, whose authority had rested on a deft fusion between religion and patriotism. Also at work was an even broader shift: a state that was rich, confident and cosmopolitan saw less need to drum simple ideas into its youth, especially if those ideas risked encouraging violence.

A shift from nationalist religio-patriotic simple ideas to something better; excellent; here’s hoping the rest of the world can make the same trip.

In modern Turkey, classrooms have always been seen as a battleground for young hearts. Every day, children start the day by chanting: “I am a Turk, I am honest, I am industrious”…In such a climate, it is inevitable that “history is considered a sensitive matter, to be managed by the state,” says Taner Akcam, a Turkish-born historian, whose frank views on the fate of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 have exposed him to harassment by Turkish nationalists…

And Hrant Dink’s frank views on the fate of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 exposed him to being murdered.

Greece’s Orthodox leaders, like Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, are putting up a harder fight to preserve the nationalist spirit…Meanwhile some Greeks retort that 11 or 12 is too young to go looking for facts. In a web-discussion of the new Greek textbook, one participant thunders: “At university, the goal of historical research is the discovery of truth. But in primary schools history teaching has an entirely different aim—to form historical consciousness and social identity!”

Oh right! Good thinking! The discovery of truth is reserved for people who go to university, and has to be postponed; what the people as a whole must have as children is identity-shaping mythology. Great. That’s been doing great things for Japan and India lately…

A puzzle about theodicy

Mar 18th, 2007 12:42 pm | By

I’m reading an interesting book, The Improbability of God, edited by Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier. A collection of arguments on the subject. There’s a whole section on inductive evil arguments against the existence of God. In one, ‘An Argument from Non-gratuitous Evil’ by Thomas Metcalf, a half-sentence on page 330 started a train of thought: ‘If God exists, all the evil that befalls us is justified…’

The train of thought was about the subject matter of this whole section of the book, which is theodicy in general. It’s one that’s puzzled me for ages, but it took a perhaps slightly new form this time. The traditional idea or definition of ‘God’ is that it is omnipotent omniscient and omnibenevolent (also eternal). But – that’s strange. That’s stranger than we generally notice, it seems to me (unless I’m missing something). The third item doesn’t fit.

It makes sense, within the terms of reference of talking about ‘God’ at all, to define ‘God’ as omnipotent and omniscient. It has to be those in order to create the universe (though I suppose you could substitute veryvery for omni), and it is generally considered to have done that thing. We could think of God as the boss of just one corner of the universe, but theists generally don’t, so that’s a separate subject. Omnipotent and omniscient fit into the usual understandings and definitions; they make sense there; but what is omnibenevolent doing there? One, benevolence is hardly necessary in order to create the universe, and two, what does the universe have to do with benevolence? If you look at the universe and then think someone created it, you have to think of that someone as having a large quantity of power and knowledge; but benevolence? I don’t see why that’s even relevant.

The problem of evil, of course, has to do with reconciling a benevolent or Perfectly Good God with the existence of suffering (aka evil). But there again – why is it assumed that God is Perfectly Good? Or Good at all? Because that’s part of the definition; yes, but why? We can see why power and knowledge are, but I have to say, I have a hard time seeing why goodness is.

Goodness (or benevolence) seems like a different kind of thing – like the perfect island that is actually not perfect if you prefer a different kind of island. Power and knowledge are somewhat objective, universalizable qualities, but goodness isn’t. It is possible to make arguments for objective universalizable human goods, but they are human goods; it is possible to make arguments for extending some of them to all sentient beings on this planet; but that’s still a very local version of good. That’s what the word is – a word that describes what finite contingent mortal sentient beings prefer; it doesn’t describe anything cosmic, or if it does we have no idea how.

This matters because theists reply to atheist arguments from evil that humans can’t know what all possible goods are, and that suffering may be (or just is) necessary in order that other greater goods may exist, and that therefore the existence of horrible pointless (apparently, as far as we can tell pointless) suffering is not a reason to think God does not exist. In other words, ‘God’ is still perfectly good, still omnibenevolent, it’s just that it is those things in ways that are hidden to us but that make our sufferings (our=all sentient beings) justifiable all the same.

Well – it’s perfectly possible to suppose that, of course – but by exactly the same token, it’s also perfectly possible to suppose that, for instance, what ‘God’ means by ‘good’ is the enjoyment derived from watching sentient beings suffer. How the hell do we know? That’s not our definition of good, but the theists’ whole point there is that our definition isn’t the only possible definition and that it’s limited and inadequate. Maybe it is, but why do the theists get to suppose that the real, hidden, secret, theist definition is ‘good’ in any sense at all? Why do they assume that? Why isn’t it at least as likely that the secret hidden reasons that we don’t know about are indifferent or malevolent? If it’s unknown, it’s unknown, and there’s no more reason to assume it’s benevolent and good than there is to assume it’s sadistic and bad, or to assume it has no moral content whatever.

Of the earth earthy

Mar 17th, 2007 12:40 pm | By

I’ve been thinking (on and off) about something slightly puzzling. The people who rebuke militant atheists or Enlightenment fundamentalists or secular dogmatists or deaf scientistic positivists or some other combination of those and similar terms, often murmur something about the importance of religion for art and literature and music. After bumping into one of those murmurs a few days ago, I suddenly noticed a puzzle. It’s this: the one about literature isn’t true. That’s very odd, isn’t it; why isn’t it true?

