Notes and Comment Blog


Just the questions, ma’am

Apr 5th, 2007 12:59 pm | By

And, not for the first time, there’s Howard Gardner.

‘In his new book Five Minds for the Future, he argues that the 21st century will belong to people who can think in certain ways.’ One of the five is ‘the respectful mind, which shows an appreciation of different cultures.’ Why is that called the respectful mind? Why isn’t it called the appreciative mind? Or why isn’t the explanatory phrase ‘which shows respect for different cultures’? (Because minds can’t show things, for one reason. Okay but besides that.) I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that it’s because unconditional respect for (undefined, unspecified) different cultures is slowly but steadily being made mandatory. Which is stupid, in a way – if it’s mandatory, it’s not really respect, is it, it’s just obedience or obeisance or slavishness. Extorted or required respect isn’t respect. It’s also not a kind of mind. It may be an idea or a way of behaving, but it’s not a mind.

Gardner believes that the education policies of today, which still revere rote-learning, are preparing children for the world of yesterday. He points to my digital recorder, the size of a cigarette lighter: “Something that small can contain every fact that you ever need to know. So what a waste of time it is to sit around learning facts! All the premium in the future is for people who can do things that machines can’t do yet. So, the capacity to ask a good question, rather than getting the right answer from a machine, becomes so much more important.”

Really. How can people ask good questions if they don’t know anything? What can their good questions be about? How can they even dig facts out of ‘machines’ if they don’t know anything?



Parting of the ways

Apr 5th, 2007 12:40 pm | By

Matthew Parris is amusing.

During Holy Week we are treated to a variety of decent-sounding people in print and on the airwaves explaining that religion – or “faith” as they now prefer to call it – is basically all about shared moral values, making the world a better place and gaining a proper sense of awe at life’s mystery…Such faith sounds so reasonable. Churlish nonbelievers like me are made to feel it is we who are being arrogant, dogmatic, closed-minded. How can we be so sure?

Beeeeecause (as Parris of course goes on to point out) that’s not in fact what religion or ‘faith’ really is all about, that’s how.

You are living, dear reader, at a watershed in human history. This is the century during which, after 2,000 years of what has been a pretty bloody marriage, faith and reason must agree to part, citing irreconcilable differences. So block your ears to the cooing voices on Thought for the Day, and choose your side. “But how can you be sure?”…Words cannot express my confidence in the answer to the question whether God cured a nun because she wrote a Pope’s name down. He didn’t.

Moral values good (if they’re the right moral values, a question which has to be decided on secular, universalizable grounds), making the world a better place good, sense of awe more a matter of taste; but supernatural truth claims, not good; the thinking that goes into belief in supernatural truth claims, not good at all, in fact bad.



It’s the training

Apr 5th, 2007 10:31 am | By

It never ends. Drip drip drip; whine whine whine. Those mean fashionable intellectual mean people at their fashionable parties aren’t Christians and aren’t impressed by Christianity. It’s so unfair.I would never admit to any left-liberal social gathering that I sometimes go to church…Christians are likely to be depicted in my paper’s pages as zealots or people who inexplicably haven’t caught up with the modern world.

That could be because Christians believe implausible things for epistemically questionable reasons. It’s not self-evident that there is no problem with believing implausible things for epistemically questionable reasons.

To the average funky young columnist, Christians are as relevant as Cliff Richard, but where does that columnist think the philosophical roots of his own opinions lie?

A number of places, probably, most or all of them secular. Christianity doesn’t provide philosophical roots, it provides theological or theistic ones. Jesus is quoted as saying quite a few good things, and some bad ones, but aphorisms don’t provide much in the way of philosophical roots; for those people must and do go elsewhere. Christianity doesn’t deserve much credit for those roots.

Then there’s some wool about consumerism, then some wool about how claustrophobic Dawkins makes him feel. There’s no argument or even clarity, just some disconnected musing. That’s one reason some of us are not fond of religion: it doesn’t generally teach or encourage people to think clearly; all too often it teaches or encourages them to do the opposite – witness that discussion between Rick Warren and Sam Harris in which Warren says one confused or inaccurate thing after another and Harris does better than that. It is very difficult to avoid drawing the conclusion that Warren simply can’t think properly at all, and to blame his training for that.



A nice day out

Apr 4th, 2007 2:49 pm | By

A pretty story.

Naked men, women and children, some of them in chains to prevent them escaping, cower in front of the men in charge in a dimly-lit room in the church of St Mary on Mount Entoto…The church…sits above a mountain stream, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church believes the stream is holy water with the power to cure HIV/Aids…Plastic jerry cans are filled with water from a pool, and passed along a human chain to priests dressed like deep sea fishermen. The bright yellow waterproofs protect them from the drenching they administer to their congregation. They hurl the water over the mass of people kneeling in front of them who shriek and scream, either through devotion or the simple shock of the cold water hitting their naked flesh…The church claims that more than a thousand people have been cured in the past two years. And yet the head priest Father Geberemedhen admitted to me that only the newly diagnosed are likely to be helped…”We don’t allow patients to take medication if they want to receive holy water,” he told me. That means they must stop taking the antiretrovirals which prevent the disease taking hold, and prolong the life of those who carry the HIV virus.

