Notes and Comment Blog

Epistemic darkness

Dec 6th, 2006 10:11 pm | By

Something ChrisPer said in comments on the ‘Fundamntal right-get outta my store’ N&C, that I found myself doing a longish comment on, so decided to put it out here.

“Christian disapproval of gay practice is not without reasons – its just without reasons that others find persuasive. For instance, you disown the reason of pleasing God on the grounds that He does not exist.”

No, actually; more grounds than that. I could perfectly well think or believe that god does exist and still be far from thinking ‘the reason of pleasing God’ is a valid reason to say and teach and preach that homosexuality is wrong and to think it should be legal to deny gays service in public facilities. Because even if god exists, there are still further questions, before one can conclude that condemnation of homosexuality pleases this god. What kind of god is it? What does it think is good, and what does it think is bad? What does it want us to do? Has it told us what it wants us to do? Has it told us what it thinks is good, and what is bad? If so, how do we know it has? And if so, why hasn’t it told everyone? And if so, and if it thinks good and bad matter, why hasn’t it told everyone in such a way that there can be no dispute about it?

It seems to me that even if there is a god, no human has the slightest idea what the true answers to those questions are, and that even if any humans do know the true answers, they have no way to know they know, and we have no way to know they know.

It’s basically an epistemic problem. People who claim that homosexuality is displeasing to god really don’t know that and have no way to know it.

Some theists claim that is because god wants us to have free will, and wants us to have a free choice whether to believe in god or not, as well as whether to be good or not. Okay – but then the only way to do that is to keep us in genuine epistemic darkness. Not pretend darkness; real darkness. We really don’t know if there’s a god, or if there is what kind of god it is, or what it thinks is good, or if we would agree with it if we knew, or what it wants us to do, or if it has told us what to do, and if so what it is that it has told us to do; and we don’t know how to know any of this, either way, yes or no. Okay. Real freedom, but bogus knowledge of god. There is no real knowledge of this god, and so far there never has been (or it would have been passed on in an indisputable fashion). So – we’re free to choose to believe it exists. All right – but are we equally free to choose to believe we know what it thinks is good and what it wants us to do? Are we equally free to choose to believe we know it has told us what it thinks is good and what it wants us to do, and that it will blame and punish all who disobey? No. I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone has the right to take that risk. Because the reality is you just have no clue what god wants, you don’t even have any clue what it’s like, so how can you possibly know it doesn’t think children should be tortured? Let alone know it thinks homosexuals should be given unequal treatment because of what they do with their genitalia. Darkness is darkness; we don’t know what we don’t know; and this is something we don’t know. It seems to me it’s only right to admit that.

Something’s wrong, I can’t quite tell what it is

Dec 5th, 2006 7:13 pm | By

People are funny. Hilarious, even. Yesterday a regular reader emailed me to express concern. The subject line said ‘Something’s afoot.’ Oh what? thought I. John Bolton has been made Vice-president? Barack Obama has turned atheist? No, the something was afoot at B&W.

Am I picking up a shift in your political orientation? Something is changing in the complexion of B&W and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Almost as though you were feeling contrite about slamming President Bush for his brainlessness for so long and felt you needed to give the other side equal time, or even more, that you are saying, “The Devil take the whole bunch of them.” Why, soon you’ll be telling us you are heading back across the ocean having given up on us. Tell me I’m wrong, but your choices are starting to look like Arts and Letters Daily.

??? I thought. What can this possibly refer to? I stole time from pressing work on TPM (and B&W) glancing over recent News items and N&C titles trying to figure out what was meant, and I squandered several minutes writing a longish reply. Then wished I hadn’t bothered when the reply to my reply came in.

Nothing as specific as any of those–just a sea-change I am sensing or a tilt of the tectonic plate. I’ll let you know if I can pin it down more–not that it should matter–but just as long as you are doing equal-opportunity goading, I am reassured.

Pretty funny, you have to admit – first the shock-horror accusations, then the casual admission that actually the helpful reader has no examples. This morning I stole another couple of minutes to point out the absurdity along with the waste of my time which I have better things to do with it actually. The thoughtful reply? ‘Life’s tough.’

I’m laughing again. You do have to admit – that’s not bad.