Of course, there are exceptions; there are some bits of literature that are very goddy; I’m not ignoring Dante and Milton. But – most literature actually isn’t all that goddy – even literature written at times when atheism was a capital crime; even literature written by believers, or at least people who went to church. Literature on the whole seems to be a very, very secular and above all worldly undertaking. That’s very odd, isn’t it?

I’ve noticed this before, actually, but in different contexts and so from different angles. I remember being astonished a couple of decades ago when I first read The Decameron – I was astonished that any medieval book could be so very worldly and so cheerfully lewd. But I should have been more astonished by later people too – I should have wondered about it more.

Think about it. Think about Shakespeare, or Austen, or anyone else you like. They just don’t talk about God and goddy things the way you would think they would if they took the whole thing seriously. Yet Austen, at least, did take it seriously (and Shakespeare may have; no one knows).

Why is that? Why is God tacitly left out? Why is the whole subject mostly bracketed? Why isn’t it central? Why, when they write about human lives and characters and morality and experience, do they mostly talk about all of them in purely human worldly quotidian terms? Why do they have plenty of clergymen and clergymen’s wives and daughters, with so very little searching talk about what the clergymen are actually there for?

I’m really curious about it. I think it’s strange. It’s strange because if the god hypothesis is true, it ought to loom immensely large; if you believe it’s true, it (surely) must loom immensely large in everything you think about life and the world; many producers of literature have believed it’s true; yet they write on the whole as if human life were just what I think it is: human life, period. It’s odd that there isn’t a radical split in poetry and plays and novels written by believers and those written by non-believers – but there isn’t. They ought to inhabit and describe completely different worlds, and yet they don’t. Why is that?

It’s not true of painting, or of music; why is it true of literature?

I have one guess: it’s only a guess. I’ll be interested to know if anyone has others. My guess is that it doesn’t work, and that the reason it doesn’t work is that the God character isn’t around. It’s hidden. We’re supposed to believe it’s there (we’re especially ‘supposed to’ in literature of earlier periods) but we also all know it’s hidden – and because it’s hidden, it’s peculiar and creepy to talk about it – apparently even for believers. That’s interesting. Gravity is hidden too, of course; so are atoms; but it’s not creepy or peculiar to talk about them; but it is creepy and peculiar to talk about God much – much or even at all. I don’t think Austen ever so much as mentions God.

If that’s right, it means that even believers (many, most) don’t really believe God is there in the same natural easy way we all believe in what’s around us. It may even mean that they (or many or some of them) think they do but really don’t.

Strange, isn’t it. Fantasy is fine; magic realism is fine; Harry Potter okay, Wizard of Oz okay, ghosts and witches okay; but God…hmm…not really. Except of course for evangelicals and the Rapture books, but those don’t count, being a recent local product of the Third Great Awakening; the question is why more literature hasn’t been like the Rapture books all along.

Eternal recurrence

Mar 15th, 2007 11:25 am | By

Ah, look, an old friend returns. At that post of Stephen Law’s on Anselm’s proof we talked about the other day. Old friend returns in characteristic form – posting thirty or forty thousand words in each comment, talking about hermeneutics and Gadamer and Hermamer and gadaneutics until the wallpaper starts to peel spontaneously off the walls in very sympathy. He’s also got some new tricks though – mentioning ‘G_d’ a lot, overusing scare quotes or irony quotes beyond all reason, lots of quiet boasting. I wonder if you’ve guessed which friend I mean yet – I wonder if your memories are keen this morning. He used to deposit his book-length comments here often, often; he did it for nearly two years, ignoring nearly all replies in favour of depositing new stand-alone book-length ruminations on hermeneutics and the profundity of it all. I gave him a lot of rope, many chances, abundant opportunities to change; and then I’d had enough, and I banned him. Looking at his new effusions, I have to say, I’m hugging myself with joy that he does not post here any longer, because he can’t. I feel no quiver of regret. I do not miss his little ways. I do not worry that my thinking is the poorer for want of his wisdom.

Shall I give you a taste?

And in Anselm’s world the “problem” of atheism, the non-existence of divinity, was scarcely conceived to “exist”…The upshot here is that Anselm’s “proof” should be regarded in an heuristic and hortatory sense, rather than as logically dispositive…Now I myself am an atheist, though of an indifferentist variety, (noboby gets a leg-up through the profession of their beliefs), and of strongly anti-positivist instincts…But the idea that matters of belief and “faith” can be disposed of, ahistorically and extra-culturally, by technical refinements in logical argumentation just strikes me as silly and beside the point.

Stephen asked him, civilly, to clarify – but ah, he didn’t realize; he didn’t know he was dealing with one who never clarifies, who only ever repeats and amplifies. And so it fell out.

Religious ideas have a “logic” of their own, even if it’s not logical, and if one is going to deal with such matters, one should take account of the complexion of religious ideas and thinking and attempt to understand them as best one can, which does not require regarding them as true. One has to attempt to understand the sources of their compellingness in religious “experience”, such as ideas about suffering, sin, transcendence, redemption, vocation and the like…Religious beliefs are a mixed bag and are not simply cognitive, but contain ethical, expressive, and practical components, as well, but in such a way that they are holistically connected with each other, such that they operate “beneath” the level of the rational differentiation of validities, in terms of which modern forms of rationality and argument function.

And so on, and on, and on – that sample represents only about .1% of the total. It’s funny (and familiar) stuff. But I’m glad it’s being posted somewhere else and not here.

