Jul 1st, 2004 12:07 am | By

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Bush administration is not entirely popular with scientists. The Independent tells us that more than four thousand of them have signed a petition by the Union of Concerned Scientists demanding an improvement.

“Successful application of science has played a large part in the policies that have made the United States the world’s most powerful nation, and its citizens increasingly prosperous and healthy,” the report says. “Although scientific input to the government is rarely the only factor in public policy decisions, this input should always be weighed from an objective and impartial perspective to avoid perilous consequences. Indeed, this principle has long been adhered to by presidents and administrations of both parties in forming and implementing policies. The administration of George Bush has, however, disregarded this principle.”

A good point, but of course the Bushies aren’t going to care. They care about other things, and petitions from however many scientists don’t seem like the kind of thing that will change their minds. A loud voice from the clouds might, but probably nothing short of that.

What has transpired, Lewis Lapam noted recently in Harper’s Magazine, which he edits, has been “the systematic substitution of ideological certainty for reasonable doubt across the entire spectrum of issues bearing on the public health and welfare… [a] rejection of the scientific method in favour of the conviction that if the science doesn’t prove what it’s been told to prove, then the science has been tampered with by Satan or the Democratic Party”.

Just so. And it’s not (obviously) only the trendy academic left that goes in for that kind of thing, even though it’s the trendy academic left we’ve mostly chosen to pick on. (Because they’re funnier, that’s why. Next question.) That’s a very good point that Lapham makes (the Indy seems to have spelled his name wrong). Woolly people like to accuse science of too much certainty (along with scientism), but it’s ideologues (and, often, woolly people) who really go in for certainty, who take belief to be something like parental or romantic love, something you’re supposed to commit to unconditionally and never under any circumstances change your mind about. Individual scientists of course can make that mistake, but science as a discipline quickly slaps them upside the head and makes them stop. Ideology smiles sweetly and says ‘Well done.’

Piling On

Jun 25th, 2004 8:39 pm | By

Poor old Theory. It’s getting attacked from all directions these days. (Hurrah! Oh that’s not kind. But hurrah!) We read Dawkins on the subject a couple of days ago, and yesterday saw that Theorists were almost absent from Prospect’s List of Top Intellectuals, and now here’s the Australian and the New Statesman joining in. (Hurrah!) Poor Theory, how sad. (Good for us though. Perfect timing for dear Dictionary of Fashionable Bollocks, eh.)

Both articles are really quite scathing. (Hurrah! Now stop that at once or I’ll take the keyboard away and send you outside to play.) Really quite unmealymouthed.

Drat. Between the time I linked to the NS article in News, and now, the NS has (I guess) stuck the article in its paid section. At least, I could read it an hour or two ago and can’t now. So won’t be quoting from that one then! You’ll have to take my word for it (unless you’re a subscriber of course) – it was not bland or ‘respectful’. Neither was Luke Slattery in the Australian:

This sounds, I admit, like a specialist subject. But nothing could be of more universal interest than knowledge, learning and education…The disturbing thing is that once theory poured into the academy, it set like concrete. By the mid-’90s it had become a suffocating orthodoxy. A professor confided in me around that time that theory had become the desiderata of all new work in the humanities – it was the only way of being intellectual. In this period I began challenging theory in print, and then parrying the many histrionic responses from academics who seemed to think theory was above criticism (certainly from a journalist). In hindsight it was not theory that I found so alarming (a few weeks ago I found myself re-reading Barthes); it was the servility of its academic acolytes, the herd mentality of entire branches of learning, and the fragility of intellectual pluralism.

Yup. Some Theory is quite good, if one can manage to read it at a distance from the baa-ing of the sheep. Some of it, on the other hand, isn’t. But, poor thing, it seems almost cruel to say so now.

And speaking of the Dictionary (yes we were, right when you dozed off) – I got a copy yesterday. Of the bound proofs. It looks – well I just can’t tell you. Elegant, gorgeous, stunning. And you can leaf through it. Just imagine. You can flick through the pages, if you see a cross-reference you can go right to it. It’s so easy. Really, seriously, it is a beautiful typeface and layout. You’ll like it.

Where are the Rock Stars?

Jun 24th, 2004 9:16 pm | By

Lists are always good fun. Top ten this, favourite fifty that, best one hundred the other. A few years ago when a US publisher issued a list of the best 100 English-language novels of the past century, there was quite a frenzy of discussion and disagreement. We all had quite a good time shrieking at one another ‘Tobacco Road?!? Are they kidding??’ Then a few weeks or months later there was a piece in the NY Times Book Review (I think) by A S Byatt (one of the judges) who pointed out how limited the pool of books was they had to choose from, and how further limited their choices were by the rules of the judging. The upshot was that they were forced to pick books that more of the judges had read as opposed to ones the judges thought were actually good. So yes, they were kidding. The Siege of Krishnapur (say) was not chosen because not enough of the panel had read it, and various mediocrities or worse were chosen because a lot of the panelists had read it. So the criterion was (it turned out) not actually best at all, but simply ‘read by the most members of this particular set of people, regardless of whether they’re any good or not’ – quite a stupid criterion, really, and not how the list was billed. So lists can turn out to be even sillier than they look.

But that’s no reason not to discuss them, is it. So let’s discuss the Prospect list of Top intellectuals. Or maybe not so much the list as someone else’s discussion of the list. It starts off well, and goes on for several paragraphs well – simply noting what sort of intellectual is not on the list, as opposed to hand-wringing about it. (Not that hand-wringing about it is necessarily a bad thing – it depends on what sort of intellectual, or indeed ‘intellectual’, is in fact not on the list, doesn’t it.) There’s even one bit of quite good news.

Perhaps even more spectacular is the demise of literary and cultural theory from its high point in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Eagleton (again) is the sole survivor on this list. Otherwise, theory remains isolated in its academic tower, cut off from the general culture by jargon and obscurantism.

And by a third thing, perhaps, which is their tendency to think they know quite a lot about every conceivable subject and ought to say so on every possible occasion. Anyway, it’s cheering to find that there aren’t great preening crowds of them on the list.

And this is a good sign too –

Another strong group are the social and political essayists. Again, the variety is noticeable. Instead of “isms” or Orwell’s “smelly little orthodoxies,” we have diverse styles and approaches. The personal voice stands out – Michael Ignatieff, Timothy Garton Ash, John Gray, AC Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, Ian Buruma, Noel Malcolm. They have other features in common: a strong sense of political morality, internationalism and most of them are first-class writers. They are Orwell’s children, taking on big issues in good prose.

