Notes and Comment Blog

Sub-cosmic Reasons

Apr 23rd, 2004 8:58 pm | By

Very well. Fine. The convincing bugger has convinced us, not because he’s so convincing, but because our case is so hard – not to say impossible – to argue. I know that (she whined). I realize that, I understand that. But I also still say it doesn’t matter, at least not much. It’s still worth going on trying to make a case for the superiority of poetry over pushpin. Yes, that superiority is provisional and local – it’s a human superiority, not a superiority inscribed in the cosmos. It wouldn’t even convince other earthly mammals, let alone nameless entities in other galaxies. A giraffe would just think poetry is too short, and too close to the ground, and not spotted enough. A whale would think it’s too dry, and not fishy enough. What someone from the ninth planet out from Alpha Centauri would think, who knows. But since we are humans, and have human thoughts and tastes and opinions, we don’t care about that any more than giraffes care what we think of acacia leaves for dinner.

And there are all sorts of practical reasons for continuing to have the discussions, obviously. It’s how we decide what to include in literature classes, for instance. It’s how we decide what to read, what to check out of the library, what movies to go see, what to watch on tv, what to urge other people to read and watch and go see and listen to. It’s how we do anything at all, really. It’s how we choose. We don’t do it at random, not unless we have some mental quirk or other; we choose things and courses of action for a reason; we think one thing or act is better than another, and that’s why we want it or do it, or else why we think we ought to want it or do it even if we don’t quite manage. As Ovid’s Medea has it, in one of the few Latin tags I know – ‘Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor.’ I see the better and approve it, but I follow the worse.

Better and worse are simply human words, opinion words, in a way that there and not there, something and nothing, E=MC2 are not, quite. That giraffe, dinosaur, limestone, star, are not, quite. The words are what we call those things, but the things themselves are what they are even if we don’t exist and never have existed. Unless they’re not, of course; unless the evil demon has my brain in a vat and I’ve imagined all of it. But my bet is that if the evil demon were going to do that it would come up with a better brain in a vat than mine – that’s my refutation of the evil demon.

That’s enough of that frivolity. At any rate. Value judgments don’t have to be cosmic or absolute or permanent or trans-specific to be worth something, do they. The cosmos doesn’t mind if you pick your nose at the dining table, but I sure as hell do if I’m at the same table. The cosmos doesn’t care what entries we include in the Fashionable Dictionary and which ones we leave out – but the Dictionary’s authors do, as do its publishers and readers, so it is worth discussing and thinking about and weighing reasons for. A century now no one will care an atom whether I spent my life watching the Home Shopping Channel on tv or not – but I do. So there we are, stuck with our provisional value judgments. Whatever.

Comics and Soaps

Apr 22nd, 2004 8:30 pm | By

More on the hand-waving subject. (It’s funny – I had an opportunity to engage my colleague in debate on this very issue only this morning [this afternoon UK time] but I didn’t take it. We talked on the phone about the publisher’s suggested emendations to the Dictionary, and the word ‘aesthetics’ came up almost immediately. I did think of interrupting and diverting the conversation in order to discuss the more foundational aspects, to query the very notion of ‘aesthetic reasons’ – but I didn’t. Largely because, I suppose, I was far more concerned to protect our brilliant ideas than I was to debate foundational anythings. Still, it is a coincidence, you must admit.)

Jonathan Dresner posted at Cliopatria yesterday on a subject that’s very relevant to this one – and I wrote a comment on his post without even realizing or noticing the relevance. That was stupid. The subject is Doonesbury, and Jonathan’s reaction to a war injury to one of the characters, and his reaction to his reaction.

It’s not funny: it’s very sad. Sure, it’s a little silly to be so affected, as I am, by this fiction. But that’s what great fiction does: it makes things real. B.D. is a representative of many very real people.

I actually don’t think it is silly, and I said so in my comment. I think it’s entirely understandable. I’ve been a fan of Doonesbury’s from the very beginning; it’s about my g-g-generation; we share a history. And besides that, it’s just a brilliant strip. It’s a graphic novel rather than just a throwaway bit of fluff. Yes throwaway bits of fluff are fine things! But so are keepable bits of non-fluff – and this is where we came in. Only I didn’t notice it was where we came in, as I said, until I read Jonathan’s sly answer to my comment.

I agree. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since this morning, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a (objectively meaningless waving of hands alert!) difference between being attached to a piece of literature with critical and satirical and moral/ethical elements like Doonesbury (one of the longest graphic novels ever written) and a purely sentimental story like a soap opera.

That’s my colleague’s cue to deliver a vigorous defense of sentimental soap operas, which he will be sure to do. Unless I point out that he doesn’t need to because Jonathan simply said there is a difference between the two – not that there is a difference of quality. And in any case Jonathan acknowledged the hand-waving aspect. So be it here acknowledged – there are plenty of people who can and do make a case that soap operas can be good in their own way too. But – if I had to advise someone who was about to be walled up in a prison for five years and had to choose now, this instant, between a DVD player and a set of [insert favourite soap here] or a complete set of Doonesbury books – I would advise the latter. If that’s not conclusive I don’t know what is.

Not Waving But Drowning

Apr 21st, 2004 7:58 pm | By

We’ve wandered into an interesting discussion here (here as in here below, Bound Together) about hand waving and value judgments, about whether moral and aesthetic judgments can be grounded, or rather (since I’m not sure anyone here claims they can be grounded in the same way that physics or mathematics can, or the way empirical inquiry can) what follows from the fact (if it is a fact, and do correct me if I’m wrong about what anyone claims) that they can’t. My colleague, if I understand him correctly, thinks that since in the case of a conflict between a well-grounded argument that would support, say, genocide, and ungrounded moral commitment, we would (most of us, one hopes) choose the moral commitment – therefore reasons are worthless, are just hand waving. And he makes the same argument for aesthetic judgments.