Jesus saves. Or not.



Memory and imagination

Apr 4th, 2007 2:26 pm | By

I’ve been thinking about things like this lately, so it interests me a lot. Though it probably would even if I hadn’t been thinking about it – it probably would have started me thinking about it.

Humans are born time travelers. We may not be able to send our bodies into the past or the future, at least not yet, but we can send our minds. We can relive events that happened long ago or envision ourselves in the future. New studies suggest that the two directions of temporal travel are intimately entwined in the human brain. A number of psychologists argue that re-experiencing the past evolved in our ancestors as a way to plan for the future and that the rise of mental time travel was crucial to our species’ success. But some experts on animal behavior do not think we are unique in this respect. They point to several recent experiments suggesting that animals can visit the past and future as well.

They have to go by themselves though. That’s what I was thinking about recently – the fact that they can’t discuss the past with anyone, or inform anyone about it, or be informed about it.

Endel Tulving, a Canadian psychologist, defined episodic memory as the ability to recall the details of personal experiences: what happened, where it happened, when it happened and so on…Episodic memory was also unique to our species, Dr. Tulving maintained. For one thing, he argued that episodic memory required self-awareness. You can’t remember yourself if you don’t know you exist. He also argued that there was no evidence animals could recollect experiences, even if those experiences left an impression on them.

Some researchers are skeptical, and have done experiments that they take to indicate something like episodic memory; other researchers are skeptical.

“Information is not really what characterizes mental time travel,” Dr. Suddendorf said…Episodic memory also depends on many other faculties that have only been clearly documented in the human mind, Dr. Suddendorf argues. He said he believes it evolved after our ancestors branched off from other apes. The advantage lay not in knowing the past, however, but in providing “an advantage for predicting the future,” he said…Daniel Schacter, a psychologist, and his colleagues at Harvard University recently studied how brains function as people think about past experiences and imagine future ones.

That interests me because I’ve long been interested in the fact that there is no real difference between remembering something and imagining it – no phenomenological difference. It’s interesting if remembering past experiences and imagining future ones are essentially the same adaptation.

Constructing an episodic memory causes a distinctive network of brain regions to become active. As a person then adds details to the memory, the network changes, as some regions quiet down and others fire up. The researchers then had their subjects think about themselves in the future. Many parts of the episodic memory network became active again.

There you go. And that’s why memory is so unreliable – it gets mixed up with imagining, and we not only don’t know how to disentangle them, we don’t even know when they’re tangled.



The deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks

Apr 3rd, 2007 3:36 pm | By

Bad.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is maneuvering to fundamentally weaken the Endangered Species Act, its strategy laid out in an internal 117-page draft proposal obtained by Salon. The proposed changes limit the number of species that can be protected and curtail the acres of wildlife habitat to be preserved. It shifts authority to enforce the act from the federal government to the states, and it dilutes legal barriers that protect habitat from sprawl, logging or mining…Many Fish and Wildlife Service employees believe the draft is not based on “defensible science,” says a federal employee who asked to remain anonymous…[T]he proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act should come as no surprise. President Bush has hardly been one of its fans. Under his reign, the administration has granted 57 species endangered status, the action in each case being prompted by a lawsuit. That’s fewer than in any other administration in history…Furthermore, during this administration, nearly half of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees who work with endangered species reported that they had been directed by their superiors to ignore scientific evidence that would result in recommendations for the protection of species, according to a 2005 survey of more than 1,400 service biologists, ecologists and botanists conducted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit organization.

Also bad.

A top-ranking official overseeing the Fish and Wildlife Service at the Interior Department rode roughshod over agency scientists…Ms. MacDonald, an engineer by training, has provoked complaints from some wildlife biologists and lawyers in the agency for aggressive advocacy for industries’ views of the science that underlies agency decisions…The report, citing a lawyer in the Sacramento office, noted that Ms. MacDonald lobbied for a decision to combine three different populations of the California tiger salamander into one, thus excluding it from the endangered-species list, and making the decision legally vulnerable. A federal district judge overturned it in 2005., saying the decision was made “without even a semblance of agency reasoning.”…The inspector general also found that Ms. MacDonald had sent internal government documents by e-mail to a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation — a property-rights group that frequently challenges endangered-species decisions.

And so on, and so on. The Republican War on Science rages on. Bastards.



The silence of the left

Apr 3rd, 2007 11:36 am | By

If you get tired of Butler and Spivak – this is better.

The most astute argument presented by Postel is his revelatory account of how Western leftists, by prioritising their own opposition to American imperialism, have abandoned Iranian liberals in their fight for freedom and democracy. Postel vehemently renounces the argument that support for pro-democracy interests in Iran somehow amounts to supporting the neo-conservative agenda. He presents engaging ideas as to how Iranian liberals have accomplished this very task. He relates in detail how Iranian human rights activists such as Akbar Ganji shun any contact with the United States government when visiting the country and focus solely on engaging with scholars, human rights organisations and civil society groups. Postel recounts an incident in which Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, during a visit to the U.S., was confronted by an anti-war protester who suggested that she stop talking about human rights abuses in Iran because her arguments could be appropriated by the neo-conservatives. Ebadi’s response was clear and unequivocal: “Any anti-war movement that advocates silence in the face of tyranny can count me out.” Iranian intellectuals, despite being in the direct line of fire of the neo-conservative military agenda, are demonstrating that fighting the expansionist military agendas of the Bush administration does not require silence about the injustices perpetrated by the Iranian regime.

