Notes and Comment Blog

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.


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.


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.

So many malls, so little time

Mar 26th, 2007 11:37 am | By

This is so heartbreaking . It’s just so, so sad. I’m bedewing my keyboard with splashy tears. What happened? What’s her story? What went wrong? When did it begin? Why oh why can no one help her? Has she tried homeopathy? Has she tried going back to school to get a BSc in homeopathy and treating others in her tragic plight as well as herself? Has she tried forgetting all about it and doing something else? A hiking trip along the Cornish coast, working for Human Rights Watch, cooking?

I suppose what’s so terribly sad and heart-rending and especially poignant about it is that she looks so sexy in herself, if you know what I mean. She looks like the kind of woman that you look at her and think sex, or something closely related to that. So the fact that she is apparently in deep despair at her lack of sex drive is just – almost undendurably pitiful. That platinum hair, those made-up eyes, those pouty lips, those plucked brows, that pearly skin – all, all wasted because the poor lovely creature just doesn’t want to.

Or maybe that’s not it, maybe it’s that her malfunction is so intractable – that it’s been going on for at least four years. Four years!! Can you imagine? If not more. Four years this delicious pinkish glowing creature has not felt like shtupping. The agony! And all because she’s so busy. (I must say, she doesn’t look very busy, does she. Rather the opposite. She looks rather immobile – I suppose it’s the fact that she hasn’t changed her position or expression in four years that conveys that impression – along with the head leaning on the hand in good Romantic fashion, the downcast eyes, the sad lips. She doesn’t really look like a busy thrusting rushing harried multitasking woman who just doesn’t have time to lie down, does she. In fact she looks as if she’s lying down while sitting up.) The tragedy of modern life, you know? So much to do, so little time – humping just gets shoved to the bottom of the list, and the result is that women fall into despair and have to start popping Enhanced Sex Drive pills. I blame globalization.

Today’s women have less sex than their 1950s counterparts, say researchers. Experts in the United States believe the demands of modern life are to blame – leaving women with little time or energy. Fifty years ago, most women were stay-at-home mums with more free time. Few had jobs and television sets were rare.

Oh I know. I know, I know. Fifty years ago most lucky women stayed at home and had nothing to do, so they had sex all the time out of sheer boredom and lack of occupation. Does that sound great or what! How I wish I could live like that. Nothing to do, so plenty of time to eat, and drink, and sleep, and fuck. Almost as good as being a cow! The demands of modern life are indeed to blame if they’ve deprived us of all that.

Today, many women hold down jobs while also raising children. Any spare time is often spent shopping, working out in the gym or watching their favourite television programmes.

Well – duh. What else is there? Nothing! Obviously. Shopping, the gym, tv; that’s what life is about, isn’t it? You ‘hold down’ jobs and raise children so that they can grow up to ‘hold down’ jobs and in their spare time revel in the joys of shopping, the gym, and tv. So what’s the problem? (It’s that it’s supposed to go shopping, the gym, tv, sex, that’s what. Oh right, I forgot.)

“Couples are often weighted down by double careers and childcare, and by the time people have been to the shopping mall and watched all the television they want, there is not much time for sex. We live in an age where there is little unfilled leisure time. Sex used to fill that gap.”

Well – so what is the problem then? If couples find, after they have watched all the television they want, that it’s four in the morning and they’d rather sleep than hump, why is that something for researchers or the BBC or the hauntingly melancholy woman to fret about? Why isn’t that simply their choice as consumers and enjoyers of the illusion of free will? Why is platinum-hair sulking just because she watched ten hours of ‘Big Brother’ on DVD when she could have been having sex instead? Jeez, hon, just have the sex instead of watching tv next time, that’s all; lighten up! Dang – four years of pouting just because she can’t find the ‘Off’ button? That’s what I call a sulk.

How many senses

Mar 25th, 2007 12:48 pm | By

Internal experience revisited. Disregard if bored with subject.

It seems perfectly rational to believe you had an internal experience, and somewhat rational to say you can’t doubt you had it. What’s not rational is to interpret it as external – and be unable to doubt that.