This is an old, old argument, of course, and one that philosophers have been brawling over for centuries. As Hume put it – It is not contrary to reason for me to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my little finger. Or words to that effect. It’s not illogical to be selfish, even grotesquely selfish, out of all proportion selfish. Nor is it illogical to prefer Kincaid to Rembrandt, or the latest Tom Clancy novel to ‘Hamlet.’ Granted. But does it follow from that that there is nothing more to say? Or at least, that anything we do say is just hand waving? I don’t think so. I’m also not entirely sure my colleague thinks so. As I said, we’ve been arguing about this for a long time (as he has with his other colleague – he’s an argumentative kind of guy), and he said something a couple of weeks ago about arguments (or perhaps they were facts) that are necessary but not sufficient – which would seem to indicate he doesn’t.

At any rate it seems to me like a false dichotomy. It seems to me there is plenty of middle ground – however fog-shrouded and swampy, however boggy and flecked with patches of wool – between unanswerable reasons and no reasons. And it also seems to me that there is plenty of useful work for those reasons to do, even if they’re not unarguable and absolute. One can use them to persuade people to read Hazlitt or Shakespeare instead of [insert favourite hack here], or to listen to Dream Theater instead of Take That. Naturally people are at liberty to ignore the reasons, or to use their own reasons to persuade one to read Favourite Hack or listen to Take That. But is that really a reason to abdicate? It doesn’t seem so to me. Just for one thing such discussion provides an opportunity to explore why one really does like Hazlitt or Dream Theater. It’s just a kind of thinking – and thinking is more useful than hand waving, surely? Unless you’re a particularly graceful, skilled hand-waver of course.

Getting Around

Apr 21st, 2004 1:16 am | By

I thought this was an amusing item at Normblog yesterday. It’s an algorithm for generating correct political positions. I shouldn’t laugh – I’m sure I’ve been known to generate my share of correct political positions now and then. And what else was I supposed to do, after all [voice rising to a scream], generate incorrect ones?! But, but, but, alas, it’s true, some of those positions did start to sound amazingly point-missing or even downright black-is-white, a couple of years ago. Hence, no doubt, the need for algorithm. (Do I sound as if I know what an algorithm is? I don’t. Not a clue.)

Norm was mentioned in an article in the Jerusalem Post about the Jooglebomb a few days ago, too. [registration required]

When done in a coordinated effort, such linking is known as a “Google Bomb.” Although not illegal, the technique exploits Google’s technology by artificially boosting the popularity of the targeted site. “I can understand Google’s concern that this method can be abused,” said Sieradski. “I admit that we are abusing it; but frankly, I think it’s for a good cause.” Others agree and have joined the fight to replace the anti-Semitic site. University of Manchester political science professor Norman Geras has included a link to Wikipedia “Jew” on his home page.

Okay and as long as we’re on the subject, I’m reading Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell and I noticed that she has Norm’s A Contract of Mutual Indifference in her bibliography. There’s glory for you!

Bound Together

Apr 18th, 2004 8:47 pm | By

There was a slightly bizarre article about ‘elitism’ and popular culture in the New York Times a couple of days ago. At least I thought it was bizarre, but I don’t know, maybe it’s not, maybe I’m the one who’s bizarre. Or elitist. Or both.

Elitist pop-culture critics must, in the end, be mindful of what large numbers of people actually see and read and listen to. Because the underlying mythology of pop culture is still the idea that the approval of large numbers of people validates that culture and the society that produces it. If something is truly loved by millions of people, it has touched those people, has tapped into some stream of universality that indicates a life force attenuated in more elitist art…No single work of art can appeal to everyone. But when a movie like “Titanic” is seen all over the world, it suggests that its director, James Cameron, has reached down to artistic bedrock. Or when people throughout the United States, watching at home on their isolated television screens, are riveted by the final episode of “Sex and the City,” that helps bind us together.

Um…a movie like ‘Titanic’? He couldn’t have come up with a better example than that? Because I gotta tellya, the fact that that movie was seen all over the world (and multiple times by girls age 12-15) doesn’t suggest to me that James Cameron has reached down to artistic bedrock (whatever that might mean). But then I guess I don’t have to buy that idea, because I also don’t buy the idea that the approval of large numbers of people ‘validates’ anything, frankly. Whatever ‘validates’ might mean. No – I’m afraid I hold the heretical view that even large numbers of people can be wrong about things. Maybe I’m too familiar with opinion polls and surveys – you know, the ones that say 47% of Americans think human beings were created by the deity six thousand years ago, and 90% of us (or is it 95, or 99) believe in a personal god. Not to mention whatever enormous percentage it is that can’t find the US on a map, and doesn’t know what century the Civil War took place in, and don’t know who the Allies were in WWII. But that’s only part of it. There’s also the fact that tastes change, and that some kinds of taste or appreciation are cumulative and are not universally taught, and that mawkish sentimentality for instance can have very broad appeal but that doesn’t make it good, or even ‘validate’ it.

There’s a sly equation that often gets made or assumed in these discussions. The fact that the popular is not automatically bad becomes another fact (which is not a fact) that says the popular is automatically good. But guess what, those are two different ideas and the one doesn’t follow from the other. But dang the people who like to beat up on putative elitists sure rely on it heavily – as Stephen King did in his notorious recent outburst at the National Book Awards.