Maybe our friend is bucking for the Templeton prize. Maybe he thinks there’s a good chance that next year they will award it to someone who comments indefatigably and at length on other people’s websites. That seems quite a reasonable hope, doesn’t it? Sure.

If the source is polluted

Mar 14th, 2007 2:49 pm | By

Anthony Grayling on sin and pollution – always very interesting ideas.

Much of the traditional idea of sin persists in our contemporary attitudes to moral failure. We somehow export the idea of a stain, an enduring flaw of character, to the case of people who do not live up to ideals, especially those they themselves proclaim…[I]n a sin culture even the suspicion of hypocrisy in the messenger is enough to harm the message: if the source of the claim is polluted, the claim itself must be questionable…Throughout history earnest moralisers have stood in the way of the good by accepting nothing less than the utmost. Human beings are a mixed alloy: the same person is capable of being good and terribly bad at different times or in different respects.

Yeh. I’m very interested in ideas of purity and stain, sin and pollution – how both compelling and dangerous they can be.

Money for old rope

Mar 14th, 2007 2:35 pm | By

Ah, the Templeton prize. What a treat.

A Canadian philosopher who believes that spirituality is an essential part of the study of philosophy and the social sciences has won the $1.5 million Templeton Prize for advancement and research of spiritual matters.

Okay; first pressing question; what does that mean? What is spirituality? Depending on how it’s defined, either, of course it’s an essential part of the study of philosophy and the social sciences, or what on earth does he mean it’s an essential part of the study of philosophy and the social sciences?

Professor Taylor has written extensively on the sense of self and how it is defined by morals and what one considers good. People operate in the register of spiritual issues, he said, and to separate those from the humanities and social sciences leads to flawed conclusions. “The deafness of many philosophers, social scientists and historians to the spiritual dimension can be remarkable,” Professor Taylor said.

Same thing. Wot’s he mean? Just stuff that’s not rocks and boards and dirt? Then of course people ‘operate in the register of spiritual issues’ (I suppose he means think about and care about, but ‘operate in the register of’ sounds more – Templetonian). Or supernatural? Then some operate in that register (or think they do, or want to, or hope to) and some don’t.

Whatever. Professor Taylor can have his prize, I don’t mind, but I wish people would say what they mean when they talk about spirituality.

Nussbaum interview

Mar 11th, 2007 12:24 pm | By

This interview with Martha Nussbaum is full of interesting stuff.

I find that the US is in a way one of the most difficult places for philosophy to play a public role because the media are so sensationalistic and so anti-intellectual. If I go to most countries in Europe I’ll have a much easier time publishing in a newspaper than I would in the US. The New York Times op-ed page is very dumbed down and I no longer even bother trying to get something published there because they don’t like anything that has a complicated argument.

Undeniable, and depressing, and irritating. This is one reason we have to laugh loudly and scornfully whenever the NY Times tells us (as it regularly solemnly ludicrously does) that it’s the best newspaper or even news organization in the world.

On the other hand there’s a familiar claim that I’ve disputed here before and that I don’t like at all.

I think the political form of liberalism, in which we don’t advocate a comprehensive doctrine of autonomy but rather certain ethical principles for the political realm, is more defensible in a world in which, for example, we have religions that don’t think autonomy is a particularly great good. We don’t show respect for them if we say that only autonomous lives are worthwhile.

I don’t want to show respect for religions that don’t think autonomy is a particularly great good. That’s exactly what I don’t want to do – so I flinch when I see it adduced as a reason for not advocationg a comprehensive doctrine of autonomy, even though I probably wouldn’t advocate such a thing myself anyway (because of the words comprehensive and doctrine, which also make me flinch, which I think is part of Nussbaum’s point, but I still dislike the reason adduced).

Wherever the ideas come from, I think the important thing is now that they do enrich the debate within liberalism and I think they should be defended in a way that’s still recognizably liberal. By that I mean with an emphasis on the idea that each person is the ultimate beneficiary, not large groups of people, not even families, but each person seen as an equal of every other person. And I also think that it’s a hallmark of liberalism that ideas of choice and freedom are really very, very important. Of course I think one has to stress that we don’t have choice if people are just left to their own devices. The state has to act positively to create the conditions for choice.

That’s better. (So a comprehensive doctrine of autonomy is different from ideas of choice and freedom. Okay. I’m not sure I understand why, but maybe that’s because I need to read some more Rawls. Anyway I’m glad we get to think ideas of choice and freedom are important even if we are urged to respect religions that don’t think autonomy is.)

Because English has to defend itself against people who say it’s not a proper academic subject, it’s prone to fads. I think we’re not at the end of the fads, there’ll probably be some other fad that will be again rather annoying and we’ll have to fight against that one. But at present, at least, I think the post-modern one is on the way out. Whether ethics in its serious sense will become central in English departments I am not sure, because I think very few literary scholars have the patience to do the sustained hard philosophical work that’s needed. Whenever they talk about philosophy, with the exception of Wayne Booth, for example, they’ll talk about it in a way that seems to me quite embarrassing and amateurish.

I’ve noticed that. More than once. More than twice. There’s the way they seem to think Derrida invented ideas that have been around for centuries, for example; very cringe-making. (That’s not Derrida’s fault.)

So you can get departments, often very good departments, where people would make fun of a literary inquiry, or think that it was not proper philosophy. In my own department, fortunately, it’s not that way at all. Many people would want, for example, to teach a course on Proust…So I think now it’s a much more open field than it was when I was a graduate student, when you couldn’t even write a dissertation on Aristotle’s views about friendship because people would make fun of you. They would say it was too soft or something.