And not only does it not require silence, but Iranian intellectuals and liberals and feminists and secularists don’t want silence. They urgently, badly, energetically don’t want it; they want the opposite; they want noise. Noise from us. Noise from the left, noise from liberals, noise from people who oppose tyranny and injustice and oppression of women. They do not feel pleased and grateful when large swathes of the Western left are silent about all that, much less when those large swathes throw metaphorical rotten eggs and squashy tomatoes at people who are not silent about all that; they feel displeased and ungrateful and angry. The large swathes of the Western left who are silent about all that and congratulate themselves on their silence are under a very serious misapprehension.

This same conundrum confounds Western liberals. They, as Postel documents, have been silent in the face of repeated student protests in Iran, imprisonment of Iranian activists and numerous other human rights violations that should have logically attracted their support. They are so locked in the singular prism of anti-imperialism that they are unable to make peace with the idea that it is liberalism rather than radicalism that is the true fighting creed in Iran. They are even less amenable to the reality that “the denunciations of U.S. Empire in Iran today are the rhetorical dominion of the Iranian Right, not the Left”. As Postel states, “it is the reactionary clergy who wield the idiom of anti-imperialism and regime hardliners [who] legitimate the suppression of Iranian students”. This aversion to recognising reality in Iran has exacted a huge cost; it has delegitimised the Western left and exposed its disinterest in championing the cause of Iranian liberals and pro-democracy fighters who suffer daily at the hands of an increasingly repressive regime. Postel exposes how the insistent prioritisation of anti-imperialism over all else has produced a repugnant inversion of itself – a new form of imperialism equally blind in its U.S.-centric perspective as its ugly counterpart…This book is a timely indictment of the Western left’s apathy, which justifies itself by constructing a deceptively dualistic model of Western engagement with the world. The time has come for the emergence of a new “radical” liberalism that rejects such misguided political perversions and reclaims the right to both engage with the struggles of human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists in Iran and elsewhere, and denounce the Bush administration’s tyrannical politics of military intervention.

Damn right.



Knowing everything is easy and fun

Apr 3rd, 2007 10:53 am | By

I wish I could have been here. I’m excited that I can listen or watch now (although I’m not absolutely sure that I ever will, somehow), but that’s not quite the same.

The conference was organized by graduate students in the Department of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine. Participants were invited to address the term “state” and to consider the effect of the “global” on discourses of knowledge and power, literary analysis, and theories of subjectivity. The conference sought to reconceptualize the global by delineating states of sentiment, desire, and affect, and examining their deployment on – or relation to – the global scene of political and economic states. In their dialogue, Butler and Spivak discuss alternative subjectivities and state forms in a “global state.” In arguing for the possibilities afforded by forms of belonging that are unauthorized yet exist within the state, Judith Butler suggests that the “right” to rights arises in the form of social discourse – calling for freedom is already an exercise of freedom. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak disarticulates the identity of state and nation and develops the concept of critical regionalisms as a new analytics of power that rethinks territoriality and sovereignty.

Harmless enough; I know, I know. It’s just that – who cares what departments of comparative literature think about these huge subjects that they take on so lightly? Who cares what Judy Butler and Gayatri Spivak have to say about economics, politics, rights, globalization, state, nation, power, territory, sovereignty and so on? Who cares what comp lit teachers have to say about such things? And if comp lit teachers are busying themselves with omniscience on subjects that normally take whole teams of economists and political theorists to think about, then who is teaching actual comp lit? When did comp lit in fact become economics plus sociology plus political theory plus psychology plus philosophy plus law? Who are these people and how did they get to know everything? Who are the people who sit at their feet in the conviction that they know everything? What does it all mean?

I think I know, but I’ll keep it to myself.



Mitigation

Apr 2nd, 2007 4:44 pm | By

So, like the pope with his fond references to hell and eternal punishment, that German judge made some things clear.

[T]he case brought before Frankfurt’s family court was that of a 26-year-old German woman of Moroccan origin who was terrified of her violent Moroccan husband, a man who had continued to threaten her despite having been ordered to stay away by the authorities. He had beaten his wife and he had allegedly threatened to kill her…According to the judge, there was no evidence of “an unreasonable hardship” that would make it necessary to dissolve the marriage immediately. Instead, the judge argued, the woman should have “expected” that her husband, who had grown up in a country influenced by Islamic tradition, would exercise the “right to use corporal punishment” his religion grants him. The judge even went so far as to quote the Koran in the grounds for her decision.

The woman should have expected it, therefore there was no rush about getting a divorce. That’s an interesting idea. You would think she’d married a grizzly bear, not an adult human being. And if she had married a grizzly bear who kept devouring pieces of her, would a judge say she should have expected it and that there was no rush about getting a divorce?