It’s not the same as doubting you went running this morning – because that is external. It’s a bit of behavior. It’s true that your memory of it is internal – but it is at least in principle checkable, as Chris Whiley noted. Your inner meeting with God isn’t, which makes it vastly less checkable. Stannard’s physics analogy* is bad because he doesn’t just ‘trust’ the other physicists – he also knows that their work is in principle and fact checkable – he could check it himself. That is not true of all these reports of meeting God in prayer (and of finding ‘yes, that someone does have the characteristics of love and forgiveness and all the rest of it’).

Also – Stannard says in that passage that the experience is repeatable. But it’s not. It’s repeatable (if at all) only by people who have that kind of experience. But experiments are supposed to be repeatable by any appropriately trained person not actually disabled. You could claim that the people who can’t do it are disabled – lack a sense – but that seems far-fetched, especially since the putative ‘sense’ corresponds to no physical organ, as the Big Five do – so it’s dubious even to call it a sense, sixth or otherwise.

The parallel with Wiccans and pagans is more relevant than I made out when I first mentioned it, I think. Because they’re all – apparently – doing the same thing. They all want to meet god or goddess, and believe they will, and set out to hypnotize themselves – and it works. In fact it’s not obvious why Stannard’s claim is anything other than auto-hypnosis. Of course, he can still say ‘Yes it’s auto-hypnosis and that’s how God appears to humans.’ That could be true – but is it rational to think so? Not particularly!

*’I believe a lot of things about physics, not having personally done the experiments. And it is because I trust the people who have done the experiments. It seems to me that if you’re dealing with religious people, who all engage in this prayer activity, and time and again, they keep on coming up with the idea that they are in contact with someone, and yes, that someone does have the characteristics of love and forgiveness and all the rest of it – now that is repeatable…

Between two oughts

Mar 25th, 2007 10:55 am | By

Joan Smith in amusing vein.

[O]ne of the jobs I most fancy is poster-girl for a strictly rational approach to human affairs.

Hey I want that job! Me, me, me. I dibs it. It’s mine.

[R]ecent events show that it isn’t just sceptics who are worried by the inroads which other people’s imaginary friends have been making in secular states…[I]n a blow to the Islamophobia industry which has tried to silence critics of Islam through strident accusations of racism, the Education Secretary Alan Johnson issued guidelines which will allow schools to ban paranoid forms of religious dress.

The Islamophobia industry hasn’t just tried to silence critics of Islam via accusations of racism, to a considerable extent it’s succeeded. Lots of people do indeed refuse to criticise Islam precisely on the grounds that doing so amounts to persecuting minorities. That’s certainly not a universal view, but it’s not a vanishingly small one, either.

“What do we want? Discrimination! When do we want it? Now!” has never seemed to me a persuasive platform for any religion to fight on…[T]he Archbishop of York and two Anglican bishops found themselves criticised by peers who wanted to know what had happened to the notion of Christian love…The Anglican hierarchy needs to do some soul-searching about why they joined this doomed cause, placing themselves on the same side as monstrously prejudiced bishops from Latin America and Africa.

Well, it’s partly precisely because those bishops are from Latin America and Africa. See item about what amounts to persecuting minorities, above. The Anglican hierarchy apparently feels uncomfortable and unhappy about simply contradicting or ignoring bishops from Latin America and Africa; it feels too much like white skin privilege or colonialism or both. They’ve pretty much said as much, I think – in slightly more roundabout terms, but that is the gist. They feel caught between two oughts, is what it boils down to. Unfortunately, they’ve chosen the wrong ought. It’s a powerful ought, and a lot of people choose it, with rather dreadful consequences.

Little masquerade on the prairie

Mar 24th, 2007 10:10 am | By

Tarek Fatah and Farzana Hassan don’t think much of the CBC’s new sitcom ‘Little Mosque on the Prairie.’