Funny. Once, many years ago, The Philosophers’ Magazine had a discussion board, which I stumbled into and found interesting and so began to comment on. After I’d been doing that for three or four weeks I started a thread on friendship – and I got roundly pounced on and told that that was not a philosophical subject. I was much suprised to hear it, and wondered to myself about Aristotle and so on.

My primary difference with MacKinnon is that she is reluctant to express any universal norms or ideals…She thinks it’s too dictatorial to announce ahead of time what the norms are. However, in her writings there’s a very obvious normative structure. There are ideas of dignity and equality…But I think she herself is, when you philosophically reconstruct her views. I don’t think you can do it without employing normative notions; to the extent that she does avoid them it just means that her own ideas are underdeveloped and that there’s not enough of a principled structure.

And without the principled structure you find yourself in the muddy shifting quicksand of tolerance and respect and acceptance without any stipulations or definitions or limits, and that’s the end of universal women’s rights or human rights. We need the principled structure.

The ones I don’t think are so very helpful are the post-modernist feminists like Judith Butler whom I have criticized very strongly…And when I see academic feminists saying: well we can write these elegant papers in a jargon which parody the norms, I want to know where the feminist struggle that we had is…And then the Carol Gilligan group: I think their work is not so good and I think it provides a handy rationale for the exploitation of women as caregivers. So I am very critical of those two groups.

Yup, yup, yup. Same here. Apart from the respect for religions part (which I may not understand properly anyway), I like it all.

Keep your dang bulwark

Mar 9th, 2007 12:04 pm | By

You know, bulwarks are useful things when there’s a hurricane, or a flood, or maybe a mob of ravenous aggressive rabbits approaching the town; but other times, not so much. There are some bulwarks we don’t much want, some bulwarks we’d rather not have, thanks. Take your bulwark and go away. This one for instance.

Why has the church taken a stand on [the issue of gay adoptions] when it barely protested against the introduction of civil partnerships last year? Is this largely a symbolic issue, a stand-in for a much deeper debate about the relationship between faith and the state? Does the church see itself as the last bulwark against an encroaching tide of liberalism?

Maybe so, and if it does, it needs to go away and repent. It needs to go far far far away, like into the metaphysical possible world where ‘God’ necessarily exists and no one else does, and hang its mitred head and repent. Or if it can’t repent, it just needs to go far far away and leave us alone. We don’t want any damn bulwarks against encroaching tides of liberalism, thanks. That is the very last thing on earth we want – the BBC put that very neatly. No thank you. No churchy bulwarks against encroaching tides of liberalism, but on the contrary, an encroaching tide of liberalism that sweeps all before it. Liberalism good, anti-liberalism bad. Tide good, bulwark bad. Liberalism in this context clearly means general liberty from taboos and exclusions and punishments, from oppression and deprivation and subordination that have no rational basis, and that is a good thing and opposition to it is a bad thing. Hey hey, ho ho, churchy bulwark gotta go.

What’s a perfect island? forest? garden?

Mar 8th, 2007 10:32 am | By

Stephen Law discusses the ontological argument.

Anselm’s argument simple and elegant. He begins by characterizing God as a being greater than which cannot be conceived. That God, if he exists, is such a being seems clear. If you conceive of a being, yet can also conceive of a still greater being, then the being you first thought of cannot be God. Armed with this concept of God, we can now argue for God’s existence as follows. We can at least conceive of such a being. That there exists a being greater than which cannot be conceived is at least a hypothesis we can entertain. But, adds Anselm, as it is greater to exist in reality than merely in our imagination, this being must really exist. After all, if he did not exist, then he would not be as great a being as we can conceive.

Stephen notes that few philosophers find the argument cogent or convincing, but also that there is no consensus about what’s wrong with it. I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but what I wonder is, why anyone ever found it convincing. It has that grandiosity problem I mentioned (that is, it seems to me to have that problem). It just seems like silly magic – as if merely thinking the words ‘perfect’ and ‘exists’ could make something exist. It doesn’t matter what we can conceive and what we decide must be true – we can’t make anything exist by the power of thought (except thoughts, which don’t count, because I’m a reductionist materialist, and a heathen).

I have a different (though related) problem with Gaunilo’s objection.

Here’s Gaunilo’s argument. Can we not conceive of a perfect island – an island perfect in every conceivable way, from the purity of its streams to the sublime contours of its landscape? It seems we can. But if we can conceive of such an island, and it is greater to exist in reality than in imagination, then the island we are conceiving of must exist. If it didn’t exist, it would not be perfect in every way. On the seemingly safe assumption that there is no such island, it seems we have no choice but to accept that there is something wrong with the argument that appears to establish that there is.

Simon Blackburn’s version of that is Dreamboat – the perfect lover. Anyway, about the island – does it make sense to say that an island can be perfect in every conceivable way, from the purity of its streams to the sublime contours of its landscape? Are pure streams and sublime contours examples of perfection? They don’t seem so to me. They seem more like examples of very very good or extremely nice or ravishingly beautiful if you happen to like that kind of thing – but that’s not the same thing as perfect. What’s a perfect apple? Or a perfect brownie? Or a perfect sweater? Or a perfect book? Depends, doesn’t it; depends what you like. It’s a value judgment; it’s moral or aesthetic or both; it’s relative at least to humans and often to individuals; ‘perfect’ doesn’t come into it. So that’s a further element in the puzzle. It puzzles me anyway.

