Notes and Comment Blog

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


Mar 21st, 2007 11:57 am | By

In other words there’s a difference between being convinced by something, so convinced that you are literally unable not to believe it, and being rationally convinced by it. Which is, indeed, interesting. It seems like a real problem, in a way – at least potentially. But maybe it is only potentially, not actually? If so, that too would be interesting. In other words – if there are few or no cases of (say) committedly rational people, with strong habits of questioning evidence, second-guessing their own inferences, and the like, who have (say) an unexpected religious experience – an experience like the experience Russell Stannard has when praying – and find themselves unable not to believe that the experience is veridical – then it seems fair to say that Russell Stannard’s experience doesn’t show much.

In other words it depends where you start from. If for example you start from a habit of believing god exists, or from a desire to believe that god exists, and have internal experience that seems to confirm that god exists, that’s different from starting from a habit of not believing god exists and no desire to believe that god exists. If the only (or perhaps the vast majority of) people who have such experiences and find them compelling and convincing, are in the first category – then I don’t think their experience tells us that it’s rational to take the experience at face value. Understandable, yes; reasonable, maybe; rational, no.

Internal experience and rationality

Mar 21st, 2007 9:36 am | By

There’s this post on Talking Philosophy about religious experience and the fact that it can be or seem to be veridical, and the questions that fact raises.

The religious experience as veridical thing is interesting. If the experience genuinely has that quality – is it rational to take it at face value? Okay, I guess most people reading this will answer ‘no’ (and tell me off for suggesting such a thing). But I wonder…

I would say it isn’t entirely rational to take religious experience at face value as veridical, for reasons that don’t seem to appear in comments on that post; not exactly, anyway. I would say it isn’t rational because we know that experience can be misleading. That’s all. It’s pretty simple. That’s why (isn’t it?) experience on its own (internal, private, unsharable, unduplicatable) experience is not considered scientific evidence (or legal evidence either). We know our minds can play tricks on us; we know human beings can hallucinate; therefore we know, or ought to know if we want to claim the title ‘rational,’ that any purely internal experience may be overwhelmingly convincing to us but that it doesn’t follow that it can or should be convincing to anyone else.

I think the claim is that the experience is so convincing (so powerful, overwhelming, veridical) to the person who has it that that person can’t believe it’s not veridical – is literally unable to believe that.

But…I’m not sure that works – not in the sense of deserving the term ‘rational.’ If one really is rational, one ought to be able to have an intense internal experience and still remain aware that that is what it is and that it cannot of its nature be legitimately convincing to anyone else – and that therefore it is not genuine evidence, and should not be taken to be genuine evidence, even by the person inside whose head it played itself out. Not even if that person is a brilliant philosopher or physicist.

That’s not to say that it’s not understandable that the experiencers would find the experience convincing, just that the label ‘rational’ is – not really earned. I think there are good reasons why it is not rational for people to be convinced by their own purely internal experiences, and that therefore it’s understandable but not rational to be convinced by them.


Mar 20th, 2007 3:37 pm | By

From The Improbability of God again. Page 383.

If there were an all-good and all-powerful God who could act in time, then we would have better evidence than we have…Why would such a God hide? Some theists answer that, if the evidence for God were stronger, believers would not need faith.

But why is that an answer? Why is that an objection? Why is faith taken to be a good thing? Why is it supposed to be a loss if we don’t need it? Apart from the obvious protective reasons – the obvious contorted explanations that theists offer to explain inconvenient realities such as God’s strange failure ever to drop by and say hello.

Is the idea that faith is – what – generous, gratuitous, loving? But anything can follow from that. You get epistemic chaos from thinking that way, and from epistemic chaos you get disaster. You could have ‘faith’ that a loving god wouldn’t let anything bad ever happen, and so do nothing.

It’s the same as the problem with claiming that we can’t know what all possible goods are but God can, so we aren’t in a position to know God is not good. Both of them are disastrous because both of them amount to saying that our best tools are not just fallible, not just incomplete, but fundamentally wrong. That’s a desperately bad, reckless, irresponsible idea, because we have to do our best. We have to. It doesn’t matter to us if there are infinitely wise benevolent powerful beings in some other part of the cosmos if we can’t get at them; we have to do what we can do, and if we don’t, we just make things worse. ‘Faith’ is dangerous, the idea that ‘faith’ is a good is dangerous, and the idea that what looks like pain and suffering is actually beneficial in some deeply hidden secret way is extremely dangerous. Some of the twisted things that philosophers of religion say are not just wrong but – anti-human.


Mar 20th, 2007 2:57 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

Philosophy of religion or theology

Mar 19th, 2007 12:49 pm | By

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

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

Which Talking Philosophy disputes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple history

Mar 19th, 2007 12:14 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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