And as for being bound together by the final episode of – oh well. I suppose I know what he means about that. However reluctantly. I have to admit I was pleased when ‘The West Wing’ once made a big fuss about the fact that they were going to re-run the show that the public had voted their favourite – and I watched, curious to see if I had the same favourite as other people, and found that I did. Okay, I like to be like other people once in awhile, as long as it’s not too often. As long as it’s not too often and not too ridiculous – but I’ll be damned if I’m going to like ‘Titanic’!


Apr 17th, 2004 9:26 pm | By

Time for another omnium gatherum, because I have a lot of little items, with not much to say about them, and no single larger item with a lot to say about. At least I think that’s what I have, though sometimes I discover when I start typing that I have more to say than I thought. Isn’t that always the way. Blather blather. Just ask my colleague, who tries his best to get a little work done in the intervals between my outbursts of talkativity, or whining, or both.

One item. I commented a few days ago on that April Fool’s comment in the Guardian, along with various comments on the comments. But I forgot to mention the one on normblog, which is very good.

But let us assume, just for the sake of a standard piece of dnoc hand wringing, that the men are in fact guilty as suspected. Wouldn’t one then have to know rather a lot more than the Guardian possibly can do at this point, about the precise lines of cause and effect between their backgrounds, their experiences, their characters, ideological influences on them, their motives, and so on, before being able to draw big broad conclusions about why they were planning what they were? Unless, that is, we’re all guilty of the crimes to be committed against us until we’re actually blown to bits (and even then we may be guilty of them in some people’s eyes).

Hand-wringing. It can get to be a habit, almost a conditioned reflex. I think I used to have the habit a little myself, as no doubt a lot of us do. You know, the half-formed thought – ‘Yes but why did they -‘ which may then get deflected by the next thought, which could be ‘Never mind why, it was the wrong thing to do’ or ‘You don’t know and no one knows yet so shut up’ or ‘Oh not that again’ or ‘Because they felt like it, probably.’ Or any number of other thoughts. Hand-wringing can be a needed corrective, of course, and part of the picture, but there can be a good deal too much of it.

Another item. Philip Stott had some innocent fun with competing metalanguages and powerful hegemonic myths. He also has an interesting post on Cyberspace and science.

And one more, that I meant to link to days ago, or was it weeks. Scott McLemee read that lovely bit of parodic-nonparodic wisdom I posted in News last week, and was inspired to do a metaparody of his own, having to do with Funyums. See April 7. (I should have linked to it immediately, and then you would have seen it in parallel text. Nobody’s perfect.)


Apr 14th, 2004 6:52 pm | By

A reader sent me a link to the Washington Post article on Hindutva last night, and along with it a link to a post on the subject at his blog. I’m always so pleased to find new allies.

To Mr. Malhotra: if you disagree with the arguments and methods of these scholars, debate them respectfully. If you feel they are ignorant of the subjects they study, by all means educate them. But leave your speculations about their personal sexuality out of it. And leave off referring to Professor Doniger as “Wendy.” This strange tendency of Malhotra’s (he keeps referring to “Wendy’s Child Syndrome”) almost begs us to “reverse psychoanalyze” him, specifically his weird obsession with western female scholars of Hinduism.

Indeed. It’s a familiar tactic. Very familiar – in fact haven’t we talked about it here at some point? We have. The waiting socialists – remember them? Their last vituperative explosion at me – I counted: they called me by my first name eight times. That’s a lot of times to mention someone’s name, and then there’s the first name aspect. Interesting. A week or two ago they had another one of their vituperative explosions, this one directed at Chris Bertram of Twisty Sticks, but oddly enough they never called him by his first name. It was either Chris Bertram or Bertram throughout, whereas I was ‘Ophelia’ over and over again. Why is that, I wonder. But I don’t wonder very much – because I think I can guess, and I think it’s the same reason Malhotra calls Wendy Doniger ‘Wendy.’ It’s an expression of contempt, an effort to demean and condescend and patronize, and it’s a tactic used on women far more often than it is on men. It seems to come kind of naturally to use it on women. At least, I don’t know why else people who claim the socialist and moral high ground would resort to it in such an unreflective way. I mention this not to rake up old nonsense but to point out a bad, stupid, retrograde, illegitimate bit of sexist behavior. People ought to stop doing that. And well done Amardeep Singh for pointing it out.

Dr Singh also says this in another post:

Also annoying are the attempts to culturalize rationality. These are particularly unhelpful when dealing with the Hindu right in India or radical Islam in the Arab world. It is not a sell-out to colonialism to claim that reason is universal.

As I said – new allies are a joy. And there is a new group of allies getting together in Geneva. Hurrah!

Women’s groups from Europe, North America, North Africa and the Middle East said they had founded an alliance to fight religious “fundamentalism”, both Islamic and Christian, and what they called its oppression of women…Habibeh Nafisi, leader of an organisation of Tunisian women living in France, said women in Moslem communities there were under increasing pressure to conform to strict rules laid down by male religious leaders, including wearing “Islamic dress”.This included the hijab headscarf, which France is banning in schools from the autumn of this year despite protests from hardline Moslem leaders and some women who say the move is a violation of their rights.

I wonder why this site feels compelled to put ‘fundamentalism’ in quotation marks though. Is it considered ‘offensive’ to use that word? Is there some doubt about what the word means, or whether the phenomenon it refers to exists? At any rate – there is also this interesting bit:

At a separate meeting, former Moslems who have abandoned the faith for other religions or for humanism, told journalists the world body had become “infused with political correctness” and could not openly discuss oppression in Islamic countries. The group, including prominent writer on Islamic issues Ibn Warraq, is campaigning for the UN to condemn the practice they say still exists in some Moslem countries of persecuting or executing “apostates” who renounce the faith.