Nicht verstehen

Mar 8th, 2007 10:06 am | By

Right, Plantinga on Dawkins. There is one bit that’s quite funny, but there’s another that I can’t understand. It’s familiar, and I never understand it. It just seems childish, in a literal way: childishly grandiose; and that can’t be right, so I must not understand it. Help me out here.

So why think God must be improbable? According to classical theism, God is a necessary being; it is not so much as possible that there should be no such person as God; he exists in all possible worlds. But if God is a necessary being, if he exists in all possible worlds, then the probability that he exists, of course, is 1, and the probability that he does not exist is 0. Far from its being improbable that he exists, his existence is maximally probable. So if Dawkins proposes that God’s existence is improbable, he owes us an argument for the conclusion that there is no necessary being with the attributes of God—an argument that doesn’t just start from the premise that materialism is true. Neither he nor anyone else has provided even a decent argument along these lines; Dawkins doesn’t even seem to be aware that he needs an argument of that sort.

I just don’t begin to understand that. I don’t understand the ‘So’ that begins the fifth sentence. So? So? Coming after ‘his existence is maximally probable’? When the whole chain started with ‘According to classical theism’? And then said a lot of things that (as far as I can tell) are to do with logic but make nothing happen. Why does the fact that ‘God’ is X according to classical theism mean that anything else follows for people who don’t adhere to classical theism in the first place? I could understand why something would follow if the phrase went ‘according to geology’ or physics or molecular biology and then were followed by a claim about rocks or quarks or DNA that included the word ‘is’ – but classical theism? No. And then there’s that ‘if’. If God is a necessary being, then…then how do we get to So? We start from a claim from a supernaturalist field, we go on to an if, and we end up at a bizarre certainty that Dawkins owes us an explanation. I do not understand that passage. It looks nonsensical to me, and that can’t be right.


Mar 8th, 2007 8:55 am | By

Peter Tatchell wants to know.

Why is much of the left and the liberal media ignoring the struggle for democracy and women’s rights in Iran?…Sunday’s demonstration was the latest in a series. It was called in solidarity with five women activists who are on trial after they staged a peaceful rally last June against Islamic laws that discriminate against women – in particular the sexist laws on polygamy and child custody. The five activists in the dock are Nusheen Ahmadi Khorasani, Parvin Ardalan, Sussan Tahmasebi, Shahla Entesari and Fariba Davoodi Mohajer. For holding a peaceful protest, they are charged with endangering national security, propaganda against the state, and taking part in an illegal gathering…The liberal western media – including The Guardian – has mostly failed to report these women’s protests and their bloody suppression. The left, too, ignores the heroic struggle of the women of Iran. Misogyny and police brutality are not okay in Britain, but apparently acceptable in Tehran. Why the double standards?

Why indeed? Absence of mind? Distance? More pressing concerns? Or something more sinister.

There are several interesting comments there too, worth sorting through the usual CisF deluge. This one for instance –

I work in human rights advocacy and have become appalled at the manner in which elements across the entire spectrum of the left have become hostile to universal human rights. Those who condemn homophobia in Saudi Arabia are silenced, those who speak out for Muslims who convert to Christianity and face prison or death are condemned, those who challenge violently misogynistic laws and practices in Pakistan or Afghanistsan are dismissed. The ethical core of the left is being rotted by moral relativism. It is a woeful and tragic spectacle.

I’m not sure it is exactly moral relativism, at least not in a broad sense. It’s more like geographico-politico relativism, or that combined with a mistaken idea of politeness – it’s not good manners to criticize other countries or cultures – even if segments of those countries are busy campaigning against manifest gross injustice and would love our solidarity and support.

There’s also a fair amount of sinister nonsense (or sinister balls, as they used to call it around the NS) about Maryam Namazie, and ‘the mainstream organisations of British Muslims’ meaning the MCB, and all this does is encourage fascists and racists – in short, sinister balls of the kind that demonstrates exactly the kind of stupidity Tatchell is asking about. Know the enemy.

Don’t forget the women’s rights seminar

Mar 7th, 2007 6:31 pm | By

Also, a reminder: you fortunate people in or near London get to go to a seminar on Women’s Rights, the Veil and Islamic and religious laws tomorrow.

Speakers: Sonja Eggerickx: President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union; Ann Harrison: Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Department of Amnesty International’s International Secretariat; Maryam Namazie: frequent contributor to B&W and 2005 National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year Award Winner; Taslima Nasrin: Physician, writer, radical feminist, human rights activist and secular humanist. Co-sponsored by the International Campaign in Defense of Women’s Right in Iran- UK, the National Secular Society and the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association. Free. University of London Union
Room 3D, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HY. 6 to 10 p.m. I’d go in a heartbeat if I were in London.

The Secular Islam Summit

Mar 7th, 2007 6:01 pm | By

Check out the Secular Islam summit blog. Check out the St Petersburg Declaration.

We are secular Muslims, and secular persons of Muslim societies. We are believers, doubters, and unbelievers, brought together by a great struggle, not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the unfree.

…We insist upon the separation of religion from state and the observance of universal human rights.

…We call on the governments of the world to

reject Sharia law, fatwa courts, clerical rule, and state-sanctioned religion in all their forms; oppose all penalties for blasphemy and apostacy, in accordance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights;

eliminate practices, such as female circumcision, honor killing, forced veiling, and forced marriage, that further the oppression of women

Read it all. Excellent stuff. Shoulders to the wheel, all; support these people; spread the word.