I’m not keen on John Gray and don’t know Noel Malcolm, but I like the rest, some of them a lot. And I like the genre. I like essays and essayists, and social and political essays and essayists in particular. I like writers who actually have something to say. I would disagree with the ‘Orwell’s children’ line, because I think they’re better than Orwell. I’ve been coming to the conclusion that Orwell is over-rated. I used to over-rate him myself, but I’ve been re-reading him lately, and frankly a lot of his writing was just plain tired and flat. Hack writing. Hitchens writes rings around him even on a bad day. But that’s a quibble, and I agree with the paragraph overall. But then things get strange.

The list may also seem curiously old-fashioned. It offers little room for the new “isms” that have broken through in recent decades: feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism. There aren’t many young voices: few under 45, hardly anyone under 40. It is very middle-aged, and also very male and very white.

Well is it really all that surprising that a list of public intellectuals is heavy on people over forty? Intellectualism is a cumulative thing, after all, because knowledge is. And for that matter so is fame, and reputation, and the CV. The people on the list have been doing their intellectual stuff for enough decades so that people recognize them as public intellectuals. A few people can manage that by age thirty or thirty-five, but it usually takes longer. (I agree about the male thing though, if only because the first name I looked for was Marina Warner’s, and I was annoyed not to find it. It’s absurd that she’s not there.)

Then it gets worse. A lot worse.

The absence of new cultural forms and the media may surprise some. Why does this list smack of the common room and the think tank and not Britart and cool Britannia? Two names from television, none from advertising and no film directors. Of these, film is perhaps the most striking absence. There are some first-rate British film critics (David Thompson, Mark Cousins and Anthony Lane among them), and major British directors (Mike Leigh and Ken Loach among an older generation, Roger Michell and Michael Winterbottom among the next)…Youth culture is another striking absence. Instead, we have the traditional intellectual: scientists and historians, social theorists and policy advisers. It feels very grown-up and sane, maybe even dull. Perhaps the problem lies in the definition of “public intellectual.” Are the criteria which inform this list now out of date, part of a vanishing intellectual culture that disappeared with Noel Annan’s dons and the Third Programme? Is that why there are so few representatives from popular culture?

Advertising? Advertising?? Since when is advertising anything to do with being a public intellectual? It’s public all right, but what’s intellectual about it? It takes some verbal skills, to be sure, but that doesn’t equate to being an intellectual. And advertising’s close connection with lying for profit surely disqualifies it. And as for directing movies – isn’t that an art or a craft or both rather than an intellectual activity? I would have thought so – unless we’ve suddenly re-defined the word when I wasn’t paying attention. And then youth culture. Huh? Again, what’s that got to do with intellectualism or intellectuals? All of this might be mere observation, except for that word ‘problem’. ‘Perhaps the problem lies in the definition of “public intellectual.”‘ Or perhaps it doesn’t, because perhaps there is no problem. Perhaps what you see as dull because grown-up and sane, other people see as interesting because grown-up and sane. Lunacy and childishness are not absolutely always fascinating, as a matter of fact they can both be immensely boring. So if you long for the young and the hip and the consumerist, start your own list, and don’t call it a list of public intellectuals.

Delicate Regard

Jun 23rd, 2004 10:35 pm | By

This is a brief but interesting interview with Richard Dawkins. (My colleague did a longer and of course much more thrilling one which is included in What Philosophers Think.) For one thing, he talks about a subject we too are interested in, as you may possibly have noticed. He answers the very odd question ‘Another of your pet peeves is Post-Modernist scholarship, and you satirize a few writers from this school in your book, A Devil’s Chaplain. Isn’t your problem with these academics simply that they are poor writers?’

I don’t think they are poor [writers] at all. They are dominant alpha males in the academic jungle and, in some cases, are ruining the careers of honest scholars who would make an honest contribution.

To be fair, or do I mean strictly accurate, a lot of ‘Post-modernist’ writers are very bad writers indeed – but they are not necessarily the ones Dawkins has in mind, and others are indeed good writers but crappy thinkers. All rhetoric and no thought. You can find traces of such ‘scholarship’ in various corners of B&W.

But even more, I like his reply to a question about his ‘polemic voice’ –

I do it because I feel strongly about things … especially about double standards, hypocrisy, failure to think clearly…I am very hostile to religion because it is enormously dominant, especially in American life. And I don’t buy the argument that, well, it’s harmless. I think it is harmful, partly because I care passionately about what’s true.

Well, same here. No doubt that’s one reason Dawkins is one of my favourite writers. The double standards problem is one we’ve been noticing a lot lately. I was a bit shocked to find a glaring example of double standards – of explicit, declared double standards, which is to say a declaration of ‘special’ status, of need for special protection, on the part of religion – in Martha Nussbaum’s new book (Hiding from Humanity). I shouldn’t have been shocked, because I’ve read such an argument from her before, in her reply to Susan Moller Okin’s ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’ – and I think I did a N&C on my shock at the time. But I was shocked anyway, even though I shouldn’t have been. Nussbaum admires John Stuart Mill, and bases much of her argument in this book on On Liberty – but she also takes him to task for not being ‘respectful’ enough of citizens’ comprehensive doctrines:

But to claim that freedom of speech promotes truth in metaphysics and morals would be to show disrespect for the idea of reasonable pluralism, and to venture onto a terrain where one is at high risk of showing disrespect to one’s fellow citizens. Mill is totally oblivious to all such considerations. He has none of the delicate regard for other people’s religious doctrines that characterizes the political liberal…In On Liberty he does not hesitate to speak contemptuously of Calvinism as an ‘insidious’ doctrine…One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

I hate to say it, because I admire much in Nussbaum, but I find that idea truly staggering. I did read and re-read, and go back and forth between the various places where she discusses all this, to try to clarify whether she is talking about laws and the state, or about writing and public discourse. Some of the time she is talking about the former, but not all of it. She really is – as far as I can tell – saying that Mill should not have written what he did about Calvinism, and that no one should say such things ‘in the public sphere at least.’ That ‘such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.’ So people ought (in order to be decently respectful) to ‘adopt’ a public conception of truth that will not contradict religious claims. People ought to choose their ‘conceptions’ of truth on the basis of whether they are respectful enough of the sensitivities of other people as opposed to – well, you know, whether they in fact think they get at the truth or not. That’s a pretty good description of just exactly what B&W was set up to oppose: deciding what is true on the basis of extraneous factors like ideology or whose feelings might be hurt, rather than on the basis of one’s best understanding of the evidence and logic of the matter.

So in short that is a very forthright statement of exactly the idea I’ve been puzzling over for a few months now: the idea that religion ought to have some sort of special, protected status that no other kind of human thinking gets to have. But what it doesn’t do is say why. Why religion should be immune from challenge when socialism and capitalism, for example, are not. Why religion should not simply accept public discussion and disagreement and argument on the same terms as any other set of human ideas. For the sake of ‘respect,’ yes, she does say that, but she doesn’t explain why that should apply to some kinds of ideas and not others. Because religion is consoling? But so are other ideas and beliefs that are not protected, so that’s not it.