Don’t worry, I won’t publish your rude emails, not unless they’re as funny as that. I get lots of rude emails that I don’t publish. (Oh well not all that many really. Most of them are about dear Al Pope, and not rude anyway. But I get a few.) But ones that extract the biscuit and cause hilarity – those are fair game. Besides, this way I recoup the wasted time.

Smile at me, dammit!

Dec 5th, 2006 6:45 pm | By

Um…wait….Libby Purves at a meeting to discuss The Veil.

It was good to have the student speaking of “ghosts”, and good to have women who had worn the niqab saying it made them feel not only more devout but more private, especially in times of divorce or bereavement. I admitted a moment of discomfort myself: on the way in, crossing the Mile End Road and finding myself face to face with a full black veil, as we jinked from side to side to avoid collision, I gave the usual smilingly embarrassed grimace, yet her invisibility denied me any answering smile. When I said this, a cheerful bearded man in the audience whose wife wears one said: “You should have greeted her. She can speak, you know!’ We agreed that next time I meet a niqab-wearer in the street I will say “Good morning!” and expect a response.

Wait. If the niqab makes women feel more private, especially in times of divorce or bereavement, i.e. when they’re sad and upset and fragile and need to be outside but don’t want to interact with strangers, then why did we agree that niqab-wearers in the street should as a matter of policy be accosted? And as a matter of fact, even without the privacy-sadness-fragility-leave me alone aspect, why did we agree that niqab-wearers in the street should as a matter of policy be accosted? What if they don’t want to be accosted? Why should the niqab be interpreted as a near-requirement to say ‘Good morning’? Is this over-compensation? Over-correction? Reverse psychology? Perversity? What’s the thinking here? ‘I see – you’re wearing something that covers your face, therefore you are inviting me to greet you, and will feel insulted and offended and aggrieved if I don’t. [anxiously] Good morning!!’

Why is the cheerful bearded man in the audience (of course he’s cheerful, he gets to wear his face) whose wife wears one scolding Purves for not greeting a woman whose face is wrapped in a cloth? Why is it Purves’s duty to greet her? Why do people want to have everything both ways, or all ways? Why do people want to put on clothes that they know perfectly well elicit certain reactions, and at the same time rebuke the expected reactions? Why do people want to pretend on the one hand that the niqab is ‘just a piece of cloth,’ nothing more than that, no more peculiar or thrilling than a handkerchief, despite different location; no meaning, no implications, no resonance, certainly no political or religious agenda, just a small square of cloth that could be a doll’s tablecloth in another context; and on the other hand that there are all sorts of rules and ethical imperatives about how everyone is to react to the piece of cloth and the woman wearing it? If I go out in jeans and a sweater, no one is under any obligation to greet me and say ‘Good morning!’ because I am wearing them; so if the niqab is so ordinary and ho hum and average, why are we commanded to greet people who wear them? And then, if a woman puts on a face-shield whose primary effect is surely to make it difficult to greet her, why are we expected to greet her? If I go out with a horse’s second-best blanket over my head, is that a mandate for people to greet me? Is it not rather an invitation not to greet me and also a pretty effective preventive device? If you want people to greet you, you should make it easier, not harder. The way to get people greet you is not to go prancing around with your face in a sheet so that no one can tell if you are smiling or sneering or making bubble-lips. We don’t want to greet people who we can’t tell if they’re laughing at us! If it’s greetings you want, leave the Groucho nose and the mask at home; otherwise, put up with non-greetings. You can’t have everything. Get used to it.

What did Mrs Plato write?

Dec 4th, 2006 11:35 pm | By

Allen Esterson alerted me to and sent me the link to this bizarre item. (Did I see references to it at the time? Possibly. There might be a faint memory – but if so I didn’t follow them up.)

A study by an academic who has spent more than 30 years looking at Bach’s work claims that Anna Magdalena Bach, traditionally believed to be Bach’s musical copyist, actually wrote some of his best-loved works, including his Six Cello Suites…”I also discovered that the only complete manuscript from the time for the Cello Suites was a manuscript in the hand of Anna Magdalena, and that the original manuscript in the hand of Johann Sebastian had vanished.”