Either it’s an unknown, or it’s implausible

Mar 6th, 2007 3:49 pm | By

There are two choices, it sees to me. Either ‘God’ is the god of religion, of churches and mosques, that gives rules and answers prayers – in which case it’s part of nature and history; or it’s something else, which we can’t comprehend.

Either it’s the first, which is like a giant cop, or a combination cop and nurse, or it’s the second, which is [ ? ]. The first is not reasonable to believe in, because a god like that would (or should) provide unmistakable evidence of its existence and its wishes (because what in hell is the point of keeping it a secret?). The second is perfectly reasonable to believe in – but is it reasonable to call that ‘God’?

The combination of the two makes no sense at all. An unknown that tells us what to do, a mystery that we’re supposed to worship in specific terms, a question mark that loves us – it’s an incoherent jumble. Yet it’s the usual idea of ‘God’ – half parental half concealed; half judge half Cloud of Unknowing. It might as well be half Bactrian camel half peanut butter.

If it’s simply (or complicatedly) what we don’t know, or causes that we don’t know about, and the like, who would object? Who would disbelieve in the existence of such things or concepts, or think it not reasonable to believe in them? But why on earth call that ‘God’? Is it because its fans are desperate to retain a person god? But that’s not reasonable either; not for theological reasons, but for biological ones. We know now what humans are, and how we got to be what we are. Do we really think ‘God’ (or Betsy, as we might as well call it) is like that? But if human nature and human abilities are a product of natural selection, how could Betsy’s nature and abilities be similar? So the ‘person’ thing seems pretty untenable, no matter what you do.

Before 1859, it must have been different. It must have been (seemed) self-evident that humans were mysteriously special and strange and interesting, unlike other animals and very unlike trees and rocks. All explanations were unsatisfactory, and a person-like god making us as miniatures of itself could have been the least unsatisfactory. That’s not unreasonable. But once the peculiarity of humans no longer seems so peculiar, a person-like god becomes less necessary and less explanatory. In fact it raises questions rather than explaining. (Does it have an appendix? Does it have a small intestine? Why?) A person-like god now seems not like a spiritual version of ourselves but like an inexplicable giant ape. Why would there be a god like that? Okay it has no body (but then we’re getting into unknowable territory, which is the other choice, but never mind for now), but it has a person-like mind of some sort. But – our minds are human minds. They’re not Pure Minds, they’re not examples of What Mind Should Be; they’re human minds. A person-like god seems like a not very reasonable belief – it has to be person-like and yet completely different in every way that matters. Well then we’re just back to Incomprehensible again, in which case we’re back to Nobody Knows again, which means we’re back to Why call it God again.

One of the ironies in all this is that theists are so seldom expected to define their god – just invoking the name is supposed to be adequate – it’s supposed to be self-evident who and what it is. Theists and some agnostics claim that atheists have too much certainty, but belief in a shifting inscrutable but bossy demanding god is – at the very least dangerous. Believers don’t always use their god to bully and oppress, but the risk is always there – it’s well adapted for such a purpose. I would argue that atheists are not wrong to be pretty certain that, at a minimum, it is dangerous to believe in elusive mysterious inscrutable gods who impose strong laws and punishments on human beings.

Because there is no appeal. No accountability, no chance to revise, discuss, re-think. There are no defense lawyers, no appellate courts. And in fact no present god, either, but only human intermediaries. Why should we – and how can we? – be so sure they have it right?

Mark Vernon adds this in a comment on Stephen’s post on the mystery move:

Both the atheist and the theist will do away with false gods, and false theories, as they ponder the mystery. But whereas the atheist will conclude there is no god, and the universe is pure, if delightful, chance. The theist will conclude that the universe is pure gift – as articulated by the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. The difference between believing the universe is chance and gift strikes me as a very great one.

Yes, it’s a big difference, but on the other hand ‘chance’ might not be quite the right word (brute fact might be better); and as Stephen points out, ‘gift’ has some problems too. And in any case, it always makes a big difference how one thinks of things, but that fact doesn’t change reality. It makes a difference whether we think various natural forces caused it to rain today, or that our dearest friend made it rain today; but that doesn’t determine what caused it to rain today, so pointing out the difference between the two ideas is beside the point if the dispute is over whether or not ‘god’ exists, or whether it’s reasonable to think so.

The enlightenment driven away

Mar 6th, 2007 11:27 am | By

Well exactly. Just what I’ve been thinking, and fuming at, for weeks.

“The enlightenment driven away…” This very strong and bitter line [of Auden’s – OB] came back to me when I saw the hostile, sneaky reviews that have been dogging the success of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s best seller Infidel…Two of our leading intellectual commentators, Timothy Garton Ash (in the New York Review of Books) and Ian Buruma, described Hirsi Ali, or those who defend her, as “Enlightenment fundamentalist[s].” In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Buruma made a further borrowing from the language of tyranny and intolerance and described her view as an “absolutist” one…In her book, Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the following: “I left the world of faith, of genital cutting and forced marriage for the world of reason and sexual emancipation. After making this voyage I know that one of these two worlds is simply better than the other. Not for its gaudy gadgetry, but for its fundamental values.” This is a fairly representative quotation. She has her criticisms of the West, but she prefers it to a society where women are subordinate, censorship is pervasive, and violence is officially preached against unbelievers. As an African victim of, and escapee from, this system, she feels she has acquired the right to say so. What is “fundamentalist” about that?