But for my part, I have to agree with Dawkins. I don’t think double standards and ‘special’ protection and delicate regard and ‘not showing up the claims of religion as damaging’ (especially not that!) are a good idea at all.


Jun 22nd, 2004 9:49 pm | By

A few items related to religious-nonsense item I commented on yesterday. Richard Chappell quotes from another amusingly (or irritatingly, depending on what sort of mood you’re in and how many people there are on how many construction sites in your immediate vicinity and earshot running power saws, jackhammers, cement mixers, anonymous grinders and roarers and screamer-mechanisms – I myself have three such sites and who knows how many people and deafening pieces of equipment, so I’m not sure I’m entirely sane today) bit of religious confusion on his blog:

A lot of New Zealanders, I think, are very nervous of the word ‘religion’ because they think it’s indoctrination, but the danger is if you miss that whole dimension of intellectual debate out, you deprive young people of the opportunity to engage with some of these really important issues, such as genetics, or the war in Iraq.

Eh? One can’t talk about the war in Iraq or genetics – genetics?! – except under the auspices of religion? Really! That will come as a suprise to a lot of people – geneticists, for example. Apparently the danger is if you miss that whole dimension of learning to think clearly out, then you confuse religion with intellectual debate and intellectual debate with religion, and the next thing you know you’ve turned into a sheep and are being chased by a lot of horrible slavering men in running shorts.

And Pulp Movies has a comment on the same Mary Kenny piece.

So there you go. Religion good. Secular bad. No thinking. No understanding of the range and subtlety of moral choices. Just a simple black/white dichotomy. Mary Kenny seems to be frighteningly unable to recognise that any values other than her own have any worth whatsoever.

It’s good to find allies, and it may be that if enough people squawk about this kind of thing – this blithe assumption that you can’t have morality or moral thinking without religion – people will eventually become just a little more aware of how absurd it is, and even stop saying and thinking it and start saying and thinking more sensible things instead. Or maybe not, but it’s something to shoot for anyway.

And there’s an entertaining item at Pharyngula that indicates religion may not be so good for ‘family values’ after all. Personally I don’t care much, because I’m not keen on family values to begin with, but since the religious side often likes to claim a monopoly on the things, it’s fun to see the claim gainsaid. And no one can dispute PZ’s final point:

The actual numbers unfortunately show that there is a bit more to marriage than just godlessness, though—I guess atheism is no panacea. All it does is give a substantial boost to one’s charm, wit, intelligence, health, and beauty.

Kabbalah Madonna

Jun 21st, 2004 11:59 pm | By

A kind reader, by which I mean Norm Geras, emailed me to point out this absurd piece by Mary Kenny in the Guardian. Norm has already made some pointed comments about it, so I’ll try not to go over the same bit of ground. But there’s really quite a lot to say, because there’s quite a lot wrong with the piece (and the pervasive way of thinking it typifies), so I think I’ll manage to find a few words.

But first I’ll point out one of Norm’s most amusing remarks, in reply to Kenny’s utterly ridiculous ‘Faith is a feminine thing.’

I have some questions here. First, how does Kenny know that faith is feminine? She doesn’t say. But I can think of a few counter-examples: the Pope, Desmond Tutu and a Jehovah’s Witness I once made the mistake of inviting through my front door for a chat. I’m compiling a more comprehensive list but won’t be able to post it till… I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Yeah, it does take some brain-cudgelling, doesn’t it. Hmm, hmm, let’s see, male-type people in the religion game. The Pope? Oh, Norm already said that. Umm – gosh this is hard – oh, how about the Archbishop of Canterbury? Yes, that’s one. Err – that guy on Oxford Street with the ‘End is Nigh’ sign? Is he still there?

So anyway. More seriously.

They want to give their children values. And they quite often feel a stirring of these transcendent values themselves, at about the same time…If you don’t believe me, look at the evidence, and visit a church, chapel or synagogue on a day of worship: you will find that at least two-thirds of the worshippers present are women, and 90% of these are mothers.

How the hell does she know what percentage of the women she sees in various random (note indirect article: a church, not my church, or St. Boniface-on-the-Green’s church, but any old church) religious gathering places, are mothers? Eh? Do they wear badges? Are they marked in some way? Or is she just extrapolating from statistics on what percentage of women are mothers. But that’s not safe – in fact it’s question-begging. For all she knows all the women in those religious gathering places are not mothers, and have come in either to rejoice at their freedom or to pray for conception. She doesn’t get to assume that 90% of any given gathering of women consists of mothers and then tell us ‘See? Look at all the mothers!’

But of course I also wanted to quote the stark nonsense about ‘transcendent values’ even though Norm already has. Note the quick assumption that values are ‘transcendent’ values, and also that church or synagogue attendance has some obvious connection with wanting to give children ‘values.’ And then yawn violently and think about something else.

Then there’s this absurdity:

It is a fairly well-kept secret that feminism originally arose among religious women in the 19th century: from Hannah More and Josephine Butler in Britain to Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the US, feminism was an offshoot of evangelical Christianity, and that spiritual energy still hovers.

How could it possibly be a secret? Were there a great many atheists in the 19th century? Especially among women? (No, I’m not making Kenny’s point for her. The rarity of atheism among women in the 19th [as well as earlier] centuries is a contingent historical fact, not nonsense about the inherent ‘spirituality’ of women.) Of course feminism arose among (mostly) religious women in the 19th century – what other kind of women would it arise among? All those emancipated intellectual women living in their own book-lined flats in London and New York? News flash – there weren’t a lot of women like that in the 19th century. Naturally most 19th century feminist women were religious. It doesn’t follow that they have to go on being now.

For many women, perhaps even most women, some form of religious sensibility is what gets them through the night, and helps them lead the examined life, too.

Possibly. And possibly the same is true of many, perhaps even most men, too. So what? People can always learn to lead the examined life in a secular manner, after all. People change – even women do.

Damn Elitists!

Jun 18th, 2004 8:57 pm | By

I watched part of an old ‘Frontline’ on tv the other evening. ‘Frontline’ is one of the few fairly good shows on US public tv – actually one of the two, I would say, ‘Nova’ being the other. US public tv is so mediocre it’s painful. (And public radio is even worse. But that’s a separate subject.) It was about ‘Alternative’ Medicine. One part of it I found particularly extraordinary – an interview with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. I’ve always disliked Hatch, frankly. He’s very conservative, and he has an irritating voice. He sounds like someone who’s trying to soothe a rowdy room full of six-year-olds – in fact I suppose he sounds a bit like Mr Rogers. Mr Rogers was a very nice fella, but I’m afraid those soothing calming bland voices make me want to punch something.