Germany’s only minister of integration at the state level…sees the Frankfurt ruling as the “last link, for the time being, in a chain of horrific rulings handed down by German courts” – rulings in which, for example, so-called honor killings have been treated as manslaughter and not murder. This, says Berlin family attorney and prominent women’s rights activist Seyran Ates, is part of the reason one should “be almost thankful that (judge Datz-Winter) made such a clear reference to the Koran. All she did was bring to the surface an undercurrent that already exists in our courts.” Out of a sense of misguided tolerance, says Ates, judges treat the values of Muslim subcultures as a mitigating circumstance and, in doing so, are helping pave the way for a gradual encroachment of fundamentalist Islam in Germany’s parallel Muslim world. It’s an issue Ates often runs up against in her cases.

It started awhile ago.

a few years earlier, an Islamic legal opinion dubbed the “camel fatwa” had been added to the professional literature. Amir Zaidan, the then chairman of the Islamic Religious Community in the state of Hesse, wrote the opinion. He argued that a Muslim woman could travel no more than 81 kilometers (50 miles) from the home of her husband or parents without being accompanied by a male blood relative. The opinion came to be known as the “camel fatwa,” because this was the distance a camel caravan could travel within 24 hours in the days of the Prophet Mohammed. Zaidan even defended this position at a 2001 conference of Germany’s protestant churches in Frankfurt. His argument was that a woman who traveled farther would run the risk of being raped.

Well that’s quite a good argument. Clearly a woman who travels 80 kilometers from home runs no risk of being raped, because there is a magic energy-zone around her which disintegrates when she crosses the 81st kilometer. Also clearly it is up to the law to imprison women to prevent them from running any risks. Also clearly it is up to men to decide what risks women can be allowed to take. Und so weiter.

It is by no means unusual for people put on trial for honor killings in Germany to be convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter in the end. In 2003 the Frankfurt District Court handed down a mild sentence against a Turkish-born man who had stabbed his German-born wife to death. She had disobeyed him and was even insolent enough to demand a divorce. The court argued that one could not automatically assume that the man’s motives were contemptible. He had, after all, acted “out of an excessive rage and sense of outrage against his wife” — who he had regularly beaten in the past — “based on his foreign socio-cultural moral concepts.” According to the court’s decision, the divorce would have violated “his family and male honor derived from his Anatolian moral concepts.”

And yet – one hears often that no one ever says that honour killing is acceptable because it’s ‘their culture.’ Well, yes, someone ever does say that, and throngs of other people don’t say that but are mysteriously and profoundly silent about such things – except when they summon up the energy to say that no one ever says that honour killing is acceptable because it’s ‘their culture.’ It is not the case that there are no well-meaning people out there who make this mistake.



La vie en rose

Apr 1st, 2007 2:46 pm | By

Oh, rats, there go my dreams of being part of a Group. Julian is such a killjoy.

Apparently, I am “a member of a group of freelance intellectuals who gather round The Philosophers’ Magazine and live by their pens.” Sounds very glamorous, in a bohemian kind of way. If you said three people who sit alone in front of computers all day in their underwear, it wouldn’t have quite the same ring.

Oh, is that all it is? How sad. I thought it was more than that. I had this pleasing, albeit vague, idea of a nice populous crowd of freelance intellectuals all gathered around TPM thinking. I admit I couldn’t have told you who they were if you’d asked, but it was a pleasing idea anyway. It’s a bit of a bump to find it reduced to three people, one of whom is me, so that from my perspective it’s only two. But I deny the underwear claim; I deny it utterly. Unless sweatpants count as underwear because one doesn’t wear them in public, at least I don’t; but I don’t consider them underwear, especially since they’re not under.

As for glamorous in a bohemian kind of way though – well come on, we’re glamorous-bohemian; of course we are. There was that time we went to that combination petrol station-miniature grocery store in Sutton – Julian got some milk for breakfast and Jeremy got a chocolate bar and furtively ate it. What could be more bohemian and glamorous than that? It’s right up there with lunch at the Algonquin or tea at Garsington with Virginia and Lytton and Ottoline and Bubbles. Don’t you think? Of course.



Another poll

Apr 1st, 2007 10:10 am | By

This is, not surprisingly, depressing stuff (not surprisingly because of the subject matter and the source). It’s depressing not just because of the substance but also because of the patronizing stupidity of the writing – the cuddly babytalk, the low (the almost non-existent) expectations.

Nine in 10 (91 percent) of American adults say they believe in God and almost as many (87 percent) say they identify with a specific religion. Christians far outnumber members of any other faith in the country, with 82 percent of the poll’s respondents identifying themselves as such. Another 5 percent say they follow a non-Christian faith, such as Judaism or Islam.

Note the lightning-fast shift from ‘a specific religion’ to the now more usual familiar cozy reassuring ‘faith’; note the assumption that readers are so feeble and so delusional that they can’t bear to see their own religions referred to as religions, that they have to be somehow soothed and mollified by seeing them called ‘faiths’ instead, and that that putative requirement imposes an obligation on journalism to use such language. If things go on this way, soon baby talk will take over completely. The newspapers will have short pieces about the nice men and ladies in the gov-ern-ment who figure out what is the nicest thing to do for all the mommies and daddies and babies, and the mean men in other places who want to hit the nice men and ladies and take away the mommies’ and daddies’ toys and cars and cookies so we have to hit them first, and then it will be supper time and we’ll all go to sleep and play again to-mor-row.