We think of Ibn Warraq as a friend of B&W’s, since we had the privilege of publishing an article of his last year. I try to be modest and humble, but it does make me puff up a bit to be allied however remotely with the work Ibn Warraq is doing. Allies are wonderful.

Read and Repent

Apr 13th, 2004 8:09 pm | By

This is a trivial item in the great scheme of things, but I can’t help finding it intensely amusing. So I thought I would share it. I lapsed into frivolity for a few moments yesterday – I frittered away a little time and energy in mocking a reactionary commenter at Twisty Sticks. I know that’s a silly thing to do, but I felt like it. Come on. Some people watch football, some play golf, I occasionally mock commenters on blogs. I don’t do it for hours and hours every day for crying out loud so lighten up already! It was just a few minutes.

Okay, I know, it is stupid, but in this particular case it paid off handsomely. A few minutes after I posted my last tease and ran away for some hours, the object of my brutal mockery posted a retort. I thought he must be teasing me in his turn – but couldn’t help hoping he wasn’t, that it really wasn’t a joke. And for once, dear children, I did not hope in vain. It wasn’t a joke. Now behold why I am so pleased:

Ophelia, you and rhetoric? I suggest you have a look at the “Woolly Thinker’s Guide” at Butterflies and Wheels — an excellent egghead site you might benefit from familiarising yourself with. Particularly the sections ‘clumsy sarcasm’, ‘histrionics’ and ‘moral one-upmanship’. You’ll find it here

Well. You have to admit, that’s not a bad little treat. A certain sensation of vertigo, of self-referentiality, of being lost in a hall of mirrors – but in a good way. Maybe in a few months I’ll start picking fights with strangers on buses and in shops, in hopes that they will whip The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense out of their pockets and wave it in my face, ordering me to study it. That would be fun! The picking fights, I mean, but the rest of it would be fun too.

Zeal of the Land Busy

Apr 12th, 2004 6:31 pm | By

Blimey. A reader emailed to tell me he’d tracked down the ‘April Fool’s leader’ in the Guardian that Anthony Andrew mentioned in his Guardian article that I commented on yesterday – got all that? It is a bit complicated – but then that’s how this sort of thing works. One article leads to another which leads to a comment which prompts an email – and so it goes. At any rate I read the leader, and boy it’s foolish all right.

There are many in the Muslim community whose warnings, through the early 1990s, of a radicalised generation fell on deaf ears. They would argue that Britain has not so much failed to integrate Muslims, as failed even to try…They argue that the response to setting up Muslim schools was too slow, and that boys’ vital religious instruction in mosques on Saturdays has remained in the cultural clutches of religious authorities back in Pakistan or Bangladesh. The resources were inadequate to promote a vibrant Islam of which these British youngsters could be proud.

So…’Britain’ is supposed to set up Muslim schools (quickly), give boys vital religious instruction in mosques on Saturdays (or perhaps merely fund it?), and promote a vibrant Islam? It is? Dang. I know the UK doesn’t have separation of church and state, I realize that’s a quirky Yank idea, but still…that does seem like asking a lot.

And then there’s this interesting observation:

The crucial ingredient which radicalises this kind of community disaffection into some individuals undertaking acts of extreme violence is the international context. It began with the slow international response in Bosnia, but now spans the globe from Chechnya and Palestine to France where the sisters cannot wear the hijab.

The sisters cannot wear the hijab. Anywhere, ever. It’s torn off them in the street, at the supermarket, in the café. Not. But it sounds so nice and unfair and discriminatory to say so.

But religious zeal is not confined to ‘vibrant’ Islam. There is also this bit of whimsy from the Los Angeles Times telling us what a good thing it is that George Bush is a religious zealot.

Even those who don’t share Bush’s religious convictions should see them as a good thing. His faith compels him to wrestle with ethical questions that less religious men might simply ignore. And his strong faith offers us visible guideposts by which we can evaluate his performance as president. Find me a commander in chief who lacks core convictions rooted in something greater than himself, and you’ll have a leader who lacks an identifiable moral compass and will, accordingly, be prone to drift off course.

Well, that’s blunt, at any rate. We know where we are. Less religious ‘men’ (and probably women too, but who cares what they do) ignore ethical questions that Bush wrestles with on account of his ‘faith.’ Ah. Interesting. Well, leaving aside the question of whether Bush really does seem to be an ethically thoughtful kind of guy, there is also the question of whether or not it is true that people who don’t share Bush’s ‘faith’ might simply ignore ethical questions. And the further question of what the authors mean by ‘something greater than himself’ – and the question of what Bush means by it, and what the rest of us might mean by it. It’s a nice vague phrase, isn’t it. But does it really mean something vague? Or does it mean something specific? To wit, a specific person, one God by name, with a particular (supernatural) character and history, known to us via a book named the Bible (a book named the Book). Since the article refers approvingly to ‘Judeo-Christian principles’ it seems fair to assume that it does mean that. So there we are, an exceptionally clear statement of the familiar implication: atheists lack an identifiable (you know, as in a lineup – that’s the guy, number two, with the beard!) moral compass and so will drift off course. It’s worth knowing that’s what they think.

