Notes and Comment Blog

The Celestial Cop

May 21st, 2006 6:23 pm | By

The rabbi has a point. Or part of one anyway.

…the notion that there is no higher authority than nature is precisely what enables people like Mr. Kuklinski – and the vast majority of the killers, rapists and thieves who populate the nightly news. No, no, of course that is not to say that most atheists engage in amoral or unethical behavior. What it is to say, though, is that atheism qua atheism presents no compelling objection to such behavior – nor, for that matter, any convincing defense of the very concepts of ethics and morality themselves.

Well, first of all, that’s a somewhat tricksy claim, because of course ‘atheism qua atheism’ presents no anything about behavior, since opinions on behavior are not what atheism is. Neither is theism, in and of itself; it’s the superstructure that gets built up on top of it – or, to put it another way, the nature of the deity that people decide to believe in; the way people choose to describe the deity they have decided to believe in, rather than their belief that a deity of some sort does exist, that provide the opinions on behavior and the defense of morality. So it’s no good claiming that theists get to assume that the moral views are inherent in the theism while they are not inherent in atheism; in fact they’re inherent in neither. But just for the sake of argument, let’s let him get away with that. Let’s be generous. And having given him that we might as well let him have the ‘compelling objection’ and the ‘convincing defense’ claims – even though he really chose the wrong adjectives there. He should have chosen something like irrefutable, or decisive, or absolute, or knock-down, because if he meant that atheists are unable to work up a compelling or convincing superstructure of moral ideas, as opposed to an irrefutable one, in the absence of a deity, I think that’s just a silly claim, with mountains of historical evidence (to say nothing of other kinds) to contradict it. But never mind; let him have that too. Let’s look farther.

To a true atheist, there can be no more ultimate meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. To be sure, rationales might be conceived for establishing societal norms, but social contracts are practical tools, not moral imperatives; they are, in the end, artificial. Only an acknowledgement of the Creator can impart true meaning to human life, placing it on a plane above that of mosquitoes.

Of course. Of course social contracts are in the end artificial – but what the rabbi unaccountably fails to notice is that so is what he is saying. It’s exactly as artificial. He’s arguing that theism is a good thing because it compels us to be good – rather than because it’s true. He’s giving a (very old and very familiar) consequentialist argument for the social utility of religion and theist belief. And there is much truth in what he says, but that certainly doesn’t make the whole set-up any less artificial, does it. In fact what’s funny about what the rabbi says (and about these arguments in general, and the way they keep cropping up) is that it could actually undermine religious belief. People could read it and think a little bit and recognize that the rabbi is making a consequentialist argument, which could imply that he doesn’t actually believe in the moral guarantor in the sky himself – oops. Totter, shake, tremble, fall. Consequentialist arguments for actual belief in the real existence of a deity are a tad self-undermining – that’s why one is not supposed to make them in front of the servants. Cicero and Polybius both pointed that out a longish time ago. Oh well – better luck next time, rabbi.

Update: as Don pointed out, PZ has a great post on the rabbi’s thoughts at Pharyngula.


May 20th, 2006 9:49 pm | By

How do people manage to believe strange things? One way is simply to conclude that they have Special Powers, of course; but apart from that? Skeptical Inquirer discusses it via a review of Susan Clancy’s Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens.

…no one wakes up in the morning with a full-blown abduction experience. Sometimes, the experience is created and molded from the starting point of a dream or hypnogogic/hypnopompic hallucination experienced during sleep paralysis. Other times, it starts with just a vague feeling that something had happened that needs to be explained. According to Clancy, all of the abductees she studied “had sought out books, movies, researchers, and hypnotists in an effort to understand the things that were troubling them” (143). Since sleep paralysis and its related hallucinations are almost unknown to the general public, the real explanation is not available. Thus, when someone who has had such an experience reads one of the books touting the reality of alien abductions or hears such claims on television or elsewhere, it seems the only explanation available.

Up to a point. I always wonder why people don’t ask themselves why the aliens drop in only when the dropped in on have just woken up from sound sleep. Why don’t they knock on the door at 3 in the afternoon and ask for lemonade? Why don’t they show up at noon and help make lunch? Why don’t they show up right after dinner and pass the mints? Why don’t they show up when everyone for miles around is wide awake and alert and dressed and walking around and thinking straight? Eh? Why is it always when people are lying there in fetid heaps wondering what woke them oh it’s an alien? You would think they’d wonder. Not, maybe, if it were something only a little bit strange, something absurd but not physically impossible – (I have to say that because I once had an auditory hallucination after being woken up at 3 a.m., and I didn’t realize it was a hallucination until years later, reading about hypnogogic sleep. But what I heard wasn’t aliens, or god rehearsing a speech, or The Great Unicorn humming a tune. It was odd, even socially impossible, but not supernatural.) – but if it were aliens? Barney and Betty aliens, mashed potato aliens, sperm-head aliens? I would think that would make people look a little harder for other explanations. But then of course some do; it’s just that others don’t. That’s not all that surprising. It’s a big world.