To begin with, a completely false picture of the Muslim community has been forced into the homes of non-Muslim Canadians. CBC has validated the image painted by Islamist groups that Muslim lives revolve around mosques – nothing else. We don’t play hockey, none of us have 9-to-5 day jobs, love affairs, play poker or, dare we say, cheat on our taxes or our spouses…[W]e question the motives of the writer, producers, and directors of the show for focusing singularly on the most conservative segments of the Muslim community. Although the characters are meant to reflect the diversity of Muslim society, a closer examination reveals the show is not about liberal or progressive Muslims competing with conservatives. Rather, the writer has created a false dichotomy of “conservative” Muslims vs. “ultra-conservative” Muslims; the former being disingenuously passed on as feminist and progressive. Muslims who do not pay homage to their Imams; the liberal, secular or progressive segments of the community, are conspicuous by their complete absence from the Little Mosque narrative. Writer Zarqa Nawaz has played a deft hand in attempting to sanitize what really goes on in the typical Canadian mosque. The hijacking of our religion, Islam, by politicized clerics affiliated with Saudi Arabia or Iran, finds no resonance in the sitcom.

Very interesting and very familiar. Muslims who do not pay homage to their Imams; the liberal, secular or progressive segments of the community, so often are conspicuous for their absence. On the one hand, all people of Muslim background, with Muslim parents or grandparents or from majority-Muslim countries or (often) just kind of vaguely Arab or South Asian-looking, are called ‘Muslims,’ and on the other hand, all Muslims are assumed to be highly conservative and ‘devout’ and religious and anti-secular. The two mistakes flow together to create a mighty river of stupidity and distortion in which secular and progressive Muslims are drowned out. It’s pathetic that the CBC is apparently helping with that process.

Indeed all of the depictions point to an Islamist agenda that seeks to justify inequities that pervade Muslim communities under the pretext of progress. Orthodox Islam is presented as the only authentic belief system that is in consonance with progress. While the Muslim characters are fake, fellow non-Muslim Canadians, who have shown tremendous generosity in embracing peoples of different cultures and religions are continually and unfairly portrayed as paranoid bigots. What has raised eyebrows about the show among Muslims is that such distortion may be deliberate in order to exaggerate the incidence of racism and bigotry against Muslims in Canada to foster the culture of victim-hood and accentuate the chasm between Muslims and non-Muslims in Canada.

Well done Muslim Canadian Congress for pushing back. Good luck to you.

How different

Mar 23rd, 2007 11:59 am | By

Let’s have a round of applause for the joys of tradition and folk medicine and spirituality.

Ramani had been bringing Sona up alone since her husband died from an unknown illness. Every day at 6am Ramani left home for her job as a labourer (painting the factories in an industrial area in the eastern Indian state of Jharkand), returning home 12 hours later. One night in January, Ramani and Sona were fast asleep when two neighbours broke down their rickety front door and dragged Ramani out of bed. As Sona fled to a neighbour’s hut, she saw one of the men’s hands cover her mother’s mouth and another close round her throat. Next morning, no one stopped Sona from seeing the pools of blood that had darkened on her doorstep. On the railway line 100m away, Ramani’s mutilated body had been dumped on the tracks. Her severed limbs pointed in opposite directions.

Ah, the good life. So much better than the empty consumerism that plagues the West, wouldn’t you say?

Police in Jharkand receive around five reports a month of women denounced as witches, but nationally the figure is believed to run to thousands. These incidents usually occur when a community faces misfortune such as disease, a child’s death or failing crops, and a woman is suddenly scapegoated. Those whose lives are spared face humiliation, torture and banishment from their village: some are forcibly stripped and paraded in public; some have their mouths crammed with human excreta or their eyes gouged out. The belief is that shaming a woman weakens her evil powers…Ramani was killed because she had been deemed a malignant force, wreaking death and misfortune on the hamlet. When a child fell ill in the slum, diagnosis and solutions were sought, as usual, from the resident medicine man or ojha…In this case, the ojha told the father of the sick child that Ramani was to blame, says Sona, and claimed that taking her life would lift the curse.

So complementary, so alternative. It’s presumably mere sweeping absolutism and deeply rooted prejudice that keeps benighted Westerners from trying it.

Sweeping absolutist generalisations

Mar 23rd, 2007 11:32 am | By

So it’s possible to get a BSc in a pseudoscience. Interesting.