But, who knows, maybe we are that stupid.

Nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution; one-third (34 percent) of college graduates say they accept the Biblical account of creation as fact…Although one in ten (10 percent) of Americans identify themselves as having “no religion,” only six percent said they don’t believe in a God at all.

The 34% of college graduates item is pretty scary – but then it’s important to remember that there are a lot of ‘colleges’ in the US and that necessarily a great many of them are, how shall I put this, not very good or very demanding. Many are more like church schools; many are more like not very good high schools; many (most?) are largely vocational schools rather than academies of arts and sciences; many are some of both. In short, being a ‘college graduate’ in the US does not necessarily translate to being educated in the usual sense of the word. (In particular, that 34% does not translate to a finding that 34% of the graduates of any particular college or university accept the Biblical account of creation as fact. At some the percent will be much higher, and at others, mercifully, it will be much lower. There’s no need to go around thinking the 34% applies to graduates of MIT or Cornell or NYU.)



The hunter hunted

Apr 1st, 2007 2:25 am | By

I didn’t know this – Zimbardo discovered that he’d become a subject of his own experiment. Read the whole thing; it’s fascinating.

Missing from the body of social-science research at the time was the direct confrontation of good versus evil, of good people pitted against the forces inherent in bad situations…Thus in 1971 was born the Stanford prison experiment, more akin to Greek drama than to university psychology study. I wanted to know who wins — good people or an evil situation — when they were brought into direct confrontation…Suddenly the guards perceived the prisoners as “dangerous”; they had to be dealt with harshly to demonstrate who was boss and who was powerless. At first, guard abuses were retaliation for taunts and disobedience. Over time, the guards became ever more abusive, and some even delighted in sadistically tormenting their prisoners…I was forced to terminate the projected two-week-long study after only six days because it was running out of control. Dozens of people had come down to our “little shop of horrors,” seen some of the abuse or its effects, and said nothing.

Until he invited a former student and current colleague.

We had started dating recently and were becoming romantically involved. When she saw the prisoners lined up with bags over their heads, their legs chained, and guards shouting abuses at them while herding them to the toilet, she got upset and refused my suggestion to observe what was happening in this “crucible of human nature.” Instead she ran out of the basement, and I followed, berating her for being overly sensitive and not realizing the important lessons taking place here. “It is terrible what YOU are doing to those boys!” she yelled at me…I too had been transformed by my role in that situation to become a person that under any other circumstances I detest — an uncaring, authoritarian boss man.

It wasn’t just the students, it was himself.

The implications of this research for law are considerable, as legal scholars are beginning to recognize. The criminal-justice system, for instance, focuses primarily on individual defendants and their “state of mind” and largely ignores situational forces…As my own experiment revealed, and as a great deal of social-psychological research before and since has confirmed, we humans exaggerate the extent to which our actions are voluntary and rationally chosen — or, put differently, we all understate the power of the situation…By recognizing the situational determinants of behavior, we can move to a more productive public-health model of prevention and intervention, and away from the individualistic medical and religious “sin” model that has never worked since its inception during the Inquisition…Group pressures, authority symbols, dehumanization of others, imposed anonymity, dominant ideologies that enable spurious ends to justify immoral means, lack of surveillance, and other situational forces can work to transform even some of the best of us into Mr. Hyde monsters, without the benefit of Dr. Jekyll’s chemical elixir. We must be more aware of how situational variables can influence our behavior. Further, we must also be aware that veiled behind the power of the situation is the greater power of the system.

This also sheds some light on the cruelty of the pope and his assistants, and the nuns at Golddenbridge. Group pressures, authority symbols, dehumanization of others, dominant ideologies – they had it all. Maybe even the ‘imposed anonymity’ – because they wore habits; they looked much alike. So: yet another lesson in what we keep learning and re-learning: beware of group pressures, authority symbols, dehumanization of others, imposed anonymity, dominant ideologies. Beware, beware, and beware again.



What passes for wit in Rome

Mar 30th, 2007 6:19 pm | By

More on the Vatican jefe.

Hell is a place where sinners really do burn in an everlasting fire, and not just a religious symbol designed to galvanise the faithful, the Pope has said. Addressing a parish gathering in a northern suburb of Rome, Benedict XVI said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to “admit blame and promise to sin no more”, they risked “eternal damnation – the inferno”…God had given men and women free will to choose whether “spontaneously to accept salvation … the Christian faith is not imposed on anyone, it is a gift, an offer to mankind”.