Marburger and Sociobiology

Apr 12th, 2004 12:25 am | By

A couple of brief items to follow up previous items in either News or Notes and Comment or both – she said pompously. My point isn’t to be pompous, it’s just to say that these items refer back to previous items as opposed to being new ones, just in case anyone wants to, you know, get a broad overview of er um –

Anyway. There is a long, detailed post by Chris Mooney on his blog, about Bush’s science advisor John Marburger and his response to the charges by the Union of Concerned Scientists that Bush administration has systematically distorted science. Mooney writes for The American Prospect and the Washington Post about these issues, so his blog is an excellent place to check for science coverage. He doesn’t think much of Marburger’s response.

In order to paint a picture of a series of scientific abuses by the administration, the UCS report relies heavily on previously published media exposes and interviews with disgruntled scientist-whistleblowers (many of them from within the government). By contrast, Marburger presents the government’s official line on each incident, which of course tends to minimize or ignore the whistleblower accounts. But by proceeding in this way, Marburger pretty much automatically loses the argument. He accuses the UCS of failing to “seek and reflect responses or explanations from responsible government officials,” but he never gives us any good reason why we should trust the administration, instead of all the scientists who have risked retribution by going public with their charges. Indeed, the mere fact that there are so many whistleblowers out there points to something systematic going on–namely, an unprecedented level of science politicization by the administration (precisely what UCS is alleging).

And this article by Melvin Konner is very good on the subject of sociobiolgy/Evolutionary Psychology we were talking about a few days ago, and the often automatic hostility to it in some quarters.

As the new field of sociobiology has emerged during the past quarter century, it has met with firm and unrelenting opposition from prominent liberal critics…It has also drawn opposition from a group of biologists on the left who have raised general scientific and philosophical objections and have had great influence in shaping liberal opinion. The scientific critics have included highly respected figures in biology: Ruth Hubbard, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Jonathan Beckwith, among others. None in this group had done direct research on human behavior when sociobiology first emerged in the 1970s. Nonetheless, they immediately perceived a grave threat to liberal values, and their opposition has persisted ever since. However respected the source, the criticism from this group has had little effect on the direction of scientific research: sociobiology is now firmly established as an accepted branch of normal science. As a result, liberal opinion about sociobiology has increasingly diverged from scientific opinion. If liberals are to understand why this has happened, they need to consider the possibility that Gould, Lewontin, and other prominent scientific critics were wrong in their attack on sociobiology in the first place.

So Konner explains how they got it wrong.


Apr 11th, 2004 7:05 pm | By

So is diversity maybe not such a hot idea after all? Always depending on what we mean by ‘diversity’ of course, and it can be very difficult to figure out exactly what people do mean by it. As is so often the case with fuzzy woolly words and ideas – which is exactly why they’re called fuzzy-woolly, obviously. But then are they called fuzzy-wooly enough? I’m not sure. I’m not sure it does get pointed out enough that people tend not to specify what they mean when they use the words, but rather, just use them to project an air of righonitude, of conspicuous virtue, of ostentatious morality. That’s understandable. Shock-jocks and Limbaugh-O’Reilly types like to sneer and mock, but ostentatious morality is not entirely a bad thing, not entirely a matter of self-flattery – even though it can often seem that way. It’s not as if ostentatious self-servingness, conspicuous ruthlessness is such a great idea. But still. Having said all that, it does too often seem that fuzzy-woolly ideas are the very kind needed to stimulate those feelings of self-love; that wool is inseparable from moral narcissism and vice versa; that one can’t get that happy glow if the ideas and words in question are too precise and clear and specific, because then one will be too aware of the ambiguities and difficulties and possible dangers of what one is talking about.

In other words, diversity sounds good (or at least it used to): it sounds like tolerance and inclusion and kindness and decency (or at least it used to). But then there we are again. Tolerance of what? Curry? Super. Brown skin? Couldn’t be better. People from all different parts of the world? Wonderful and enriching. Right. And – FGM? Child marriage? Polygamy? Honour killings? Errr, ummm…

And that complication seems to be getting some attention at last. The fact that diversity is not invariably a good thing is finally being noticed. That sometimes we want just one thing, not a variety of them. One law, for instance, not different ones for each ‘community’ so that Muslim fathers and brothers are allowed to murder their daughters and sisters if that’s their ‘culture,’ or indignant Hindus are allowed to threaten scholars who say something they don’t like, or (one can hope) Christian fundamentalists are allowed to veto science education in public schools. We could have ‘diversity’ in science education, and other branches of education too; we could have Mathematics 1, 2 and 3, with different answers for each, but we’ve mostly decided that’s not such a hot idea. So all-purpose diversity may well be a notion whose time has come and gone. Andrew Anthony thinks so.

One of the shibboleths of multiculturalism was that different communities needed to be treated differently. Ultimately, though, the aim must be to be treated the same. In this respect, it’s important to see that the difference between the posture of fashion and politics of fascism is the same in all communities, regardless of what they wear. One will pass, the other needs to be sent on its way.

And Rwanda wants to outlaw the very idea of ethnic identity – which seems like a very sane plan.

This country, where ethnic tensions were whipped up into a frenzy of killing, is now trying to make ethnicity a thing of the past. There are no Hutu in the new Rwanda. There are no Tutsi either. The government, dominated by the minority Tutsi, has wiped out the distinctions by decree…That new thinking has its critics — those who say that denying that ethnicity exists merely suppresses the painful ethnic dialogue that Rwanda requires. But the government insists that if awareness of ethnic differences can be learned, so can the idea that ethnicity does not exist.

Differences are all very well, but it’s a tad over-optimistic to assume that they’re always just a source of joyous enrichment and mutual exchange. Often they’re a pretext or motivation for slaughter, instead. Maybe it is time to start minimizing them instead of obsessing about them. Martha Nussbaum discusses some possible ways to do that in an essay on liberal education.