What, indeed? What, what, what? I would really like to know. I read that nasty, ‘hostile, sneaky’ review of Buruma’s in the Sunday NY Times, and was thoroughly and profoundly irritated by it – as well as a little frightened. If he thinks that, he’d be willing to compromise on my rights as well as Hirsi Ali’s (not, be it noted, his own). I don’t want the Ian Burumas doing that. I find it alarming that they seem to be willing to consider it (and also, frankly, that they don’t even pause to notice that it’s other people’s rights that are in danger much more than their own, and to worry that that might make their own views look a little suspect).

The Feb. 26 edition of Newsweek takes up where Garton Ash and Buruma leave off and says, in an article by Lorraine Ali, that, “It’s ironic that this would-be ‘infidel’ often sounds as single-minded and reactionary as the zealots she’s worked so hard to oppose.”…Accompanying the article is a typically superficial Newsweek Q&A sidebar, which is almost unbelievably headed: “A Bombthrower’s Life.” The subject of this absurd headline is a woman who has been threatened with horrific violence…She has never used or advocated violence. Yet to whom does Newsweek refer as the “Bombthrower”? It’s always the same with these bogus equivalences: They start by pretending loftily to find no difference between aggressor and victim, and they end up by saying that it’s the victim of violence who is “really” inciting it.

The Bombthrower. Staggering, isn’t it.

Garton Ash and Buruma would once have made short work of any apologist who accused the critics of the U.S.S.R. or the People’s Republic of China of “heating up the Cold War” if they made any points about human rights. Why, then, do they grant an exception to Islam…?…Is it because Islam is a “faith”? Or is it because it is the faith – in Europe at least – of some ethnic minorities? In neither case would any special protection from criticism be justified. Faith makes huge claims, including huge claims to temporal authority over the citizen, which therefore cannot be exempt from scrutiny. And within these “minorities,” there are other minorities who want to escape from the control of their ghetto leaders…This is a very complex question, which will require a lot of ingenuity in its handling. The pathetic oversimplification, which describes skepticism, agnosticism, and atheism as equally “fundamentalist,” is of no help here. And notice what happens when Newsweek takes up the cry: The enemy of fundamentalism is defined as someone on the fringe while, before you have had time to notice the sleight of hand, the aggrieved, self-pitying Muslim has become the uncontested tenant of the middle ground.

Right. Hirsi Ali is the ‘bombthrower’ while people who are offended by dissent from Islam are her victims. Very strange.

A counterweight

Mar 5th, 2007 5:09 pm | By

Mina Ahadi has the right idea. She also has police protection, because – you’ll never guess – she’s had death threats.

Human rights activists have formed a “Central Council of Ex-Muslims in Germany” to help women renounce the Islamic faith if they feel oppressed by its laws…Iranian-born Mina Ahadi, 50, said she set up the group to highlight the difficulties of renouncing the Islamic faith which she believes to be misogynist. She wants the group to form a counterweight to Muslim organisations that she says don’t adequately represent Germany’s secular-minded Muslim immigrants…Renouncing Islam can carry the death penalty in a number of countries.

Misogynist? Just because of a few little death threats? Nah.

I’m also critical of Islam in Germany and of the way the German government deals with the issue of Islam. Many Muslim organisations like the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) or Milli Görüs engage in politics or interfere in people’s everyday lives…The associations pretend that they represent everyone and to some extent are acknowledged as such by the German side. That’s bad. We have to give a signal against that and say: Not in our name. We are secular humanists. We want to give these people a voice. Someone has to make a start. We’re advocating human rights…We want to form a counterweight to the Muslim organisations. The fact that we’re doing this under police protection shows how necessary our initiative is.

Yeah, you could say that. Good luck, Mina Ahadi.

Giving the mystery a name

Mar 5th, 2007 4:50 pm | By

More from Mark Vernon. And more again. I’m still not convinced though.

But this is the over-riding issue, it seems to me, in the atheists’ dismissal of God: if they really want to be conclusive then they must address the best ideas of God available, the criterion for that being those of the great theologians…Unfortunately, or irritatingly, though, they will find that the best theologians say that God is not ultimately amenable to the kind of analysis they want to apply. For the very simple reason that God is beyond human comprehension, else not God. This is not to say that reason has no role to play in theology: it’s primary purpose is to do away with false gods.

But if ‘God’ is beyond human comprehension, then how can (human) reason do away with false gods? How can it do one but not the other – or if it can’t do one, how can it do the other? How can you know this is counterfeit, and this is a fraud, and this is no good, if you don’t know what the authentic version is?

And there’s also the wearyingly familiar problem, which I apologize for repeating, that if ‘God’ is beyond human comprehension, then why do people say things about it at all? If it’s beyond human comprehension – why doesn’t that mean that there is just nothing at all for humans to say about it? It still seems like a cheat. ‘God’ is beyond comprehension so it’s ‘not ultimately amenable to the kind of analysis atheists want to apply,’ but it is amenable to the kind of analysis theists want to apply. How can that not look like a shell game? Not to mention the pesky fact – again, much repeated – that many people do claim to comprehend god and make all sorts of factual claims about it, especially about the way it wants us to behave and not behave, which people it wants us to treat badly, how hard to hit children, and the like. In that sense the theologians’ beyond comprehension god is beside the point. The problem with religion is all the claims that people do make about god, so it’s in a way irrelevant to point out that theologians mean a different kind of god.