Oh well then. What more is there to be said? It couldn’t possibly be that she simply copied the manuscript (because such things have never been known; manuscripts never were copied; wives never were asked to copy their husbands’ work; original manuscripts never simply disappeared) or that the original manuscript was used to wrap the leftover strudel that Johann Christian took to school; therefore, beyond a reasonable doubt, Johann Sebastian Bach did not write the Cello Suites, his wife did.

Suppose someone found a fair copy of Emma in James Austen’s hand, or one of Wuthering Heights in Branwell Brontë’s, or one of Middlemarch in Lewes’s. Would people be rushing to claim any of them wrote the items in question? They wouldn’t you know. And rightly so. Suppose someone noticed a letter in which Frederick Douglass thanked Thoreau in the warmest terms for his help and inspiration – would people fall over themselves in the stampede to say that Thoreau wrote A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass? Suppose someone found a Christmas shopping list on which Toni Morrisson planned to buy a typewriter for someone named George Smithers – would everyone decide George Smithers had written Beloved? Suppose some alert scholar noticed that a contemporary of Emily Dickinson’s named Albert Innacan wrote poetry for the Amherst Gazette and that his poetry featured a lot of dashes – would new books pour off the presses claiming that Albert Innacan wrote Emily Dickinson’s poetry?

I don’t think so. So why do people swallow this kind of nonsense when it goes in the other direction? Can’t they see how pathetic and shaming it is? And if they can’t, why can’t they? Why will they insist on being so silly?

I leave it to your wisdom to determine.

On ‘freedom of association’

Dec 4th, 2006 11:00 pm | By

Prompted by an interesting comment on an earlier post about putative rights I did a little Googling about freedom of association. Something I need to know more about. Found this useful page on the subject.

The phrase “freedom of association” does not appear in the Constitution (although the First Amendment protects the right to peaceably assemble). Nonetheless, the Court has recognized to separate types of association that are constitutionally protected: (1) intimate association (protected as an aspect of the right of privacy) and (2) expressive association (protected as as an aspect of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech). Freedom of association cases are interesting in that they bring into conflict two competing views of the world: rights-oriented liberalism that holds that a person’s identity comes from individual choices (and that government ought to create a framework of laws that remove barriers to choice) and communitarianism, that holds that a person’s identity comes from the communities of which an individual is a part (and that communities are an important buffer between the government and the individual).

Well that’s very interesting, because I’ve been thinking of these issues as being about competing ideas of rights rather than about rights competing with communitarianism. I’m sharply aware that I much prefer rights and rights-oriented liberalism to communitarianism – so I’m being consistent here.

I’m tempted to copy in the whole left-hand column of the page, but that would be silly (and perhaps a copyright violation); just read it; it’s interesting.

The right to declare the right to violate someone’s rights

Dec 4th, 2006 7:48 pm | By

Conflicting ideas of rights, chapter 793.

It’s normal to feel nostalgic for cherished practices once treasured and now disgraced. Sometimes, being forced to give them up is a violation of rights. At other times, it means retracting a privilege that should never have been extended in the first place. Some Southern whites spent the 1960s pining for the old days, when they could lynch whom they pleased; few today would portray that as a right transgressed! Today, conservative Christians behold society falling from their faith’s exclusive grip and, like their Southern racist predecessors, sigh, “There goes my everything.”

Just so. Sometimes, being forced to give up a privilege that should never have been extended in the first place feels to the forcee like a violation of rights, which is why we are so often treated to petulant arias on the violation of various rights that aren’t rights. That, plus of course it’s a highly useful tactic, always likely to convince a few unwary observers. Don’t let this happen to you.

Sword or rapier?

Dec 4th, 2006 7:33 pm | By

Hitchens takes down Coulter in his own special way.

She has emerged as a persona because she has mastered the politics of resentment, and because she can combine the ideology of Human Events (the obscure ‘Joe McCarthy was right’ magazine) with the demand of the chat-show bookers for a tall blonde with a very rapid delivery on a wide range of subjects.

Ah yes the very rapid delivery thing. (I’ve never seen Coulter in action, but I’ve seen others.) I’ve never seen the appeal. I prefer the effete languid drawl of a Vidal or Hitchens that nails you without breaking a sweat. Much more amusing, also humiliating. Anyone can jabber; it’s those relaxed, casual, effortless bastards who can really make the blowhards look like fools. As Hitchens proceeds to do.