The Designer

Apr 8th, 2004 11:30 pm | By

I might change or expand one sentence in the Science and Religion In Focus, because I’ve had some email and blog comments on it. It is a tad assertive. ‘The side that has it wrong, that ignores evidence and logic and just believes, never shuts up.’

Mind you, I think it’s true, but I can see why it needs justification. But the fact is religion does have a special epistemic status, which surely even believers are aware of if they’re honest about it. Believers are not usually embarrassed to talk of belief or faith in their religion – to talk of religious belief or faith – as opposed to knowledge. They must realize there’s a difference between ‘faith’ and knowledge, surely. Just for one thing, knowledge, paradoxically enough, is provisional and revisable in the light of new discoveries and evidence, whereas faith has nothing to do with discoveries and evidence but floats free of them. Faith isn’t really about epistemology at all, it’s a choice, a decision, an act of will. It’s a matter of commitment and loyalty rather than investigation and judgment. It also of course has a great deal to do with tradition and community and solidarity, training and conditioning. Religion is local and specific, knowledge is universal and general. If it’s not, then it’s not knowledge, it’s something else.

It’s for these sorts of reasons that I argue that religion has no right to reproach non-religion, that theists have no basis on which to chastise atheists. But they do it anyway. This is my point in comparing the two sides and declaring them asymmetrical. There are people who claim that the arguments and evidence on the theist side are just as good as those on the other side – but if that were true why would the word ‘faith’ ever be used at all?

One site an emailer sent me a link to offers the argument from design and the anthropic principle. Steven Weinberg discusses this idea and its flaws in his essay ‘A Designer Universe?’ And even besides what Weinberg says – I don’t see why you’ve solved the problem by positing a Divine Intelligence that made it all happen, because you still end up in the same place despite all that running. What made the Divine Intelligence happen? Surely it requires explanation just as much as that which it is supposed to have designed, doesn’t it? That’s the well-known infinite regress that the argument from design always does get into.

And a completely different question is what the hell kind of deity would that be anyway. Is that the one people have in mind when they go to church or say God bless Amurika? I don’t think so. What makes them think it’s anything other than a giant computer? Is a giant computer something to pray to and worship and love?

No. Come on. Everybody knows that’s not what people mean when they talk about God. By God they mean the kind loving all-powerful Daddy in the sky who watches over them and sympathizes when they’re hurting. In bad moments most of them wonder why, if he’s so kind and loving, he set things up this way, so that there’s so much hurting to do. We’re always told how consoling religion is, but I don’t know, believing in someone who chose to make a world with so much pain and fear and sorrow in it doesn’t seem all that consoling to me. More like terrifying.


Apr 7th, 2004 10:07 pm | By

Something more from that article by Paul Davies in the Atlantic, which answers a question I’ve been wondering about for a longish time.

Even if Homo sapiens as such may not be the unique focus of God’s attention, the broader class of all humanlike beings in the universe might be. This is the basic idea espoused by the philosopher Michael Ruse, an ardent Darwinian and an agnostic sympathetic to Christianity. He sees the incremental progress of natural evolution as God’s chosen mode of creation, and the history of life as a ladder that leads inexorably from microbes to man.

The question that’s been puzzling me is about Michael Ruse, because some of his work that I’ve read sounds quite religious and some of it doesn’t. Though I’m not entirely sure I understand what Davies means by ‘agnostic’ there – but it doesn’t matter much; the basic point is clear enough: Ruse is a theist. I’m relieved to get that straight. I did a N&C on a review of his a few months ago, picking at some woolly language – woolly language of just the kind that Davies uses in this article, if I remember correctly. Why will people do that? January, it was, now that I’ve looked it up.

People like Dawkins, and the Creationists for that matter, make a mistake about the purposes of science and religion. Science tries to tell us about the physical world and how it works. Religion aims at giving a meaning to the world and to our place in it. Science asks immediate questions. Religion asks ultimate questions. There is no conflict here, except when people mistakenly think that questions from one domain demand answers from the other. Science and religion, evolution and Christianity, need not conflict, but only if each knows its place in human affairs — and stays within these boundaries.

I said it in January, so I won’t bother saying too much of it again. But really – I do think that’s pretty woolly stuff. Pretty bogus symmetry. ‘Science asks immediate questions. Religion asks ultimate questions.’ Well, yes, but then science does a better job of coming up with answers that have a good shot at being true. And what is an ultimate question anyway, and why is religion better at asking them than anyone else? If the questions are just unanswerable, is it really to religion’s credit that it not only asks them, it claims to have answers? And the same applies to ‘aiming’ at giving meanings to various things. That’s just empty! It amounts to saying ‘Religion invents answers to ultimate questions and invents a meaning for the world and our place in it.’ And the domain thing seals it all off. ‘This is religion’s domain, where it’s okay to make everything up, and you don’t get to bring science or reason in here to this other domain and ask tiresome questions about all this meaning and all these ultimate questions.’ Come on…can’t people see what a cheat that is? That it’s just not grown-up to make special rules for themselves that way?

Oh well. If they want a domain, a domain they shall have. People like Davies and Ruse can have their domain where they get to have special rules, but the result will be that people who prefer to try to think rationally won’t take them seriously. At least not unless they do better than that.

The odd thing is that that review was published in a science magazine. Why, one wonders. A reader wondered the same thing.