In chapter 5, “Who gets abducted?”, she reports the results of her own research on dozens of abductees, whom she interviewed and gave psychological tests. In general, these people are quite normal. They are certainly, with an exception or two, not “crazy,” as so many first suspect upon hearing their tales. They are, however, more imaginative, creative, and fantasy-prone than the general population.

Sure. It’s not at all about being crazy, I should think, it’s about being credulous, uncritical, mentally passive. All of which are natural! Those are pretty much default mode; it takes learning to be the other thing. Skepticism and caution and logic, poking at inferences, realizing the difference between correlation and causation – all those are learned behaviour. Lots of people never do learn it. And there are masses of influences teaching the opposite.

It may surprise you to know that my co-author has Special Powers. He’s been telling me about them lately. He was considering telling you about them too, but he may have decided not to profane the mysteries. He has a faint hope that telling me about his Special Powers will convince me that he is by definition always right about everything, but I have roundly assured him that it won’t. I defeated him in argument six times earlier today; he was merely too stiff-necked to concede as much.

Two Nice Guys

May 19th, 2006 5:50 pm | By

Did you read the excerpts from Rebecca Clarren’s article about near-slave labour in the Mariana islands and the sterling work Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff did to block all legislative attempts to reform the situation? That’s the far right for you, revealed in all its squalid glory – peel away all the heavy breathing about culture of life and family values and Christian nation, and what you find is the reality: destitute Asian women worked practically to death for execrable wages and in execrable conditions while fat prosperous happy safe white men collect huge payments to bribe each other and take each other on junkets all in aid of preventing those overworked underpaid Asian women from being paid the minimum wage. It’s bottomlessly disgusting.

30,000 “guest workers” — predominately women — from China, the Philippines and Thailand sew clothing for top-name American brands, which are then allowed to label them “Made in USA” because the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is a U.S. territory. But workers in these factories are not covered by U.S. minimum-wage and immigration laws. Coming from rural villages and the big-city slums of poor Asian countries, these garment workers arrive in Saipan with a huge financial debt, having borrowed money (at interest rates as high as 20 percent) to pay recruiters as much as $7,000 for a one-year contract job. In a situation akin to indentured servitude, workers cannot earn back their recruitment fee and pay for housing and food without working tremendous hours of overtime…Abramoff and his team brought in nearly $11 million in fees from the Northern Marianas government and Saipan garment manufacturers to block congressional efforts to raise the minimum wage and eliminate the islands’ exemptions from U.S. immigration laws. His efforts focused on the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over U.S. territories. And he also cultivated powerful allies in the House leadership — notably Tom DeLay, who, as Majority Whip at the time, could keep a bill off the House floor even if the Resources Committee voted in its favor.

Could, and did. And then apparently slept well at night. A pretty picture, is it not? Powerful rich men keeping powerless poor women in wretched grinding poverty, because they’ve been paid to do so.

Update: Terri Gross interviewed Rebecca Clarren, the reporter who wrote the story, and Katherine Spillar, the editor who commissioned it, on Fresh Air last Tuesday. They say more about DeLay’s work to block legislation than appears in the extracts at Alternet and TomPaine. I’d link to the full article but it appears not to be online. The interview is pretty gripping.


May 19th, 2006 5:22 pm | By

Well, no, since you ask, I couldn’t resist; of course not. What do you take me for? It would take a saint, or rather a hero, to resist, and I’m not either of those things, nor a martyr neither, I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger – no, wait, that’s a song. I’m just a poor shlub at a keyboard, and I don’t resist stuff. I don’t have the grit and the fibre and the steel it would take to resist hooting with laughter at New Statesman readers voting for Thatcher as one of their top heroes. Snerk, snort, shriek. She’s in the top five.


May 18th, 2006 5:35 pm | By

It’s scary when they start shooting up judges. Very scary, in the same way it’s scary (terrifying, actually) when there are Congressional representatives willing to try to pass legislation as grotesquely unconstitutional as the mockingly-named Constitution Restoration Act, and when an angry (and thoroughly corrupt) senator threatens judges from the floor of the Senate. It’s scary when theocrats start to target the judiciary, because in a secular state, the judiciary is the only institution that can block majoritarian moves to establish theocracy.

And they know that in Turkey. They are scared, and they’re pissed.

Tens of thousands of people have marched through the Turkish capital, Ankara, in protest at the killing of a judge by a suspected Islamist gunman. Protesters waved Turkish flags and chanted slogans that the country must remain a secular state. A man calling himself “a soldier of Allah” shot dead Judge Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin and wounded four others at a top administrative court on Wednesday…Correspondents say the attack may have been linked to the court’s record in upholding the ban on Muslim headscarves in universities and government offices – a decision condemned as illegal by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose ruling party has Islamist roots…The gunman reportedly burst into a committee meeting of the Council of State, shouting “Allahu akbar!” (God is great) as he fired his weapon…”This massacre attempt is directed against the secular republic. We strongly denounce it,” said the statement read by Sumru Cortoglu, chairwoman of the Council of State.

Bad, bad, very bad.