Sorry, jefe, that won’t wash. You can’t call it a gift, you can’t call it an offer, and you certainly can’t say it is not imposed on anyone when it is accompanied by threats, specifically, by threats of being burnt in a fire forever. You can’t do that. Think about it. Seriously – think. Say you’re out for a walk one day and a very large guy comes up to you and offers you a sandwich along with the information that if you refuse it he’ll take this very sharp razor he has handy and carve you up. Would you view that sandwich in the light of a gift, an offer, something that was not being imposed on you? I don’t think you would, jefe. I think you would wonder what the hell was in that sandwich, and want very badly not to accept it and certainly not to eat it, and you would also want to get away from the large guy. Well, that’s how we feel about you and your big pal. We don’t like you, we don’t like your threats, and we don’t view what you’re ‘offering’ as a ‘gift’. Go away; shut up; stop threatening people; stop doing your best to frighten people; repent.

Vatican officials said the Pope – who is also the Bishop of Rome – had been speaking in “straightforward” language “like a parish priest”. He had wanted to reinforce the new Catholic catechism, which holds that hell is a “state of eternal separation from God”, to be understood “symbolically rather than physically”.

So that’s why he mentioned the inferno?

Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, a church historian, said the Pope was “right to remind us that hell is not something to be put on one side” as an inconvenient or embarrassing aspect of belief. It was described by St Matthew as a place of “everlasting fire” (Matthew xxv, 41). “The problem is not only that our sense of sin has declined, but also that the world wars and totalitarianisms of the 20th century created a hell on earth as bad as anything we can imagine in the afterlife,” Professor Bagliani said.

Oh no they didn’t. That’s the point, you bastards. Of course the world wars and totalitarianisms of the 20th century created unparalleled horrors, but they didn’t create eternal torture. Eternal torture is, actually, worse than the horrors of the 20th century or any other real-world tortures, because they don’t stop, ever. That is in fact very very very much worse than anything that happened in the 20th century – and yet you punitive sadistic evil bastards sit around in your embroidered outfits telling us all that’s what’s going to happen to us. What a good thing many of us don’t believe you – but some people, as you know better than I do, do believe you. No, that doesn’t mean it’s okay because they won’t be afraid because they’re the ones who believe – they’ll be afraid anyway; they’ll be afraid they don’t believe enough; they’ll be afraid their belief will fail them. You shits. I don’t wish eternal punishment on you, but I wish your consciences would bother you.



Exploring cruelty

Mar 30th, 2007 12:20 pm | By

So Louis Theroux goes to visit the Phelps family – you know, the ‘God hates fags’ crowd, the people who go to funerals to shout about ‘fags’. Hell’s angels have started policing military funerals to help keep them at a distance – just in case people who have lost someone they love to a violent death in a war don’t much feel like hearing from Fred Phelps and his descendants at the funeral.

What we did, I think, was try to understand how a group like this operates; its group psychology, the way the beliefs are passed down the family…We’re exploring what is cruelty, trying to explain how something that really does very often just amount to cruelty could be perpetuated and passed down in a family. Why would nice people do such horrible things?…I think that the pastor is not a very nice person. I think he’s an angry person who’s twisted the Bible and picked and chosen verses that support his anger, that sort of justify his anger, and he’s instilled that in his children and they’ve passed it on to their children…I think another part of the answer is that parts of the Christian Bible are pretty weird. There’s a lot of weird stuff in there and when you take that and you add this angry, domineering kind of a father figure, which is Gramps, and you add that he has sort of separated them off from other people, other families and driven them to achieve a lot…

So that’s all it takes. One not nice, angry, cruel man, who has the power or influence to domineer and isolate his children. Somebody much like the pope, in fact, but with children added.



Bad-tempered pope

Mar 29th, 2007 12:57 pm | By

What’s the pope furious about?

[The pope] has reiterated the existence of Hell and condemned society for not talking about eternal damnation enough. A furious Pope Benedict unleashed a bitter attack during a sermon while on a visit to a parish church and said: “Hell exists and there is eternal punishment for those who sin and do not repent. The problem today is society does not talk about Hell. It’s as if it did not exist, but it does.”

He’s furious because today society does not talk about Hell? That makes him furious? Really? Well what a horrible sadistic cruel wicked little man then. (Little morally, mentally, ethically, cognitively. I don’t know whether he’s little physically or not, and I don’t care.) What a very nasty piece of work – wanting everyone to be more terrified of eternal punishment; thinking the fading away of that foul idea is a bad thing. I’ll tell you what: his being furious about that makes me furious. I’ll tell you why: because this is no joke: people who believe it really do suffer torments of fear, for themselves or for other people. The good ones do – the nasty ones, like the pontiff, relish the thought.

And another thing. How does he know? Whence comes this ‘Hell exists’? Where does he get this ‘It’s as if it did not exist, but it does’? How does he know it does? What’s his evidence? Why should anyone believe him?

Pope Benedict unleashed his fury during a visit to the tiny parish church of St Felicity and the Martyr Children…Using the Gospel reading of John where Jesus saves the adulterous woman from death by stoning by saying “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, Pope Benedict said: “This reading shows us that Christ wants to save souls. He is saying that He wants us in Paradise with Him but He is saying that those who close their hearts to Him will be condemned to eternal damnation.