But that’s neither here nor there. Hatch could have an irritating voice and still be a good Senator. (Though perhaps not one of the best. It may be that a really good voice is basic equipment for a Senator. That’s an interesting question…but not the one I want to look at right now.) But there’s more wrong with him than the voice. The excerpt from the interview was about a 1994 bill he sponsored that de-regulated ‘dietary supplements,’ which means that the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration) cannot monitor dietary supplements in the way it can (and must and does) monitor drugs. It can only act after a supplement has been shown to cause harm, after it has gone on the market. Here is what Hatch says on the matter:

We had to take on the whole FDA and the whole raft of left-wing groups that believe that everything in our lives should be regulated and that we can’t– we’re so stupid as a people, we can’t make our own decisions and that we’re so dumb that we don’t know what’s good for us. It’s the attitude that government should tell you everything you should do. You don’t have any right to make any choices yourself. And they threw everything but the kitchen sink at us, but we had the people with us. And the reason we had the people is because a hundred million people have benefited from dietary supplements.

I’ve heard a lot of infuriating right-wing rhetoric in my time (as we all have) but that takes the biscuit. Though it certainly is impeccably conventional – the right does just love to pretend that any form of safety regulation amounts to assuming that people are stupid. But Hatch of course doesn’t bother explaining how all these brilliant people are supposed to know what’s in the bottles on the shelves. What – we just know by looking that the contents are safe? Are what they claim to be? How? How, exactly, do we know that? How do we look at a heap of gleaming capsules and divine what is inside them? Do we carry a laboratory with us when we go to the store and buy our vitamins and other supplements?

And I was reminded of Hatch’s comments when I read this Guardian article in which the Health Secretary, John Reid, makes a similar kind of claim.

The health secretary, John Reid, angered health campaigners and anti-smoking groups when he said yesterday that smoking is one of the few pleasures left for the poor on sink estates and in working men’s clubs. Mr Reid said that the middle classes were obsessed with giving instruction to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and that smoking was not one of the worst problems facing poorer people…He said he was an advocate of informed choice for adults, rather than bans, describing himself as favouring empowerment, rather than instruction. Mr Reid fears advocates of a ban are behaving as if members of the public are incapable of coming to their own sensible decisions.

He favours empowerment rather than instruction? What can that mean? Are the two in tension? Are they mutually exclusive? Does learning something disempower people? If so, how? But that’s a trusty bit of rhetoric. If there’s something you disagree with, if you can manage to frame it as someone assuming other people are stupid, you’re on your way to victory, however nonsensical the claim may be.

Summer and Autumn

Jun 17th, 2004 11:17 pm | By

Horrible day here. In the upper 80s. The air quality doesn’t look too bad – the sky at the horizon is not brown – but it smells terrible outside all the same. It always does once it gets this hot. Heated-up car exhaust, I assume. I don’t like summer much.

But never mind that. The Dictionary gets printed next week. Once that happens, you see, it will be a book. Rectangular thing, open on three sides, pages with printed words on them. Something one can hold in the hand. Something one can read more or less anywhere – on the bus, in the park, in the checkout line at the supermarket, on the treadmill. That’s much harder to do with a stack of pages open on all four sides, a stack that can blow all over the room if a breeze comes in the window. No doubt that’s why some clever inventor thought of binding – fastens the thing down, you see, and makes it easy to turn the pages without making a mess. Wonderful invention, books.

I know, you’re thinking I’m very naive and fatuous, going on and on about one little old book. All very well for you, of course, you write books every day, but it’s all new to me. Well plus there’s the fact that I am naive and fatuous, of course; that has something to do with it.

So it will be printed and then before long it will be published, and then you will be able to read it. I’ll sign your copy for you if you like. I might zoom over to London when it comes out, just so that I can jump up and down and squeal and generally act like a fool. I might as well, after all, because it’s not as if I’m not one. The weather will be cooler by then, too.

Freedom From Atheism

Jun 16th, 2004 1:47 am | By

Update on last Comment –

And there is the Supreme Court decision (or non-decision) in the Pledge of Allegiance case. Students will go on invoking the deity in public (state) schools for now, thus making sure we don’t go overboard with this separation of church and state stuff. Don’t forget, freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion, any more than Adam and Eve means Adam and Steve. No, religion is still mandatory in God’s country. (Of course, the Pledge is not actually required, so young atheists can just refuse to recite it and laugh cheerily when their devout classmates beat them up in the playground. Ain’t liberty grand.)

High Tension

Jun 15th, 2004 11:40 pm | By

A lot of vexed religious issues around at the moment. There is the Vardy foundation which wants ‘to take over seven comprehensives and turn them into Christian Academies promoting Old Testament views of the world’s creation. This includes the claim that it was made in six days, 10,000 years ago.’ There is the never-ending stampede of both political parties in the US to outdo each other in god-bothering. There is the prospect of Shari’a in Ontario (and the campaign against it). There is a group forming to ‘defend’ the hijab. And there is the Begum case, which is under discussion at Crooked Timber.

So, one way and another, there is a lot of debate and discussion of this question of special rights for religion and religious believers, especially in matters of education. One thing that doesn’t seem to get discussed much, no doubt because of the very reluctance to challenge religion head-on that I’m talking about here, is that there is (surely) an inherent tension between education and religion. At least, depending on how one defines both terms. But surely education that really is education is not supposed to teach counterfactuals. Nobody wants schools teaching that the French Revolution happened in the 14th century and the Black Death happened in 1927. A lot of education is not as straightforwardly factual as that, of course; not as answerable with a yes or no, true or false. But still – schools usually distinguish between fiction and the other thing; they don’t teach Jane Eyre as a biography. So where does that leave religion? Religion can of course be taught as a subject without asserting anything about supernatural entities – but religion as religion can’t. In short, it seems to me there is a radical tension between schools’ responsibility to refrain from teaching falsehoods, and religions’ commitments to their version of the truth. This is no doubt why religions want special rights, but it’s also why they shouldn’t have them.

Special Rules

Jun 13th, 2004 11:39 pm | By

And on a more serious note, on the same David Aaronovitch column – he does make a number of important points.

His argument seems to be that it’s a human right to attend a denominational school and given these may be further away from home than the local school, parents should not be subject to the same penalties as those whose child’s journey results purely from choice. In other words, a religious choice in education is a matter of freedom of conscience, whereas any other kind of choice isn’t. Steam emerges from every orifice at this. Especially when the barrister adds: ‘When I got married we promised to bring up our children in the Catholic faith and so we put them through a Catholic school.’ This is the non sequitur upon which he bases his claim to be accorded superior treatment. Perhaps he would like a little sticker for his car that reads ‘Free parking for monotheist pupils only’.