Stephen Law comments here and here. He answers the ‘God is beyond human comprehension else not God’ move this way:

But now here’s my question: what is the difference between the atheist who admits there is indeed a fascinating mystery about why there is anything at all, a mystery to which they do not have the answer, and Vernon’s theist who says there’s a mystery about why there is anything at all, and calls this mystery “God”? Surely the difference is entirely trivial and semantic?

It seems so to me. There’s this [ ] that we don’t comprehend, called ‘God,’ or there are a lot of things we don’t comprehend, and because we don’t comprehend them we don’t give them names. There’s an unknown unknown; let’s either call it ‘God’ or not call it anything. There’s a mystery about why there is anything at all; let’s call it ‘God’; no, let’s not give it a name. That does indeed seem like a trivial difference. (I think Stephen meant to say ‘anything’ instead of ‘nothing’ in the theist version: I think the two mysteries are meant to be the same mystery rather than different mysteries.)

Update: Yes, Stephen meant ‘anything,’ so I’ll change the wording, noting it here because commenters have quoted the first version.

Woman is created for the purpose of knowing god

Mar 4th, 2007 12:06 pm | By

Solana Larsen, who is blogging from the UN Conference on the Status of Women, points out the press release announcing Condoleeza Rice’s choice of delegates to attend the conference.

Bramon is a major fundraiser for Bush, and so is Guillermin Gable. Both are succesful business women, and Guillermin Gable is a member of Women Corporate Directors. Ooh well, that should make them qualified to take democratic global decisions on women in poverty, shouldn’t it? The real star is Pia Francesca de Solenni. She won an award from the Vatican for her PhD thesis. Guess what it’s about.

I am profoundly, bottomlessly sick of this administration’s insistence on appointing political hacks to everything from FEMA to putting Iraq back together to attending conferences on the status of women. I’m sick to death of their contempt for knowledge, experience, expertise (real expertise, not expertise in knowing whether god exists or not), competence, and reality. I’m also sick of their religion-and-family schtick. Of course I had to look up what her PhD thesis was about.

Woman is created in the image of God. Like man, she is created for the purpose of knowing, ultimately knowing God. True feminism, therefore, respects woman´s essential identity as an image of God.

Ah. So I’m a false feminist then.

As a result of many feminist theories, woman begins to be considered an atomistic individual, an individual without relations to others. Yet, we see that every aspect of our life – for both men and women – we need others.

Uh huh. But do we need others as equals, or as either dominant or subordinate? Feminism doesn’t say we don’t need others, it says women shouldn’t be systematically as a gender subordinate to men. Atomism has nothing to do with it. Red herring; straw woman; bullshit.

As Christians, we recognize the inherent equality of all human beings, man and woman. The differences are constructive even if we don´t understand them. Remember that the differences existed before original sin. The tensions that arise from them, however, are due to original sin. Why should we settle for any system of thought that gives us anything less than being created in the image of God?

Because we don’t know who or what that is, and we don’t think you know either; because we think it’s the other way around: ‘God’ was created in the image of humans, not vice versa; because we don’t think this hypothesized god exists; because we don’t like your god; because this god has allowed countless centuries of inequality and oppression, so we think systems of thought that give us more than being created in the image of your wrathful vengeful cruel male god are better than the system of thought you offer. That’s why.

Larsen also pointed out this item from ‘Concerned Women of America’.

There is disagreement, too, about who does the best job of protection girls and women from discrimination and violence. The left argues that women need to be “empowered” to protect themselves. While those of us from the right agree that women need self-confidence and self-esteem, we believe that girls and women have inherent worth and that being raised in a family headed by a married mother and father is the best way to nurture strong feelings of self worth.

Well, that depends, doesn’t it. What if the married mother and father have funny ideas about women and girls, and raise their daughters to believe they’re weak and stupid and subordinate? Or perhaps that they’re dirty and voracious and dangerous? Like most things, families are only as good as they are – there is no magic mechanism that makes sure all families are Good and Healthy and Fair.

Furthermore, one problem with all this rabid insistence on family family family is that it pushes a none-too-subtle message that women are primarily wives and mothers. That’s the not-very-hidden agenda of all these Focusonthefamily type outfits – they’re Kinder Küche Kirche with Murkan masks on.

Director of Domestic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, Jennifer Marshall, put it beautifully. “Research has indicated that girls fare better in terms of health, safety and general welfare when they live in an intact family, with a married mother and father. Around the world, family plays an essential role in protecting young girls from violence, yet some feminist NGOs have put more emphasis on asserting girls’ autonomy and sexual independence. Healthy marriage and strong family are critical to an effective strategy for protecting the most vulnerable and eradicating exploitation through sex trafficking and other forms of abuse. The significance of fathers in promoting their daughters’ welfare, in particular, must not be overlooked.”

That is beautiful – except for the tiny unimportant fact that ‘around the world,’ fathers all too often play an essential role in beating the crap out of girls, selling them to settle poker debts, forcing them to marry much older men, keeping them out of school, and various other minor abuses. So that’s a stupid thing for Jennifer Marshall to say, isn’t it. It’s just plain stupid – to generalize in that silly way and ignore the abundantly reported reality that fathers are simply not universally kind or even fair to their daughters and do not universally treat them well or even fairly. Some do, some don’t. There are places where pretty much no fathers treat their daughters fairly. Sentimental drooling about family doesn’t change that.