The Turkish newspapers are interesting. Bekir Coskun in Hurriyet for instance:

Whether they have a gun or a bomb in their hand, their target is the same: To wipe out the secular republic, to prevent modernity and civilization and push Turkish society into a way of life from the Middle Ages, to make Sharia law dominant.


Real Time

May 17th, 2006 8:09 pm | By

So I suppose right now somewhere in the middle of London (where is the ICA, anyway? I forget. Piccadilly? Bedford Square? next to Hatchard’s? I have no idea) some people (how many, I wonder? fifty? a hundred? two?) are listening to three or four guys talking about truth. I wonder what they’re saying about it. That it can be hard to get at, perhaps. That it’s in a well. That Bacon named an essay after it. That it’s not a bad thing to aim at, on the whole. That people who play certain public roles have a particular obligation to aim at it, and to avoid aiming at the other thing. That it’s just a matter of common sense, when you get right down to it. No, not that last one, that one’s a joke.

Well, I hope they’re all enjoying themselves, at any rate.

Ward Churchill

May 17th, 2006 2:23 am | By

Interesting. The University of Colorado has released a report on its investigation of Ward Churchill. And?

Among the violations that the committee found Churchill had committed were falsification, fabrication, plagiarism, failure to comply with established standard regarding author names on publications, and a “serious deviation from accepted practices in reporting results from research.”

Uh – that’s bad. That’s what you don’t do. You know like when you go to the dentist? The dentist isn’t supposed to take the sharp things and jam them into the roof of your mouth on purpose. That’s contraindicated. Same thing with this. Academics aren’t supposed to falsify, fabricate, or plagiarize. It doesn’t matter whether they’re controversial or offensive or rowdy or longhaired; they don’t get to falsify and fabricate. They just don’t. Being controversial and offensive doesn’t mean they do get to, as some kind of compensation for the fatigue or risk of being controversial and offensive. It doesn’t work that way. Made-up social science just isn’t wanted, no matter how thrillingly controversial the maker-up is.

It’s like David Irving, again. Ward Churchill doesn’t have a free speech or First Amendment right to falsify and fabricate. It’s not a criminal offense and not an imprisonable one, but it’s not a protected free speech right, either. He doesn’t get to say ‘it’s my First Amendment right to fabricate and falsify my research’ and carry on doing it.

He doesn’t get to say his hand slipped, either. They thought of that, and said No.

The Committee found that Professor Churchill’s misconduct was deliberate and not a
matter of an occasional careless error. The Committee found that similar patterns recurred
throughout the essays it examined. The Committee therefore concluded that the degree of his
misconduct was serious, but differed on the sanction warranted.

The committee also pointed out that the controversy is one thing and the misconduct is another. Important point, that.

The Committee notes that the Laws of the Regents of the University of Colorado
define “academic freedom” as “the freedom to inquire, discover, publish and
teach truth as the faculty member sees it, subject to no control or authority save
the control and authority of the rational methods by which truth is established.”
We understand and were careful to distinguish “misconduct in research”…from the issue of “truth” addressed by
the Regents’ Laws’ definition of academic freedom. The Committee observes
also that the allegations we were asked to investigate were initiated in the wake of
the public outcry concerning some highly controversial essays by Professor
Churchill dealing with, among other things, the 9/11 tragedy. While not
endorsing either the tone or the contents of those essays, the Committee reaffirms,
as the University has already acknowledged, that Professor Churchill’s right to
publish his views was protected by both the First and Fourteenth Amendment
guarantees of free speech. Although those essays played no part in our
deliberations, the Committee expresses its concern regarding the timing and
perhaps the motives for the University’s decision to forward charges made in that

The timing and context are highly unfortunate. Too bad Churchill provided so much ammunition for his critics.

Why Bother To Read Books Before Reviewing Them?

May 16th, 2006 7:08 pm | By

Here’s some, shall we say, flexible thinking in action. Someone (the name sounds male so I’ll decide it is male, in order not to have to say s/he, which I do not like to say) admitting in the first words of a ‘review’ that he has not read the book he is reviewing, then blithely and absent-mindedly proceeding to discuss said book quite as if he had indeed read it and taken detailed notes. I can tell you he hadn’t and hasn’t and didn’t, though, because everything he says about it is flat wrong, and I know that on account of I co-wrote the book.

Behold his artless frankness at the beginning –

I can imagine, and i’ve heard from friends that this is a good and funny read if you’re coming from the same camp as the authors (which i guess much of the general public will), but the (apparently witty) attacks on the “fashionable lunatics” of modern philosophy and religious believers are as far is it goes.

There you go. He can imagine, and he’s heard from friends, but he doesn’t know. The ‘attacks’ are ‘apparently’ witty but he doesn’t know that from personal knowledge. Not until the next sentence, when suddenly he does know all about it.

Look at them! They’re saying things which we don’t seem like intuitive common sense! They must be idiots! Ho ho.

Right. That’s just what Why Truth Matters is like. That’s all we do: we just point and laugh. Spot on.

It’s clear neither of the authors really understand post-modern philosophy, particularly its effect on ethics, and worse the book lumps together everything from art to history that anybody might have described as post modern into a single post modern opinion, so it can ridicule them all at the same time, apparently failing to realise the extremely wide range of phenomena that it covers.