Well, he probably would like exactly that. Religious believers often seem to take the idea of their ‘special’ status and special rights so for granted that they are unable to see how odd that idea is, no matter how carefully anyone tries to explain. But why? Why should people have special rights because they believe in a deity? It is a pervasive (increasingly so, I think) notion, but one that I have a hard time seeing the logic of. Is it kind of like endangered species legislation? That things that are vulnerable need special protection? And belief in a deity is vulnerable because it depends on ‘faith’ as opposed to evidence and logic? Is that it? That’s the only reason I can think of, really. But if so…surely the reductio is pretty obvious. Should we give special rights to astrologers and people who think there’s a Disneyland on Jupiter, and withold them from people who try not to believe six impossible things before breakfast? That could end up having some unfortunate results, one would think.

What is going on here, I think, is an attempt to protect the young from modernity…One proselytiser for Muslim education who sends out letters to the media captures this very well. When there was a conviction for an ‘honour killing’ in London last autumn, this campaigner argued that the victim, killed by her father, ‘was educated to be a Westernized woman, instead of a Muslim’…This is a social agenda, as much as a religious one. It was argued by a pro-faith school columnist that at least the two great faiths – Catholicism and Islam – permit equality to believers and co-religionists. But they don’t. If they did there would be women priests and women imams. My fear is that this emphasis on faith schooling is an attempt, albeit unconscious – to return us to the days before feminism, an attempt which affects all of us.

But it’s difficult to talk honestly about the subject, in part precisely because of the ‘special rights’ idea – because believers think their beliefs should be protected from discussion or question. And some believers, I have reason to know, seem to think that the very fact that they are believers means that nothing they do can be wrong – pretty much by definition. So they feel perfectly cheerful about launching torrents of sexist, obscene raving at wicked unbelievers like me. I should know, I have the spittle-flecked (virtually speaking) emails to prove it. (I have a feeling I get a double if not triple dose because of being a female. Uppity women just do piss some people off, you know…)

Punk Eek

Jun 13th, 2004 9:55 pm | By

I can’t resist – because it made me laugh too hard just now when I read it. An update on the comma question – another example of the ‘eats, shoots and leaves’ phenomenon. This is from a column by David Aaronovitch in the Guardian:

This week a local barrister is looking into whether the scheme breaches human rights legislation according to the Hampstead and Highgate Express.

Oh? But why? Why does anyone care about HR legislation according to the Ham and High? And what about the Brixton Tribune or the West Kilburn Times? What’s their take on human rights legislation, eh?

Well you see what I mean. What a difference a comma can make.


Jun 12th, 2004 10:16 pm | By

Quite a lot of atheist material lately. There is this review of Nicholas Everitt’s The Non-Existence of God in The New Humanist

…some theists maintain that asking for reasons to believe in God’s existence is beside the point. The demand for reasons in this context is, they say, either blasphemous or vacuous. As Kierkegaard put it, echoing Luther, belief in God is a matter of faith; it’s not like our ordinary belief in the existence of things like tables and chairs, which can be justified or shown to be false. Everitt is impatient with such manoeuvres, and dispatches them rather effectively.

Good. I wonder if he also dispatches the maneuver we’ve noticed a lot in these arguments – what one might call the having it both ways maneuver. Claim that God is ineffable, transcendent, beyond our understanding or anything we can say about it, etc etc, but nevertheless be more than willing to say all sorts of things on the matter. What it seems to mean in practice is: God is ineffable therefore atheists can’t say anything on the matter, but theists on the other hand can and should say whatever it occurs to them to say.

Two sets of rules, one might say. The author of this article on discrimination against atheists might say, for example. Apparently there is a general belief that there is really no such thing as discrimination against or ill-treatment of atheists, but Margaret Downey has researched the question and found otherwise. She has also found a likely reason the problem is not recognized:

One would think that any atheist who had experienced discrimination would be eager to submit an affidavit. Instead, the fear of suffering further discrimination as a “whistleblower” was widespread. Some victims told me that they did not want to go public lest still more hatred come their way. This is the trauma of discrimination, just the sort of intimidation that discourages discrimination reports and makes it difficult to find plaintiffs for needed litigation.

Downey presents a few examples of small-town persecution – harassment, threats, firings, pictures of Jesus left on one’s desk, organized shunning, stalking with a butcher’s knife. I read somewhere recently – I forget where, but I think it was in something I linked to – about the nice old tradition of the much-loved atheist in every US village. That’s bullshit. In most of the US, atheists are greeted with venom and hostility unless they maintain complete silence on the matter (and sometimes even then).

And finally there’s this article on Bush’s superstition by Edmund Cohen, who seems to have taken a surprisingly long time to notice.

Until recently, I had not seriously thought that supernaturalism or superstition could be an issue of concern as regards the second Bush presidency…Surely that establishment must have vetted its candidate well enough to rule out nominating an unstable religious eccentric. When he speaks in churchly terms, surely he is only employing regional idiom and one cannot take him literally.

Er – no. The Republican establishment does a staggeringly bad job of ‘vetting’ its candidates. The Democratic establishment doesn’t do any better, mind you – because it’s not about vetting, especially now that the primary system is so much more important than it once was.

According to [Bush confidant] Robison, there are but two worldviews: Biblical Christianity and Relativism. Biblical Christianity represents the “Absolutes.” By “Relativism,” he means complete lack of criteria for distinguishing right from wrong or truth from falsity. All those who are not Bible-believers are ipso facto Relativists. For Robison, liberal Democrats, Islamist terrorists, and all others who are not Christian Bible-believers count as Relativists and are therefore all interchangeable with one another.

Yep, I know the type, I’ve even (to my sorrow) had conversations with one or two. I’ve been informed that people who ‘acknowledge’ no higher authority have no ability to feel remorse – which is quite an interesting idea. No wonder the believers go in for shunning and threats.


Jun 12th, 2004 2:10 am | By

This was a nice little coincidence, or confluence, or something, this morning. I started reading Martha Nussbaum’s new book Hiding from Humanity and then when I got on the computer I found this interview with her. It’s an interesting and amusing interview, too.

As for philosophers, I find Mill the most soothing because I imagine him as a friend to whom one would like to talk. Most male philosophers of the past are not the friends of women, but Mill is.

I like Mill a lot. And come to think of it, one of the things I like in him is one of the things I like in Nussbaum, too: they’re both extremely lucid.