[A] topic that many researchers see as a pseudoscience is claiming scientific status within the British education system. Over the past decade, several British universities have started offering bachelor of science (BSc) degrees in alternative medicine, including six that offer BSc degrees in homeopathy…Some scientists are increasingly concerned that such courses give homeopathy and homeopaths undeserved scientific credibility…Finding out exactly what is taught in the courses is not straightforward. Ben Goldacre, a London-based medical doctor, journalist and frequent critic of homeopathy, says that several universities have refused to let him see their course materials. “I can’t imagine what they’re teaching,” he says. “I can only imagine that they teach that it’s OK to cherry-pick evidence. That’s totally unacceptable.”

Why would they do that? Is that standard procedure? Are universities generally secretive about course materials, as if they were state secrets or trade secrets? I don’t think so; I think the norm is rather the opposite. There are a lot of syllabi on the internet, and MIT makes its entire curriculum available on the internet for free. Education, it is widely agreed, ought to be as open and free as possible. Secrecy and hiding are pretty much anti-education, or pseudoeducation. Refusing to let Ben Goldacre have a look is suspicious in itself. This isn’t like personal diaries; course materials can’t be private in that way. It’s similar to the provision of goods and services. If you go public, you go public – you then give up the right to say ‘No I won’t tell you’ or ‘No I don’t serve black people or queers.’ That goes double or triple for education – and health care; so it goes quadruple for health care education.

[I]n Britain, the number of BSc degrees in alternative medicine has grown over the past decade. They are generally run by ‘new’ universities — institutions that emphasize vocational rather than academic training…Alternative medicine is not the only surprising subject to be classified as science, but Colquhoun and Goldacre argue that degrees in complementary medicine are particularly harmful because they lead patients to believe that they are being treated by a scientifically trained practitioner.

That’s the quadruple thing.

The critics seem to have little chance of getting the BSc label removed from these courses any time soon. The few organizations that could pressure universities to reclassify the courses have little interest in the debate…The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the body charged with safeguarding academic standards, also says that it does not get involved in questions about what constitutes science, and that universities are entitled to set their own courses.

So then in what sense does it safeguard academic standards? If universities are entitled to set their own courses and give science degrees in them – how exactly are academic standards being safeguarded? That’s a bit of a puzzle.

The usual guff was rolled out in reply.

The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, a group set up by Prince Charles to promote complementary therapy, said there was increasing evidence alternative therapies worked and where there was no proof it did not necessarily mean that there would never be. Foundation chief executive Kim Lavely added: “The enormous demand from the public for complementary treatments means that we need more research into why and how patients are benefiting. Scientists should want to explore this rather than make sweeping, absolutist generalisations arising from deeply held prejudice as David Colquhoun does in this article.”

The enormous demand for joke treatments means we need more research into why and how patients are benefiting. Does it really. No; it may mean we need more reasearch into whether patients are benefiting, but hardly why and how they are when there is as yet no evidence that they are. Of course that’s just my deeply held prejudice, that for instance people who are chief executives of foundations that meddle with health care ought to know how to think clearly and ought to do so rather than resorting to stupid rhetoric about thweeping abtholutitht generalisations and deeply held prejudice.

Inner experience and doubtability

Mar 22nd, 2007 1:10 pm | By

A little more on this puzzle about inner experience. No reason; I just find it interesting. I keep picking away at it. I suppose partly (or maybe mostly) because I know perfectly well that my instinct is simply to think the idea* is absurd – so that can be seen as a reason to try hard to consider the opposite. And there’s also the fact that Stannard obviously doesn’t think it’s absurd, and he’s obviously not just silly, so that’s another reason to puzzle. Plus it raises some interesting thoughts about memory and knowledge and so on – why some memories are harder to doubt than others, for instance. (In thinking about that I’ve had the mildly amusing realization that I can remember [just] brushing my teeth this morning, but can’t remember brushing my teeth on any previous morning whatever. Presumably all of us have precisely one memory of matutinal tooth-brushing, and all the others make up a blurred generic inferential group-memory.)