Update: Phil Mole says that Davies’ description of Ruse is not really accurate; that Ruse is sympathetic to religion without actually believing its doctrines, and that his sympathy leads him to say woolly things at times, but he’s not as supportive of religion as Davies implies. I thought it would be fair to add that.

So You Think You’re Logical

Apr 6th, 2004 10:21 pm | By

In case anyone wants to find out about the Wason test along with PM, here it is in one easy click.

[Note by Jerry S (Sorry OB, I’m invading your entry!)]: I programmed this four years ago; I’d do it slightly differently if I was programming it today – there are a couple of problems with it. However, it is a pretty rigorous experimental design (on the analysis page, there’s a link with technical details about the ‘between-subjects’ and ‘within-subjects’ aspects of the design). And the results, right at the end, are interesting.

Awe, Shux

Apr 6th, 2004 10:16 pm | By

Here is what one might consider another installment of an on-going discussion we’re having here about religion and the way its defenders and supporters and promoters and fans re-define it for purposes of persuasion or coercion. One example is from an article by Paul Davies in an old Atlantic (September 2003) I happened to read the other day: ‘E.T. and God.’ It’s basically about what the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe would mean for human religion, but along the way he makes this strange (yet very familiar) comment, after calling the dismissal of religion by the director of the SETI Institute’s Center for SETI Research ‘rather naive’:

Though many religious movements have come and gone throughout history, some sort of spirituality seems to be part of human nature. Even atheistic scientists profess to experience what Albert Einstein called a ‘cosmic religious feeling’ when contemplating the awesome majesty of the universe.

Well, what does that ‘though’ mean, for instance? Why is there a ‘though,’ why is there anything surprising or in need of explanation or at least acknowledgement via a ‘though’ in the fact that atheists can profess to experience some sort of emotion, probably awe, at the awesome universe? What is Davies actually saying there? That awe at the universe is the same thing, or the same sort of thing, or more or less the same thing, as believing in a deity? That is surely at least what he’s implying. Though the usual weasel-word, escape-hatch word, ‘spirituality’ appears in the middle to make the implication slightly more fuzzy. But what does spirituality mean then? Just awe at the universe? If so, surely it’s not incompatible with not believing in a deity – is it? Not in my book. I can feel awe at all sorts of things. I never call the feeling ‘spiritual,’ because that’s a word I’m violently allergic to – but I don’t mind calling it the sublime, for example, and at any rate I have some idea what it is. And it does not require belief in an omniscient benevolent omnipotent person who created us for a purpose and is taking care of us. And I think it’s a kind of cheat to pretend that it does, to conflate the two things, to mix them up and imply that they are inseparable.

On Suffering and Waste

Apr 5th, 2004 9:11 pm | By

We were talking about Darwinism and morality, among other things. Here is George C. Williams in Plan and Purpose in Nature as quoted by Richard Dawkins in the title essay of A Devil’s Chaplain:

With what other than condemnation is a person with any moral sense supposed to respond to a system in which the ultimate purpose in life is to be better than your neighbour at getting genes into future generations,…in which that message is always ‘exploit your environment, including your friends and relatives, so as to maximise your genes’ success…?

Dawkins then quotes George Bernard Shaw doubting evolution because he didn’t like its cruelty, H.G. Wells rejoicing in the cruelty, and Julian Huxley trying to derive some kind of ethics from it, then quotes Julian Huxley’s grandfather T.H. Huxley getting it right in his lecture ‘Evolution and Ethics’:

Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.

And then Dawkins says what he thinks of the matter, and what he says would doubtless suprise the many people who think all evolutionary thinkers and especially Dawkins conflate is with ought:

As an academic scientist I am a passionate Darwinian…But at the same time as I support Darwinism as a scientist, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs…I have always held true to the closing words of my first book, ‘We, alone on earth, can rebel agains the tyranny of the selfish replicators.’

So. This is part of the picture. People at Twisty Sticks have, it seems to me, been taking it as axiomatic that everyone who believes natural selection has had some influence on human nature has some sort of ruthless right-wing agenda, but that just is not true.


Apr 5th, 2004 5:19 pm | By

Ah. I see via Normblog and Twisty Sticks that I’ve been neglecting a duty. That’s what I get for reading hastily and selectively because I’m catching up because I’m so far behind because I’ve been working 28 hours a day on this dictionary thing because my colleague kept saying We have to finish in a month no two weeks no a week no three days no an hour no right now, so like Miss Clavell I ran fast and faster, and had such a backlog of reading and posting you would not believe. So, anyway. Jew.

In case there are any of you even more behind than I am, that’s a counter-googlebomb, a googlebomb to counteract an anti-semitic googlebomb. If you have a website, do the same thing yourselves. Post that link to the wikipedia definition and it will drive the other one down the page.

A Gathering of Straw People

Apr 4th, 2004 8:36 pm | By

There are a couple of discussions of Evolutionary Psychology at Twisty Sticks: one here and the other here. They’re interesting because of what appears to be a fairly unshakable assumption that all evolutionary psychologists have a right-wing agenda and that the agenda determines their conclusions. That’s probably true of some evolutionary psychologists – I think I’ve read one or two of those – but it’s not true of all of them. It’s a bit puzzling. It’s not easy to figure out why people are convinced that thinking natural selection might have played a part in making human nature what it is requires being a free marketeer. I’m not a free marketeer, and I think natural selection played a part in making human nature what it is. I don’t quite see how it could be otherwise, really. How could natural selection not have played such a part? How could we have evolved over millions of years in complete independence of selective pressures? How exactly would we go about doing that? With a little help from the God of the Gaps? Is that it? If not, then what? It would be a pretty good trick.