The interviewer asks ‘Is it the legal expert, the academic, or the philosopher in you that gets angry about specious arguments (say, Judith Butler or Allen Bloom)?

I really don’t like bad arguments, but what I especially dislike are bad arguments put forward cultishly, with an in-group air of authority. I think that philosophy should stick to its Socratic roots, as an egalitarian public activity open to everyone. Thus even some admittedly great philosophers, e.g. Wittgenstein, inspire me with unease because they allowed a cult to grow up around themselves and wrote undemocratically. Heidegger was guilty of the same, but he is a much less distinguished philosopher than Wittgenstein, and he also did bad things in politics.

Exactly – ‘bad arguments put forward cultishly, with an in-group air of authority.’ That’s exactly it, that’s why it gets up my nose so when people worship Butler. It’s that cultish, in-group thing – it drives me insane. And that’s probably why I love Mill and Nussbaum, because they are as I said so lucid. They do the exact opposite of what Butler does. She makes a few small ideas obscure; Mill and Nussbaum make an ocean of large ideas utterly clear. They make philosophy ‘an egalitarian public activity open to everyone’ rather than a smelly little orthodoxy just for the trendy few. Down with cultishness, up with lucidity.

The new book is enthralling so far. And in another bit of serendipity, it’s also very relevant to this discussion about the relationship between Theory of Mind and empathy, and my suggestion that empathy and related qualities are cognitive before they’re emotional. Nussbaum talks about exactly that subject:

…it is quite unconvincing to suggest that all emotions are ‘irrational.’ Indeed, they are very much bound up with thought, including thoughts about what matters most to us in the world. If we imagine a living creature that is truly without thought, let us say a shellfish, we cannot plausibly ascribe to that creature grief, and fear, and anger. Our own emotions incorporate thoughts, sometimes very complicated, about people and things we care about.

So there you are, you see – I went to all that trouble to say something Nussbaum had already said. She goes into the matter further in an earlier book, Upheavals of Thought, which I’ve looked into but not read yet.

Mattering and Meaning

Jun 10th, 2004 9:51 pm | By

We were talking about meaning the other day. I read something in Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained that seems relevant:

So the conscious mind is not just the place where the witnessed colors and smells are, and not just the thinking thing. It is where the appreciating happens. It is the ultimate arbiter of why anything matters…It stands to reason – doesn’t it? – that if doing things that matter depends on consciousness, mattering (enjoying, appreciating, suffering, caring) should depend on consciousness as well.

Mattering is about caring – therefore (surely?) meaning is related to caring – perhaps is another word for the same thing, or both words name the same thing but from different angles. I said much the same thing in the Comment – ‘Yes of course, we want to think our lives (hence the world they take place in) matter, have significance and importance, ‘mean’ something – something more than what they mean to us.’ Meaning is about what matters to us: what matters to us is what we care about. (At least, that seems to be part of what meaning is. I’m not claiming it’s an exhaustive account, and I don’t think it is, I think there’s more to it. But it’s a part.) All these words and ideas circle around a common knot or core. What is important and significant is what we care about, what matters to us, what means something to us. We could think of meaning, caring, importance, as sorting-devices: this item matters and that one doesn’t, because of what I care about, what is important to me. All a bit circular and subjective, obviously, but then that was my original point: that subjective is exactly what meaning is, and therefore it’s a bit of a dodge to claim that religion ‘gives’ meaning – it only gives it because we decide it does.

Caring is also interesting in a slightly different (though related) way: as motivation, as the engine that keeps our forward momentum going. This is (I take it) what Damasio is talking about in Descartes’ Error: people who have a kind of brain damage that impairs their ability to care even though it leaves cognitive abilities intact, can’t function properly. They don’t do anything, because they can’t decide among possibilities – even though they can understand and state pros and cons – because they don’t care. Indifference is a paralyzer, it seems. Which we all probably know from experience with depressed people or with depression. Depression plays hell with motivation.

We also know it because we know that ‘I don’t care’ can be a terrible, an appalling thing to say. It’s mildly rude even as an answer to trivial questions (What shall we make for dinner? Coffee or tea? Red or white?), and it’s brutality or worse as an answer to non-trivial questions or statements – ‘I’m frightened,’ ‘she needs help,’ ‘you hurt him when you said that,’ ‘there’s a genocide going on.’ Or for that matter ‘I love you,’ ‘she won first prize,’ ‘he’s safe.’ There’s a reason ‘Don’t care was made to care, don’t care was hanged’ was such a popular nursery saying. We need to care ourselves, and we need the people we care about to care too, or at least not to tell us they don’t. About some things we need everyone on the planet to care.

Punctuated Equilibrium

Jun 9th, 2004 10:45 pm | By

I find this a little bit amusing. Not the whole thing, just one part of it. The whole thing is a discussion of Eve Garrard’s second piece on Amnesty International at Normblog. That’s not particularly amusing, turning as it does on the murder, torture and general pushing-around of millions upon millions of people around the world. No, not an amusing subject. What amused me was just one item at the end of Chris’ post.

Finally — and I’m picking nits now — Eve writes that “the idea that the force of an argument should be materially altered by an (allegedly) misplaced comma is … delightful and charming.” It may be, but my complaint focused not on the force of the argument but on its meaning , and it is pretty commonplace that commas can and do alter the meaning of sentences: Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Well there you are, you see. It’s not only tiny words (she not he, here not there, on not in) that can alter the meaning of sentences, it’s little marks that don’t even represent a vocalization, that represent at most a pause or a tone of voice (? sounds one way, ! sounds another), but can separate an adjective from a noun or change a noun to a verb or otherwise change the meaning of a sentence.

I’m all the more aware of this because it comes up in proofreading, at least it does when I’m the proofreader. The editors of TPM like to make fun of me for adding a comma at the end of a list. Well, ha ha, very droll, but I have my reasons – because commas do make a difference. The one at the end of a list is optional, it’s true, but I often like to exercise the option and insert it, especially when the list in question is a list of phrases rather than single words. A list like ‘this, this, this, this and this’ is not too bad, but a list like ‘this does that, that does this, those did these and these did those’ can be confusing – it can be unclear whether the last clause is actually two clauses separated by ‘and’ or all one clause with an ‘and’ in the middle. Unless you add a comma before the ‘and’ – which is why I often do just that. So mock mock mock all you like, but it does make a difference. As, of course, Eats, Shoots & Leaves has reminded everyone lately.