So, in the pope’s view, Jesus is saying love me and you get to join me in Paradise, but if you refuse to love me, you’re condemned to eternal damnation and eternal punishment. Well that’s an interesting idea. The first thought that occurs to me is how difficult it is to love someone like that, which means that the whole deal is a trap – a double bind – a lose-lose bet. ‘Love me or I’ll tear you to bits slowly.’ That doesn’t work, you know. Really – it doesn’t; it backfires. I’ll explain. It’s the ‘I’ll tear you to bits slowly’ part – it puts people off. However well-intentioned they may be, however willing to comply, those six words simply make it impossible. My advice would be to stop with the ‘Love me’ bit – wait and see what happens. There’s always plenty of time to come in with the threats. But to include the threats right in the same sentence where you command love – that’s bad planning. Is that still not clear? I’ll explain more carefully. We can’t love people who promise to torture us for not obeying them. (Yes yes, unless we’re masochists; never mind that.) We can’t even admire or respect them; we can’t even be neutral. No – we develop an instantaneous low opinion of them; very low indeed.

It’s also odd given that Christians set so much store by free will. What kind of free will is that arrangement? Either love this guy on command, or be tortured forever. There’s no freedom about it, not in any direction, neither if you say yes nor if you say no; not even if you do nothing but just stare aghast like a rabbit in the headlights.

What a very nasty piece of work.



Oh who cares about truth

Mar 28th, 2007 12:16 pm | By

Okay so people like rationalists and humanists and similar are supposed to value reason and truth and accuracy and getting things right, right? Or am I confused.

I ask because of some comments on Jeremy’s post on The British Humanist Association’s opinion poll. They make me wonder.

So, less of this ivory tower disdain, please, for the honest labours of those who are trying to defend the secular principle in the face of sustained attack by the most religious government for over 100 years…In the real world of politics you cannot always be academically nice – your opponents will make mincemeat of you if you try…On rationality and truth – come down out of your ivory tower! The BHA is a campaigning organisation, not a university department.

So the response to criticisms of a flawed poll is to say that such concerns are ivory tower disdain, being academically nice, the result of high-altitude occupation of that ivory tower, confusion between campaigning and a university department? In other words, criticism of a flawed poll is pedantic and (as it were) elitist, and campaigning organizations needn’t and even shouldn’t worry about rationality and truth? But if rationality and truth aren’t the issue – then what is? Why are they humanists at all? Are they just allergic to communion wafers or something?

This comment is if anything even odder.

As a Marketing professional, I notice something distasteful about the not so subtle prejudice against marketing in the casual dismissing of a professional study. Yes, I’m aware that the profession has a mixed reputation but Philosophers and Sociologists, are in no position to throw stones either. On a professional level, I would expect you to rally to the support of fellow professionals, undertaking quantitative research to support the defence of the secular freedoms which we have enjoyed to-date.

Five uses of the word ‘profession’ or ‘professional’ in four lines, and the whole concept deployed as some sort of loyalty imperative; I find that very strange. Why are professionals supposed to rally to the support of fellow professionals? Is that how the world is carved up? Do all professionals support each other? And what exactly is a ‘professional’ anyway? And why is it seen as some sort of hurrah-word?

Jeremy replied to the replies, and asked this question among others:

[W]hether people should applaud quantitative data depends (partly) on whether the data is any good. This poll’s data is hopeless. Therefore, it should not be applauded. Do you think that we should applaud the quantitative data that predicted a win for Thomas Dewey in 1948 US Presidential Election? It’s a famous polling error. Truman, having won, appeared on the news holding a copy of the Chicago Tribune, which had printed “Dewey Beats Truman” on its front page on the basis of polling data.

Yeah, it’s a famous polling error all right, which I mentioned in my comment on the first post. That famous polling error was part of the background of my childhood; it was my uncle’s outfit that made it most conspicuously, and the mistake haunted them. They bent every nerve to figure out how they’d got it wrong, they revamped everything, and they sweated bullets over subsequent elections. I hung out there once on the evening of a presidential election – it was like being at NASA during a mission: hours of huge tension, followed by shrieks of euphoria. But what they did not do was shrug and pout and say it was no big deal. They didn’t bother murmuring about academic niceties or ivory towers, they just turned everything upside down to correct the mistake. (They probably turned my father upside down. He was their director of statistics. Hmm…)

Julian makes much the same point on the New Humanist blog.

Is it really the case that none of my fellow humanists can see and admit that this poll was frankly flaky and there is a real issue here of how much a movement committed to rationality can be prepared to say, “let’s not worry too much about the niceties of truth – let’s just get campaigning.”

Well exactly.



Some items loosely strung together

Mar 27th, 2007 5:44 pm | By

A new(ish) blog by a philosophy type: Delight Springs.

David Thompson points out that we’re allowed to dislike any religion. Yes, even that one.

Oliver Kamm also comments on Charlie Hebdo and free speech: “Those who claim that the state of their religious sensibilities is a justification for punishing speech have been rightly rebuffed.”

Stephen Law has an amusing post on pseudo-profundity (gee, what do you suppose put that idea in his head?).

If all your jargon is defined using other jargon, no one will ever be able to figure out exactly what you mean (though your devotees may think they know). And the fact that buried within your pseudo-profundities are one or true truisms will give your audience the impression that you must really be on to something, even if they don’t quite understand what it is.