But, then again, maybe I just don’t understand the points that are being made. But I can’t help thinking I detect a good deal of rhetoric in play, a certain amount of deck-stacking. Though maybe I’m wrong. There’s a very interesting archived discussion of related issues among Steven Pinker, Janet Radcliffe Richards and John Gray on In Our Time in November 2002. Anticipating this discussion at Twisty Sticks, I happen to have re-listened to it a few days ago. And the email interview B&W did with Steven Pinker about a month before that is also relevant and worth a read.

Update. Our old friend the Anonymous One has made one of his classic comments, where the retort is so obvious it would be too cruel to make it. Too like aiming projectiles at a piscid in a water-containment device, as Chris said (using other words) of the sweet bit of Lacanian profundity I gave you the other day. So I’ll make it here, instead, where it’s not quite so cruel. He does have (Anonymous, not Chris) such a way of saying things that apply to himself better than they do to the people he’s saying them of. It’s quite hilarious really. A few weeks ago – this is really funny – he called Scott McLemee a talentless ankle-biter! I nearly fell onto the floor laughing at that one. Yo, dude, if you’re going to pee, don’t do it upwind because – oh too bad, too late. I’d run home and take a shower if I were you.

You should check out the wonderful passage from Higher Superstition where they argue that—just hypothetically, mind you—the science faculty at MIT could do a better job at teaching the humanities classes than vice versa, if it came down to that somehow…I certainly would feel better about the future with an English professor teaching differential equations than with Pinker teaching literature or philosophy. At the least the former would be humble enough to try to learn something about what they were doing beforehand, which Pinker rather plainly would not.

Right. Uh huh. And if the English professor is someone like, oh, say, you, which I’m afraid it all too probably is – well, I know which of the two I would rather be taught by. But I won’t say which one that is; it would be too cruel.

The Tortoise and the Hare

Apr 4th, 2004 12:16 am | By

Not too bad, thanks. The agony is somewhat abated, as Macaulay said. (Was it Macaulay? I think so. At the age of two, or a week, or something, when a kind evangelical woman spilled some coffee on him.) I’m tottering around, pale and trembling, but recovering. A little weak, a tad mentally unstable, but on the mend. Kind of you to ask. The flowers are lovely. I don’t suppose you brought any chocolates – ? No no, of course not, silly question.

I wrote the Comment yesterday in such a way that it sounds as if I think I wrote the dictionary all by myself. I noticed that after I’d done it, but having done it, didn’t want to correct it. It sort of had the right number of syllables already and I didn’t want to rearrange them. But of course I didn’t write it all by myself, and I don’t even think I did. I’m delusional but not that delusional. No, my colleague wrote it too. But I’ve left him out of this story because he has nothing to do with it, he’s ecstatically happy that it’s finished, he wouldn’t know a postpartum depression if it bit him on the ankle, or calf. It’s all zip zip zip with him, none of this girly lingering and brooding and whining, thanks. Got a book to do? Wham! Write that sucker in a couple of days and be done with it, that’s the ticket. Plenty of time left for a game of squash, and no backward looks. Whereas I…well I sort of wanted to ease into it, as one might ease into a very hot hot tub, or a very cold ocean, or a tank of piranhas. Ease into it, slowly, gently, thoughtfully, and then once in, just sit there for awhile, a week or three, smiling peacefully and thinking things over. That’s what I wanted to do. And then just very slowly, deliberately, calmly, no rushing, no rapid breathing, no flurry, think up entries, one at a time, and write them down in careful calligraphy and then in the fullness of time type them into the database. That was my plan. But it wasn’t the Zipper’s, so it’s not what we did. No. What we did was more like carefully positioning a bob sled at the top of a cliff, climbing aboard, and then shoving off.

Well it was good fun, in a tumultuous sort of way, and I’m sure all the people whose emails I forgot to answer will forgive me eventually. Maybe.

You’re sure about the chocolates? Okay, sorry, no, you’re right, never mind. Forget I said anything. Would you like a little gin in that?

My Baby Done Gone

Apr 3rd, 2004 3:42 am | By

Oh, man, I have the most terrible case of post-partum depression. Or perhaps that’s not the right word, perhaps I mean empty-nest syndrome. Or separation anxiety. One of those, anyway, or possibly all of them. The book is gone! It’s finished! It’s over! It’s history. It’s on its way out into the world, to sink or swim, to make it on its own or to crash in flames, to become something or to flop down on the nearest bench and vegetate for the rest of its pathetic aimless life.

I wasn’t ready. I had plans. I was going to teach it to make toffee, and drive a car, and read Braille. I was going to teach it principles, and wash all its clothes, and make sure it had enough cash for the trip. And then wallop! In a matter of about five minutes it was gone. There was I standing stupidly on the doorstep waving and gulping and calling advice after it, and it was just rocketing up the street without looking back as if it couldn’t wait to get away from me. Which it probably couldn’t. Stupid thing. After all that, and that’s the thanks I get. Wham, bam, bye I’ll phone in a year or two. Well thank you very much.

But I can’t help wondering if I did all I could. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that glass of wine the other evening. Maybe I should have given up coffee. (Yeah, right, like that’s really going to happen.) Maybe I should have spent more time with it, instead of always leaving it with that heroin addict down the street.

Oh who knows! It’s too late now. It’s over, it’s finished, it’s time to move on. Maybe somewhere out there, over the rainbow or behind a cloud or in the garbage can behind the taco place, there’s another book waiting to be hatched and taken home and cherished and nourished so that a few months later it can run away and embark on a life of crime. Who the hell knows. Not the Wizard, that’s for dang sure.