Yup, that’s right, that’s an accurate description all right, we lump together everything from art to history and then ridicule the whole stew; we have no clue about the wide range of whatnots. What we did is we found a couple of columns by George Will and just kind of riffed on them, and let it go at that.

Okay, so, speaking of the effect of ‘post-modern philosophy’ on ethics, this Mojo fella has an interesting idea of ethics. He apparently considers it ethical to tell a pack of flat, brazen lies about a book he hasn’t read in hopes of damaging its chances because he doesn’t like what he thinks he knows (but doesn’t) about the contents. Fortunately, he’s also stupid enough to say he hasn’t read it and only then set about the lying. Perhaps that’s the effect of ‘postmodern philosphy’ on the intellect.

Foundational Commitments

May 16th, 2006 2:03 am | By

So, where were we. Here’s one thing JS said in the discussion.

The other general point is that I think people make the best cases for
scientific method when there are genuine threats to the scientific process.
I don’t think having imaginary arguments does the job nearly as well. So,
for example, Dawkins, Dennett, Jones, etc., are all doing what they’re doing
at least in part because they think that evolution is under threat as an
accepted truth. So there’s an instrumental reason for wanting dissent.

That did make sense to me, and since that made sense to me, I was better able to see what he was getting at in the interview. (The interview, being so brief, was a little cryptic. I think the subject probably needs more room to breathe than that.) I don’t really know for sure that Dawkins, Dennett, Jones and co are doing what they’re doing better than they would be doing it if they did not think evolution was under threat as an accepted truth – but I think it’s at least possible. Because for one thing the misunderstandings that ID-defenders keep kicking up perhaps show what needs explaining. (On the other hand, I know PZ for instance thinks those misunderstandings are just repetitive and futile and a waste of time that biologists could be spending on research rather than on endlessly arguing the same points over and over again with ID-defenders who will just repeat the process tomorrow. But the two needn’t be in contradiction. It could be that people who write about the public understanding of science are in a way helped by misunderstandings while people who are doing research are not. It could be a matter of division of labour.)

There’s a lot more, but we ended up pretty much agreeing, I think, except possibly on some not particularly important details. There’s an issue about what foundational beliefs B&W takes for granted, or is committed to, and whether they are rationally grounded or not – but it probably doesn’t matter all that much, because I certainly see the point at issue even if I’m not sure I agree with him on the details. The details have to do with my view that apart from a commitment to rational inquiry, which I don’t think could be revisable even in principle, the other truth-claims B&W perhaps takes for granted are nevertheless in principle revisable, if new evidence turned up. His view is that many foundational truth claims aren’t really revisable even in principle, or (stretching) that they just barely are in principle but not psychologically. I can buy the second version, the in principle but not psychologically one; but the first one, I don’t. Maybe that’s just because I’m too ignorant! That could be. It could be that I’m so ignorant that all my foundational beliefs about how the world is are quite loosely held, simply because I don’t know enough to hold them more firmly. But I think it’s also simply because I can imagine in a thought-experiment way some sort of inside-out universe evidence that could turn up; but I can’t imagine deciding that rational inquiry is systematically wrong, because I don’t see how one could get there except with some kind of rational inquiry. If I try to imagine it I always end up with some version of rational inquiry at some stage – and some pretty early stage at that. The very idea of revising a commitment to rational inquiry involves rational inquiry – so – I can’t get my mind around it, it keeps sliding off.

But that’s a detail. (We talked about it while writing the book, too, I think. Went round and round for awhile and then gave it up and went back to work.) But I find this kind of thing inexhaustibly interesting, so I thought you might too. Anyway there’s no need to produce one of those nice Erratum slips to shove in the remaining copies of WTM saying ‘Never mind’. Amusing though that would be.

Oh That Kind of ‘Adopt’

May 15th, 2006 9:02 pm | By

So, about those puzzling issues to do with what B&W’s basic commitments are and how one goes about figuring stuff out – I’ve had a chance to discuss them with JS now and it turns out we don’t disagree all that much and that he wasn’t saying quite what I thought he was. It all turns – as I said in a comment but didn’t make enough of – on the word ‘adopt’. I thought he meant adopt as in ‘decide to believe’, but he meant not ‘believe’ but ‘act as if I believe’ – which is a whole different thing, as we said in those comments. So that clears that up!

There are some interesting issues involved, which I want to ponder a little, but I also want some fresh air and abrupt violent movement, so I’ll ponder later. The weather forecast says it’s going to be 87 here today. ? Is that possible? In mid-May? I object. I don’t like that kind of thing in mid-July, but I realize I have to put up with it, but in mid-May? No. Weather forecast says it will be in the 80s all week. This is not right.

Interlude for Own-trumpet-blowing

May 14th, 2006 7:54 pm | By

Okay how can I do this without being repellent and awful. I can’t. Okay I’m going to be repellent and awful. But hey, there’s such a thing as marketing and advertising, you know – don’t think of it as being repellent and awful, think of it as advertising. What am I supposed to do, co-write a book and then not say anything about it? Well then!