That’s a key point, one I have not sufficiently taken into account – it is crucial to define all your jargon by means of other jargon. This way everyone enters the jargonic circle, from which escape is neither possible nor desirable.



Making the case in terms anyone can agree with

Mar 27th, 2007 2:20 pm | By

A comment on this post snagged my attention.

It depends on the context. But let’s stick to the political for now. In that arena, you make progress by gathering allies, not making enemies – although you will always have to make some of them. So you make the case in terms that anyone can agree with, even if they’re not atheists. I was involved in a pamphlet advocating restrictions on religious schools, and that’s just what we did. We didn’t premise the case on religion’s falsity, but issues of social cohesion, autonomy and so on.

Well, it depends. Even in politics you don’t always make the case in terms that anyone can agree with, because it depends on what the case is. You can’t make every case in terms that anyone can agree with and still make the case. (Of course the commenter knows that. I’m just trying to tease out some implications.) Some cases are of their nature going to have to be made in terms that some people cannot agree with.

But more specifically, what snagged my attention about this comment is that I think something is missing – or, to put it another way: I would put it another way. If I were involved in a pamphlet like that, I wouldn’t want to premise the case on religion’s falsity either, but nor would I want to limit myself to issues of social cohesion and autonomy. I would want to premise the case not on religion’s falsity, but on the related point that there is no very good reason to think religion is true (although I might well be willing to phrase it more tactfully, or possibly even evasively). I would want to talk about the fact that schools are supposed to educate and that education is supposed to teach things that there is good reason to think are true. It is not, to the best of my knowledge, supposed to teach things that there is no good reason to think are true. So – it is a problem if schools set about to teach things as true that there is no good reason to think are true. Schools do that, of course, but that’s a problem. That’s not the only reason to advocate restrictions on religous schools, but I would think it’s one.

In fact the pamphlet does make that case, or something like it.

It is, however, difficult to see how religious education and religious instruction could be compatible, and this is because religious beliefs, unlike mathematical truths (at least at school level), are contested and controversial…The teacher who is committed to the activity of education cannot, however, simply teach that religion as true, since there are other rational judges who believe that the religion is false and can offer reasons in support of that view, and pupils who are to be genuinely educated must be acquainted with those reasons.

So – I would just point out that those are in fact not terms that anyone can agree with; some religous believers will not agree with them. The issue is not so much whether or not religion is true as whether there is good reason to think so – but that itself is a contentious issue.



Confidence

Mar 27th, 2007 10:08 am | By

I hesitate to link to the Daily Mail, but this is interesting.

Islamic extremists are fuelling the spread of “honour” based violence against women in Britain, the country’s most senior Muslim prosecutor has warned…”When you talk to women who are victims of this type of behaviour you often find that they will say that their husbands or fathers have been radicalised in the way that they think about women,” he said. “They will use Islam as a justification for telling women how to behave and for punishing them. There is no religious justification for forcing your children to marry or harming them because they behave in a particular way, but there are people out there who are using their faith as a reason to do this. In the past, they might have said ‘do this because I’m your dad’, but when they are radicalised it is making them feel more confident about the way they behave towards the women in their family. It is allowing the man to say ‘my religion says you must behave this way’ and it puts a lot of extra pressure on the women in their families and can make them feel that they should toe the line because it is about faith and their culture.”

The bit about feeling more confident is especially interesting. Plausible, and interesting, and depressing. It’s not good if people feel more confident about bullying and oppressing other people. We don’t want people to feel more confident about that, we want them to feel timid and hesitant and doubtful and uneasy; we want them to feel so hesitant and uneasy that they end up not doing it. Confidence is usually framed as a good thing, but of course it isn’t necessarily; it depends. ‘Confidence’ is another of those words and concepts, like loyalty and courage and tolerance and even freedom, that are not unqualified goods but tend to be deployed as if they are.

Nazir Afzal is saying something quite significant there, I think, which would repay a lot of thought and investigation. Religion and probably some kinds of politics and certainly ideology do work to make people ‘feel more confident about the way they behave towards’ various others – and that can be a very good thing, or it can be a horrible nightmare. There’s a lot of the nightmare around right now.



How to talk about everyone

Mar 26th, 2007 11:54 am | By

A note on How many senses. A correspondent reminds me that I said what I said too broadly. ‘But experiments are supposed to be repeatable by any appropriately trained person not actually disabled.’ True – that is too broad. Mind you, I clarified somewhat in the next sentence – ‘You could claim that the people who can’t do it are disabled – lack a sense’ – but I should have clarified in the first sentence. I didn’t mean disabled in general, I meant lacking a specific sense needed to repeat a specific experiment.

I added the qualification merely in the effort to be precise – as one does when arguing, you know. I was making a fairly sweeping generalization there, so I felt that need to be careful, to anticipate likely objections or exceptions and include them. The point of the disagreement turns on the difference between Stannard’s claim about experimental repeatability which applies only to a particular group, compared to experimental repeatability which applies in principle to everyone – with the necessary stipulations: appropriate training, and the appropriate senses (appropriate, in both cases, in the sense of ‘what’s needed for the particular experiment’). That’s all I meant.