But then other times – for instance when I’m writing as opposed to proofreading – I leave commas out with wild abandon. I perpetrate chaotic unpuncutated headlong sentences of a kind that one is taught not to perpetrate when one is twelve or so. Not invariably, but it’s something I have a tendency to do. Some sentences just seem to need to be uttered all in one breath, without punctuation (i.e. without pauses), so I write them that way. Then on reading them I sometimes realize – they will work if readers hear them exactly the way I heard them in my head – but what is the likelihood of that? So sometimes I decide to punctuate them in a more conventional manner. But not always. Yes, that’s nice; and your point is? Nothing – just that even commas, even those little tiny silent marks, are something one can lavish thought on, and that can alter the meaning of sentences. Odd, isn’t it.

I wonder if commas have Theory of Mind.


Jun 8th, 2004 11:00 pm | By

I’m still pondering this link between Theory of Mind and – and a lot of things: imagination, social cognition, lying, pretending. And via those things it links to even more things – empathy, story-telling, literature and art, religion, politics, manipulation, coalitions – really pretty much everything that has to do with humans as conscious intentional reflective social beings. It all starts with this ability to realize that Other Minds are other minds.

This all raises a number of thoughts or questions. A reader (who has a post on a related subject on his own blog) mentioned this article by Pascal Boyer.

Social interaction requires the operation of complex mental systems: to represent not just other people’s beliefs and their intentions, but also the extent to which they can be trusted, the extent to which they find us trustworthy, how social exchange works, how to detect cheaters, how to build alliances, and so on…Now interaction with supernatural agents, through sacrifice, ritual, prayer, etc., is framed by those systems. Although the agents are said to be very special, the way people think about interaction with them is directly mapped from their interaction with actual people.

Boyer doesn’t use the term but he’s talking about Theory of Mind there. Very interesting notion. ‘What’s she thinking? What are they thinking? What are you thinking that I’m thinking about what you’re thinking?’ And all that applied also to supernatural beings – so there is no body language, no gestures, no facial expressions, no rocks flung or sticks brandished, no conversation, no shouts or swearing or name-calling. Nothing to go on, one would think – except maybe the weather and the odd earthquake.

One thing that interests me about the subject is that it means (surely) that some (maybe all?) basic virtues are really cognitive first. Maybe that seems self-evident? But I don’t think so – I think we think of virtue as rooted in love. That love comes first and creates sympathy. But if I understand all this correctly, surely it’s perfectly possible to ‘love’ others without understanding that they have their own minds, and therefore that they’re not feeling or thinking what we are. Surely we can’t even begin to have virtues like empathy, compassion, responsibility, generosity, kindness, fairness, until we understand that others have thoughts and feelings different from our own. This basic ability that other animals apart from chimps apparently don’t have (though Frans de Waal for one would disagree with that) is absolutely required for empathy to even exist. Theory of Mind is the same thing as empathy. And it’s not so much a virtue or an emotion as a mental ability.

Another thing that interests me is the way ToM connects with imagination, fantasy, pretending. Empathy is not the only thing that ToM makes possible; lying is another. Children learn that other people can have false beliefs, so the next step is to create them. Autistic children never do either, nor do they pretend.

They will not play with dolls, pretending they are people (when they know that they are not really alive); they will not pick up a telephone and hold a conversation with an imaginary person at the other end of the line; they never pretend to be asleep in order to play a joke on someone else. In short they live in a world that is absolutely real as it stands: they cannot conceive of the situation being other than exactly how it is. And that in turn means that they cannot lie. [Robin Dunbar: The Trouble With Science]

I suppose one reason that interests me so much is that I was a really dedicated pretender when I was a child. It was like a career, a calling. I never knew any other children as deeply into pretending as I was – and I always thought they were eccentric for not being. It seemed to me the only way to play. How do you play? You go outside (or the attic or the basement if it’s raining) and you pretend to be someone else – Jo March, Mary Lennox, Davy Crockett, whoever – for hours and hours. That’s how. What else would you do? I kindly taught friends to play the same way – but I don’t suppose they kept it up anywhere else. But why not? Why not? That’s what I never understood. It’s so much fun. You get to live in another century, in another place, doing unfamiliar things, living in a different story. I used to think children who don’t pretend must be slightly stunted, mentally. (Of course, I’m only two feet tall, so I shouldn’t talk.) I’m not sure I still think that, and yet I do think the ability to fantasize, to imagine things as other than they are, is one that ought to be fostered. At least as much as the ability to play soccer.


Jun 5th, 2004 10:42 pm | By

There is a review by Mary Midgley of a new book by Judith Butler in the Guardian. Midgley has a special place in our affections here at B&W, since in a sense she named it. In another sense of course she didn’t, Al Pope did, because she was quoting him, but in the sense that matters she did, because her use of the quotation is what the Namer of B&W had in mind. Actually the Namer and I have had many violent brawls on the subject, with books thrown and fists pounded on desks and screams screamed and horrible wounding insulting things said. No not really, I’m only joking, because it’s Saturday. But it’s almost true. I have received many emails from readers upbraiding us for not citing Pope, and (until I finally learned better) I used to forward them and ask whiningly why we couldn’t just add two little words – ‘quoting Pope’ – to the About page. Only to receive in reply a blistering indictment of my pedantry, elitism, sucking-up tendencies, docility, sycophancy, conformity, timidity, lack of imagination, tunnel vision, and general fatuity. Not not really, I’m just amusing myself. But it was almost like that. Anyway, Midgley named B&W by using the quotation in accusing someone else of a foolish misunderstanding when in fact the misunderstanding was, not to put too fine a point on it, her own. But all the same, she is at least somewhat skeptical of the profundity of Butler.

Although she does go a bit wrong in the very first sentence –

This little book contains five fairly indignant essays by the distinguished Californian feminist and literary critic Judith Butler…

Distinguished? What’s so distinguished about her? I’m serious. That’s not a jokey question, it’s a real one. There is, as I have noted here in the past, a great deal of inflated praise of Butler kicking around – she is always being called famous, important, significant, etc. But why? On the basis of what? Is her work really so conspicuously better than that of hundreds of her colleagues? There are a lot of knowledgeable people who think it is in fact much worse. So it’s a bit irritating to see her called ‘distinguished’ for no apparent reason. One can’t help thinking that’s just a sort of meme (now that would be ironic), picked up because of all those people who call her famous and important. People can become famous (as of course we all know) just because a lot of other people say they are famous – it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But Midgley does note some flaws, so that’s better than nothing.

I found a large part of the book unhelpful because it is so abstract. It consists of arguments about Foucault’s doctrine of a transition from “sovereignty” to “governmentality” in the structure of states, and about Levinas’s notion of “the face” as the factor that makes us able to see people as vulnerable fellow humans…Discussion of these ideas leads into hair-splitting of the kind that often develops when prophets such as Foucault and Levinas have deliberately used paradox to make an unfamiliar point. Scholars pile in afterwards, trying to domesticate the paradox to fit it for students’ essays. Nietzsche, who started the paradox game, would have been rather cross to see the kind of theorising to which it now leads. And readers might reasonably ask why this theorising is relevant to the moral case against American foreign policy. The trouble is that that case can obviously be stated in perfectly familiar terms – terms widely shared, terms that the transgressing parties themselves already officially acknowledge. Is there anything to be gained by translating it into new and exotic language?