Right, so Johann Hari wrote this review of Why Truth Matters. It seems fair to say he thinks it’s good. Boastful and repellent, but fair.

He concludes pleasantly.

In Why Truth Matters, Benson and Stangroom answer the clotted, barely readable sentences of the postmodernists with sentences so clear you could swim in them. There should be a law demanding every purchase of a Jacques Derrida “book” be accompanied with a free copy of this shimmering, glimmering answer.

Sentences so clear you could swim in them. My goal in life, in a way. Really – I do love clarity.

Hello, Canada?

May 14th, 2006 1:15 am | By

The walls keep getting closer and closer and closer. Read Michelle Goldberg on the subject if you want to have nightmares for a week.

Speaking to outsiders, most Christian nationalists say they’re simply responding to anti-Christian persecution. They say that secularism is itself a religion, one unfairly imposed on them. They say they’re the victims in the culture wars. But Christian nationalist ideologues don’t want equality, they want dominance.

Yes of course they say secularism is a religion. Secularism is a religion, science is a religion, ‘evolutionism’ is a religion, ‘Darwinism’ is a religion, atheism is a religion, humanism is a religion, naturalism is a religion, rationality is a religion, everything that doesn’t bow down and grovel before their benighted impoverished world view is a religion. And if some of them get their way – we won’t just be silenced or put under house arrest for life, we’ll be executed. So let’s hope they don’t. But…listening to Goldberg on Fresh Air on Thursday I learned more about the Constitution Restoration Act and became very very afraid. If enough loonies get into Congress, which seems not nearly as impossible as I would like it to be, that thing could pass. The Supreme Court would throw it out in a heartbeat, because it’s so unconstitutional it’s a joke – but then they would just amend the Constitution. I don’t think that’s likely (she said nervously) – but – I wish I could be more confident than I am. What’s the Constitution Restoration Act, you wonder? Oh, nothing. No biggy. Just a little tweak that strips judges of the power to hear cases involving ‘any matter to the extent that relief is sought against an entity of Federal, State, or local government, or against an officer or agent of Federal, State, or local government (whether or not acting in official or personal capacity), concerning that entity’s, officer’s, or agent’s acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.’ That’s all. Nothing. Just a law that would forbid the judiciary to review official moves to impose theocracy. Why would anyone object to that?

Terrifyingly, there doesn’t seem to have been much news coverage of this. Like, any. Oh well done. The major meeja ignored the little matter of Bush systematically ignoring acts of Congress that he didn’t feel like obeying by cranking out more than seven hundred fifty ‘signing statements’ in which White House lawyers say he doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to; and now we find they also slept through this little business of legislation aimed at establishing a theocracy in the US. What would be outrageous and terrifying enough to get their attention, one wonders? Does it absolutely have to emit huge clouds of black smoke and cause giant buildings to fall down to be worth noticing? Or does it have to be not Republican and not Rush Limbaugh’s greatest hero to be worth noticing? Or what? Why is this kind of thing allowed to ooze along in such soothing silence?

There is one article at Znet. Great; that’ll reach millions.

Znet wonders about the non-coverage too, not surprisingly.

The potential impact of the Constitution Restoration Act on American life, law and politics is so radical and vast that you would expect a boiling national debate. Yet just as with the crimes and questions of 9/11, everyone in the media seems terrifically busy looking the other way. If you want yet another dramatic metric of US journalistic dysfunction, try Googling “Constitution Restoration Act” in their News category and see what you get. Today, three weeks after the bill was filed, I find a grand total of three throwaway mentions in Alabama’s Shelby County Reporter, the Decatur Daily, and the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. (“Terry Schiavo” in contrast will net you over a thousand news hits, and “Michael Jackson” just passed 36,000 with a bullet.)

Just so. Googling ‘Constitution Restoration Act’ in Google News is exactly what I did – that’s how I found the Znet article – and sure enough – a year later, and the cupboard is still bare. That is pathetic. I have few illusions about the US ‘news’ media, but that is pathetic. The ‘signing statements’ were all but ignored until Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe got busy, and an attempted theocratic putsch is also ignored. It boggles the mind.

The CRA already has 28 sponsors in the House and Senate, and a March 20 call to lead sponsor Sen. Richard Shelby’s office assures us that “we have the votes for passage.” This is a highly credible projection as Bill Moyers observes in his 3/24/05 “Welcome to Doomsday” piece in the New York Review of Books: “The corporate, political, and religious right’s hammerlock… extends to the US Congress. Nearly half of its members before the election-231 legislators in all (more since the election)-are backed by the religious right… Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th Congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the most influential Christian Right advocacy groups.”

That was 2005. It hasn’t passed yet. But the bastards are still gathering.

Threat Threat Threat Bless You

May 12th, 2006 1:27 am | By

And there arose a great noise in the land, and a whirling on the waters, and the people were sore afraid, or upset, or worried, or puzzled, or something. Why? Because of a movie, of course. What movie? you ask, all athirst to know. Well what movie do you think? The Rembrandt code, of course. No no, I know; the Renoir code. No no, I’m just playing silly buggers; the Kandinsky code. Oh all right, the Da Vinci Code. (A title which causes a faint electrical hum of irritation every time I hear or see it, because as any fule kno, Da Vinci is not Leonardo’s surname. It’s like titling a book and movie The Of Devonshire Code after the Duke of Devonshire, or the Of Arc Code after Joan of that ilk. Tsssss.) Okay so the Da Vinci Code and how people are all knotted up about the underwear. There’s this cardinal for instance.