I conceded too much yesterday, I realized a few minutes after I abandoned the computer for the day. I think the problem is not quite with the inherent undoubtability of the experience itself – because it seems perfectly rational to believe one had a certain kind of inner experience – but with how one interprets it. Stannard seems to move seamlessly (i.e. without visible interpretation) from the experience to what the experience is. But that has to be the issue. He has An Experience when he prays; but it is just his interpretation that that experience is meeting God and understanding that God is love and forgiveness. I would say that’s the part that’s not rational. He takes it for granted himself, but that’s just what he shouldn’t do. He seems to be claiming that that is what he is unable to doubt – that that experience is one of meeting God, and what kind of being that God is. That seems different from, and stranger than, being unable to doubt one went running a few hours ago. One has a memory of traveling through space on one’s own legs, one remembers what one saw on the way, etc; one interprets that as ‘going running’ or ‘walking to the sculpture park and back’. That seems a not very far-fetched interpretation – and it is one that we could easily put into more precise terms (bipedal motion, X number of steps, T time taken, route on a map, etc). But interpreting an inner experience as meeting a loving forgiving God is a pretty different kind of thing. So – why is Stannard so unable to doubt it? I don’t think that is rational, and I’m not even sure I think it’s really reasonable any more.

Here’s one place I think Stannard makes a dubious inference:

‘I believe a lot of things about physics, not having personally done the experiments. And it is because I trust the people who have done the experiments. It seems to me that if you’re dealing with religious people, who all engage in this prayer activity, and time and again, they keep on coming up with the idea that they are in contact with someone, and yes, that someone does have the characteristics of love and forgiveness and all the rest of it – now that is repeatable, and I think to myself, well, why shouldn’t I trust these people that they are accurately reporting their experiences? What you look for is consensus…’

For one thing, what is ‘time and again’? How many is that? How universal is it? But for another, bigger thing, what is that ‘yes, that someone does have the characteristics of love and forgiveness and all the rest of it’ about? One, what someone? What does that ‘that’ refer to? Two, what does he mean the someone ‘does have the characteristics of love and forgiveness’? What does that ‘does’ refer to? He says it as if it’s as straightforward as size or weight, but (needless to say) it isn’t. Three, how do any of them know that this God has to have those characteristics? Four, how do they know their (cultural) expectation that this God will have those characteristics hasn’t simply shaped or indeed determined what their inner experience is? Five, what about all the reasons there are to think that a creator God would in fact not have those characteristics but other, more alarming ones? Six, what does the whole package mean – in what sense are they ‘in contact,’ in what sense is this ‘contact’ ‘repeatable,’ what is it about this repeatable contact that tells them this ‘someone’ has ‘the characteristics of love and forgiveness’?

And so on. And another thing (I raised both of these on the J&J blog earlier, but feel like raising them here too; excuse recycling) – there is a question about what kinds of experiences are more (rationally) doubtable than others. JS says he can’t doubt he went running this morning. Suppose you had a very intense inner experience this morning – suppose it exactly like the kind of experience Stannard has in prayer. (Obviously no one can confirm or deny that, so we can just suppose it.) I wonder if you would say or think you can’t doubt you had that experience – not just an experience, but that experience – an experience of that particular kind. I wonder if you would find it as inherently undoubtable as your having gone running – if you would find it undoubtable in exactly the same way.

I’ll volunteer the opinion that if I had such an experience, I wouldn’t find it undoubtable in the same way as a recent long walk down and up a steep hill. I can’t be certain of that, but that’s my guess. My guess is that as soon as I tried to think about it in order to see if I could doubt it or not, it would become too fuzzy to be undoubtable, in a way that a fresh memory of a walk down and up a steep hill doesn’t.

If I’m right about that, it seems to be another reason to think Stannard isn’t really rational to take his inner experience at face value. That kind of thing is or ought to be inherently more doubtable than other kinds of experience can be. (Maybe what I’m claiming is that inner experience is more like an older memory, which shifts and wiggles when you try to pin it down, than it is like a fresh one, which is more robust, and that that means it is more doubtable.)

*that it’s rational to take one’s own inner experience of meeting God at face value