Well, I wouldn’t think so, and that’s exactly why I don’t think Butler is distinguished. I think she’s much more pseudo-distinguished – much more keen to impress the credulous by way of Levinas and Foucault and baroque theoryspeak than to actually say something or enlighten anyone. And that’s exactly why the whole ‘distinguished’ thing is so annoying. That’s not what academics should be doing – writing in a show-offy, obscure for the sake of being obscure way. Necessary obscurity, unavoidable obscurity, obscurity that is inherent in the subject, that’s one thing, but obscurity used to impress and get called famous and distinguished, is another. And I defy anyone to read a few pages of Butler without thinking that is exactly what she’s doing.

Mind Your Peas and Kews

Jun 4th, 2004 9:17 pm | By

Here’s an amusing bit of serendipity. I just added a quotation to Quotations and only after posting it (and doing various other tasks) realized it’s highly relevant to a little argument we were having the other day about the importance and value of precision in language. My colleague posted a Comment which made much of the difference between saying ‘a something’ and ‘the something.’ He also pointed out that ‘Precision of language matters, if you want to be understood.’ That seems like such an obvious, incontrovertible statement, doesn’t it? But people do attempt to controvert it. People in fact actually mocked the idea of making anything of the difference between ‘a’ and ‘the’.

Very well. Behold that Stanley Fish quotation (and he’s a US academic, last I heard, so maybe it’s not a US-UK thing. As I said, I certainly hope it isn’t.):

Everything follows from the statement that the pursuit of truth is a — I would say the — central purpose of the university. For the serious embrace of that purpose precludes deciding what the truth is in advance, or ruling out certain accounts of the truth before they have been given a hearing, or making evaluations of those accounts turn on the known or suspected political affiliations of those who present them.

Italics his. So…he seems to think there’s a difference, a difference worth remarking on in an interjection, a difference worth emphasizing with italics – between a central purpose and the central purpose. He doesn’t seem to think it’s obsessive or peculiar to notice the difference.

I’ve seen a couple of other good remarks on the value and necessity of precise language in the past couple of days. One is somewhat indirectly relevant, but it’s suggestive. It’s by Robin Dunbar, in The Trouble with Science (page 106). He’s talking about strong inference, and the way it has accelerated the progress of science in various fields.

Precisely formulated hypotheses are compatible with a very much narrower range of empirical results than more loosely formulated ones.

He’s not actually talking about language there, but the point is the same. Woolly language allows a much wider range of meaning, which can be nice in poetry (though precise meaning can be very good in poetry too) but is not nice at all in substantive discussion.

The other is from Susan Haack in Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (page 53). She is discussing Peirce’s view of science and inquiry.

…’studying in a literary spirit’…implies a preoccupation with what is aesthetically pleasing that diverts attention from inquiry and pulls against what ought to be the highest priorities of philosophical writing: not elegance, euphony, allusion, suggestiveness, but clarity, precision, explicitness, directness.

So there you are. Keep the wool for knitting sweaters and guillotines, and be precise when using language.

Theory of Mind

Jun 4th, 2004 1:12 am | By

Animal cognition seems to be in the air this month. I read a review by Frans de Waal of two books on the subject a few days ago, and today find that one along with two more at SciTech. Each is about one of the books that de Waal reviews, so the three together make an interesting comparative package, and they’re all interesting in themselves.

This one on Clive D.L. Wynne’s Do Animals Think? is not only interesting but also quite amusing.

Students in the first-year university philosophy classes that I teach often believe that their dogs, cats, budgies, and goldfish are thinking pretty much the same thoughts they are. Unfortunately, some of them are right, I point out – but I point it out only when I’m in a grumpy mood…Ditto for tales about dolphins using “an elaborate language among themselves that we are not smart enough to decode,” to say nothing of whale songs, weeping elephants, and loyal hounds.

The weeping elephant item is of course a sly reference to Masson’s book When Elephants Weep. I especially like the dig because I had a similar one in the Fashionable Dictionary, but had to take it out on grounds of obscurity. Masson and the book are not well known enough, so the joke would have fallen flat. But I can put it in the FD on the site. I’ll have to do that one of these days.

And another item.

Do Animals Think? contains a series of intermittent chapters in which Wynne describes and enthusiastically marvels over honeybee hive life, bat echolocation techniques, and pigeon homing methods.

That word ‘echolocation’ appears in one of the FD definitions – one of the original ones, so it’s already on the site. My colleague wondered if it was a real word – it looked like something to do with virtual chocolate. Well, see, that’s the difference between sociologists and zookeepers. He is familiar with words like functionalism and Durkheim, and I’m familiar with words like echolocation and shovel. Anyway, there is the word, big as life, and used by someone other than me, which I take to be pretty good evidence that it’s a real word.

The other review, of Intelligence of Apes and Other Rational Beings, is not particularly amusing, but it is interesting.

Robin Dunbar was on Start the Week last week, and he was so interesting that I was inspired to re-read his excellent book The Trouble With Science. (There is a paragraph on the book In the Library.) He talks about social cognition, and whether animals have a theory of mind – chimpanzees have some, the equivalent of a five-year-old child’s, but they are left in the dust by a child of six, and dolphins have none at all. Then he discusses what an elaborate theory of mind humans actually do have, that we can actually go five levels (she thinks that he thinks that they think that you think that I think), and that doing that takes an enormous amount of brain power, which seems wasteful. What is it for? (Wasteful things seem to need explaining, of course, because it seems as if they would be selected against.) He has a suggestion – Andrew Marr thought it was ‘religion’ but Dunbar corrected him: not quite. Imagination, is what he thinks it’s useful for: imagination which makes two things possible: religion and story-telling. Both of those, he thinks, make social cohesion possible. Humans live in groups, with an implicit social contract, which means they have to sacrifice immediate benefits for long-term ones, at times, which is a situation exploitable by cheaters (you know: Prisoner’s Dilemma, game theory, all that). So religion works to discourage cheaters – if Dunbar is right, at least. At any rate it makes for a very interesting discussion. Marr asks if he thinks that that means religion will always be with us. ‘I hope not!’ says Dunbar, and everyone laughs a good deal. And they talk about the way that religion makes small group cohesion possible and by the same token makes people want to kill people who believe differently. Yes doesn’t it though. Well now I’ve told you nearly all of what was said, but never mind, listen anyway.