“Christians must not just sit back and say it is enough for us to forgive and to forget,” said Arinze. “Sometimes it is our duty to do something practical…This is one of the fundamental human rights – that we should be respected, our religious beliefs respected, and our founder Jesus Christ respected,” said Cardinal Arinze.

See, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that it was a fundamental human right that we should be respected. (We who? Christians? Humans? Cardinals? People who pitch fits about movies? Zealots? Wannabe censors? Nags? Bullies? Who?) I also didn’t know it was a fundamental human right that our religious beliefs be respected and our founder Jesus Christ be respected. That is news to me. Here’s me trundling along from day to day with my human rights being violated from here to Sunday, because I can tell you for a fact that there are people in this world who don’t respect me. The ones who’ve never heard of me would be one place to start; the ones who know me well and think I’m a bore and a nuisance would be another. And yet, all the time, it is my human right to be respected (and not, apparently, everyone else’s human right to decline to respect me, however boring and useless and a complete waste of time I may be), and nothing is done about it. Comrades, what we have here is a wholesale violation of civic order, a massive breakdown in the fabric of how things are supposed to be. What we also have here is a potentially worrying state of tyranny, in which we are all required to respect more than six billion people, at least five billion of whom we wouldn’t recognize if they sat next to us at the annual Bus Spotters’ Gala and said howdy. That seems like a lot of respect-duty we’ve all been falling down on.

The cardinal goes on, in his pleasant mild humble conciliatory way.

“Those who blaspheme Christ and get away with it are exploiting the Christian readiness to forgive and to love even those who insult us. There are some other religions which if you insult their founder they will not be just talking.”

Ah! Very true! They will not be just talking, they will be shouting and threatening and torching and killing. They will be putting out bounties, they will be traveling towards Denmark, they will be taking action. How heart-warming it is to see a cardinal using their pleasant example to threaten the blasphemers. How exhilarating it is to know that religions think they have a right to veto novels and movies that tell stories about their story. How the walls do keep getting closer and closer and closer.

The I Word

May 11th, 2006 6:15 pm | By

Thought for the day. From Dave Hill at ‘Comment is Free’.

Why are some progressives turning against identity politics? After all, aren’t they the means for liberating the oppressed? In fact, they have always had their critics from the left. But Islamic terrorism has, I guess, provided a new and more public momentum. Awkward questions are being asked, not least on this site: how can liberals support assertions of Muslim identity when these include the subordination of women and hatred of gays? How can the anti-war left march hand-in-hand with hardline Islamists? Tricky issues. And I’m a bit conflicted about them. I’m wary of accidentally joining in with the dreary right-wing drone about “victim culture”, “multiculturalism” (whatever they think it means), “political correctness” and so on, which some “hard liberals” seem in danger of doing. Yet it has long been very clear that while identity politics can be a rational and affirming response to prejudice and oppression they can also be deeply reactionary: racial essentialism, inward-looking nationalism, cultural purism and a general suspicion of difference and change too often become integral to them.

Just so. One always is very wary of joining in dreary right-wing drones, and yet, there are times, in the deep of night, when all is asleep save for the occasional bat streaking past the window, when the little pool of light cast by the reading lamp is surrounded by darkness as far as the eye can see, when bits of those dreary drones can seem disconcertingly…not entirely wrong. When one suddenly knows what they mean about victim culture, and wonders how whiny one may be oneself. Then one decides to stop thinking and go to sleep instead.

But, he’s right: identity politics can be and in fact is both a rational response to oppression and indeed victimization but it can also (often at the very same time) be horribly reactionary and confining. That’s why Amartya Sen and Anthony Appiah both have new books out on the subject. It’s a difficult, tangled, and important one.

the Foucauldian in the Leather Jacket

May 11th, 2006 5:42 pm | By

This little aside in Scott McLemee’s column made me laugh.

For better and for worse, the American reception of contemporary French thought has often followed a script that frames everything in terms of generational shifts. Lately, that has usually meant baby-boomer narcissism – as if the youngsters of ‘68 don’t have enough cultural mirrors already. Someone like Bernard-Henri Lévy, the roving playboy philosopher, lends himself to such branding without reserve. Most of his thinking is adequately summed up by a thumbnail biography – something like, “BHL was a young Maoist radical in 1968, but then he denounced totalitarianism, and started wearing his shirts unbuttoned, and the French left has never recovered.” Nor are American academics altogether immune to such prepackaged blendings of theory and lifestyle. Hey, you – the Foucauldian with the leather jacket that doesn’t fit anymore….Yeah, well, you’re complicit too.

Snicker, snort. I love that. ‘You’re complicit too.’ In fact I’d like a sweatshirt or bumper sticker with that on it.

Speaking of bumper stickers, a kind reader of B&W who is connected with the Bioliteracy Project at the University of Colorado at Boulder sent me a couple of bumper stickers that say: ‘Leave No Child Behind: TEACH EVOLUTION’. Life is good.

One Review

May 11th, 2006 5:07 pm | By

Funnily enough, reviewers aren’t thronging and jostling to review Why Truth Matters. Maybe they figured out that it was actually an extended exercise in irony, or something, and didn’t want to be made to look foolish by taking it seriously. Anyway there is one review from Library Journal, posted at Barnes & Noble.

Benson and Stangroom (coeditors, www. set out to prove why truth matters. Their argument isn’t so much one for truth as one against ideologies and philosophies that minimize truth’s importance. These counterarguments include discourses on basic human thought, cultural relativism, political reasoning, feminism, and other current and historical thought movements. The writing is superbly engaging, and each chapter is well argued. But the book’s strong point is its reasonable and concise overview of the major arguments and viewpoints directly and indirectly limiting the precedence of truth. This overview allows readers to grasp easily not only each argument but also the subtle patterns into which the arguments connect. Though easy to follow, the text does assume a fair amount of prior reading. Recommended for academic collections and larger public systems with suitable demand.-Jason Moore, Madison Cty. Lib. Syst., MS Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Well, yeah. It does assume at least a little prior reading. It wouldn’t be anyone’s choice for the first or only book a person ever read. But some books are like that. They’re part of a conversation. Not all books can be the ideal choice for the first or only book a person ever reads. Some have to fit into the middle somewhere, so that the conversation can go on. (I mention that because it’s actually quite difficult to figure out how much to assume readers will know or be able to figure out and how much they will want explained. Too much in one direction and you frustrate readers and perhaps make them feel ignorant or stupid or both, but too much in the other direction and you risk making them feel patronized and insulted and also slowed down and impeded and plain bored. It can be very tricky.)

Go and Sin no More

May 10th, 2006 5:43 pm | By

Let’s talk about sin. We don’t talk about sin enough, I’ve noticed. We’re very slack that way. Very lax. Very slothy and loose and – well – sinful. So let’s give it a look-see.

First let’s see what a godless philosophy type has to say about it.

…ideas of right and wrong can be entirely separated from ideas of what is sinful. Aristotle, for example, thought of good and bad in terms of what allowed human beings to flourish as rational animals, with no reference to God’s will. Whereas sin separates us from the divine, doing wrong separates us from our true natures or our fellow humans.

Got it. Okay. Sin separates us from the divine, so for those of us who don’t think the divine is actually there (or divine if it is there, in fact if it is there it’s a right bastard, so separation from it is just what we want, as far off as possible, please), sin separates us from an empty signifier, so it turns out we don’t need to talk about it much, because there’s nothing much to talk about. Got it. Now let’s see what a goddy type has to say about it.

Julian Baggini’s article on sin (G2, May 9) misunderstands the significance of sin. There is in fact no distinction to be made between doing something contrary to God’s will, and doing something contrary to our own good. The Aristotelian guiding principle of human happiness, to which Baggini refers, is not intrinsically without reference to God’s will – if human beings have been created by God, then the happiness of the rational animal will involve conformity to God’s will, as only God can satisfy the human body and soul.

Yes, ‘if’. Certainly, ‘if’. Of course, ‘if’. But that’s just it. If. You think the answer to the question implicit in that ‘if’ is yes, but others of us think it is no, so it’s slightly pointless to re-inform us of what follows from answering yes when we in fact answer no. The people who answer yes mostly already take your point (sort of, more or less, perhaps with some leeway), but you’re addressing Julian and the rest of us no-sayers, on whom your argument is wasted, because it relies so heavily on that ‘if’. In fact since our answer to the implicit question is No, we tend to think that the putative conformity to God’s will is in fact conformity to what a long line of church boffins and theocrats have asserted God’s will to be, and we prefer not to conform to that, thanks.


May 9th, 2006 10:48 pm | By

A commenter raised an interesting point on the pontifical post, a point that I’ve been pondering on and off (mostly off) ever since JS cc’d me his replies to the HERO interview.

The point the commenter raises is the same one JS raises: the idea that it’s good to teach pseudoscience in universities because otherwise people get smug and lazy. Bridget in comments:

Students who are not exposed to a range of theories with stronger or weaker truth claims, do not develop the ability to critically judge the validity of what they are taught – they become lazy thinkers.

JS in the interview:

I’m not comfortable with consensus, so I think if it turned out that the kinds of views that B&W advocates became mainstream and taken-for-granted, then I’d have to adopt alternative positions. This isn’t just bloody-minded contrarianism; I think there is value in dialectical engagement. It inoculates against the possibility of a smug complacency over our truth-claims.

I told JS that I’d tell him why I disagreed with his replies if he had more time (if he weren’t working on 57 books), but he doesn’t have more time (because of working on 57 books), and my thoughts on the subject are as it were burning a hole in my pocket. I feel dissatisfied and irked keeping them to myself. It’s kind of like keeping a sexual urge to yourself, only different. I have informed one or two people I know about my thoughts on the subject, and they were immensely pleased and thankful, but I find I still want to air them some more.

One problem I think that idea has is that it contradicts what JS himself wrote about B&W on the About page when we first set it up.

There are two motivations for setting up the web site. The first is the common one having to do with the thought that truth is important, and that to tell the truth about the world it is necessary to put aside whatever preconceptions (ideological, political, moral, etc.) one brings to the endeavour.

There’s a reason for that thought, surely. The reason is that preconceptions get in the way of telling the truth about the world (and of finding out what the truth about the world is) because they are extraneous. They impede, they get in the way, they detour, they introduce the irrelevant, they distort. (Of course, we’re all only human, and we can’t get rid of all our preconceptions, but that doesn’t mean we should just shrug and let them run riot.) They replace the endeavour to find the truth with the endeavour to find whatever matches up best with one’s preconceptions – and that’s the wrong way to go about trying to find the truth. And it seems to me that deciding in advance to ‘adopt alternative positions’ when the views one thought were true become mainstream, is simply bringing another preconception to the endeavour. It seems to me that displaces asking to the best of one’s ability ‘are these views true?’ in favour of asking ‘are these views mainstream?’ and that that is the right way to get at what is or is not mainstream, but the wrong way to get at what is or is not true. It seems to me to be introducing an irrelevance.

I’m not very fond of conventional wisdom and received opinions and the tepid waters of the mainstream myself, but the fact remains that in scientific or factual matters, popularity is irrelevant to truth. It is of course relevant to ‘truth,’ to what passes for truth, as Susan Haack puts it; but it’s not relevant to actual truth. So I don’t quite see why concerns about potential smug complacency should trump concerns about telling the truth about the world. Smug complacency is irritating stuff, no doubt about it, but is it really worse than lying? And does it make sense to lie for the sake of avoiding smug complacency over our truth-claims? And then of course there’s the obvious problem that resisting consensus and the mainstream can lead to smug complacency over our truth-claims at least as easily as simply going along with consensus can. So maybe it’s more sensible just to do one’s best to get at the truth with whatever methods seem to do the job and not worry about smug complacency, rather than deciding to talk nonsense and risk being a smugly complacent anti-consensus rebel.

Better Than Being in the Phone Book

May 9th, 2006 2:12 am | By

I found something at Wikipedia. It’s quite amusing.

The entry is: Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?

“Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?” is a quotation from Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot of 1735, which has entered common use and has become associated with more recent figures.

Ah – has it? Who’s that then?

The philosopher Mary Midgley used a variation on the phrase in an article in the journal Philosophy written to counter a review praising The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, where she cuttingly said that she had “not attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel.” Dawkins replied that this statement would be “hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic.” The name Butterflies And Wheels was then adopted by a website set up to oppose Pseudoscience, Epistemic relativism and those disciplines or schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the political, ideological and moral commitments of their adherents.

Why – that’s us. (By ‘us’ I mean all of us, here, reading this and occasionally writing it.) They’re talking about us – me, you, the butterflies, and the wheels. Don’t know why they didn’t make the name a hyperlink, the silly prats, but anyway – it’s fun to make a cameo appearance in an entry.

What Care I For Evidence, Peasant?

May 9th, 2006 1:53 am | By

A reader sent me an article from Nature Immunology a couple of weeks ago – it’s about the part that immunology played in the Dover trial, and very interesting it is. Immunology and the stacks of evidence for how it evolved blew Behe and his black box out of the water. There’s a nice illustration of a tall pile of books with another thick pile of papers on top of it; the caption reads “We can look high or we can look low, in books or in journals, but the result
is the same. The scientific literature has no answers to the question of the origin of the immune system.” The footnote of course is to Darwin’s Black Box.

Here’s the best part:

That background set the stage for the crucial
face-off at the trial…Rothschild then presented
Behe with a thick file of publications
on immune system evolution, dating from
1971 to 2006, plus several books and textbook
chapters. Asked for his response, Behe
admitted he had not read many of the publications
presented (a small fraction of all the
literature on evolutionary immunology of the
past 35 years), but summarily rejected them as
unsatisfactory and dismissed the idea of doing
research on the topic as “unfruitful.”

Judge Jones commented in his decision on that summary rejection:

In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe
was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that
science would never find an evolutionary explanation
for the immune system. He was presented
with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine
books, and several immunology textbook chapters
about the evolution of the immune system;
however, he simply insisted that this was still not
sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was
not ‘good enough.’
We find that such evidence demonstrates that
the ID argument is dependent upon setting a scientifically
unreasonable burden of proof for the
theory of evolution.

That reminds me of something Dawkins says in ‘Root of All Evil?’ to the effect that no matter how much evidence scientists present of evolution or natural selection, it makes no difference at all; creationists don’t trouble to look at it or worry that there’s so much of it, they simply ignore all of it – summarily. A mountain of evidence has exactly the same effect as a grain of it: none whatever. That’s a good point, you know – there’s something badly wrong with a way of thinking that is as blithe about dismissing a mountain of evidence as it is about dismissing a thimblefull.