Here is another instance of the sheer incoherence that results from a mixture of feigned rage and low sarcasm…[T]he abject confusion, with its resounding non sequitur of a concluding sentence, impels her to the negation of her own supposed “argument”. These are the pitfalls that are set by spite and by haste, and Coulter topples leggily into them every time…So, slice it as you will, Coulter finds herself inventing new ways in which to be wrong. As it goes on, the book begins to seem more like typing than writing, and its demonstration of the relationship between poor language and crude ideas becomes more overt.

See what I mean? No need to say that quickly. No need for haste. Easy does it. Steady as she goes. Whack!

If it matters, I am with her on the tepid climate of moral and political relativism which, while it wants all children to do equally well at exam time, also regards the United States as no worse than the Taliban and thus, by an unspoken logic, as no better. But a polemic against this mentality cannot really be written by a McCarthyite.

Or by someone who’s not very good at writing or thinking clearly, or by someone who invents new ways to be wrong. Not useful talents for that particular job.

In a world where the true enemies of civilization are much, much more godly than the blonde goddess of the hard Right, Coulter is reduced to a blitzing of soft civilian targets – one redeemed only by its built-in tendency to fall so wide of the mark.

That’s how it’s done.

The fundamental right to say get outta my store

Dec 3rd, 2006 8:38 pm | By

Conflicting ideas of rights, chapter 792. I have a right to equal treatment. No no, comes the reply, I have a right to treat you unequally, provided I don’t actually assault you or break into your house and eat your lunch.

Religious groups are outraged that, from next April, it will be illegal to discriminate against homosexuals or transsexuals when providing goods and services. The clash between religion and secular liberalism is stirring high passions and has even brought threats of civil disobedience…Religious groups have been emboldened by their successes in forcing British Airways to drop its ban on a worker wearing a cross, and in getting the Government to backtrack on its threat to faith schools. Andrea Williams, of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, which has led the campaign against the gay law, said: “This is truly a clash of fundamental human rights. It would seem that, when these rights clash, the homosexual person’s rights trump the religious person’s rights.”

The religious person’s rights…to what? To deny a commercial service to a homosexual person on the grounds that the homosexual person is a homosexual person? Is that a fundamental human right? Is there a fundamental human right to enter the public sphere in order to sell a product or service for public money but still reserve the ‘right’ to reject customers on irrelevant grounds? Is that a fundamental human right? Or is it just a bit of yukkism dressed up in fundamental human rights clothes?

The Guardian thinks it’s the latter. It makes a change, to agree with the Guardian.

The Anglican Bishop of Rochester, the Right Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, warned that church-based charities would be forced to close their doors if the government insisted they let in gay people. ‘It is the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers,’ he said…That is a tendentious argument. ‘The poor and disadvantaged’ would only lose out if the churches choose to hate homosexuality more than they like good works. Their objection to the new law is not, as they like to see it, self-defence against a meddling government. It is a threat by powerful institutions to withhold their charity out of prejudice. Churches are free to preach that homosexuality is a sin and their followers are free to believe it in private. But the elected government of Britain does not share that view and has rightly sought to give gay citizens the same public rights as everyone else. Or at least it has done thus far. On this latest measure the cabinet is divided. Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, a devout Catholic, is the minister responsible for the new law and is sympathetic to the idea of exempting churches. The Prime Minister is also thought to be amenable to religious petitioning.

No comment. Comment superfluous.

Conflicting ideas of freedom come into play too, of course.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a former lord chancellor during the Thatcher era, is the patron of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (LCF), part of a coalition of religious groups opposed to the new rules which they say will ride roughshod over their beliefs. The new rules, which ban those offering goods and services from discriminating against gays and lesbians, will force them to act against their consciences, they say. The rules aim to stop, for example, gay couples being turned away from hotels. But faith groups believe there should be an opt-out clause in situations where it goes against their religious beliefs. Lord Mackay said: “People of faith are having their freedom to live according to their beliefs taken away from them.”

Their freedom to live according to their beliefs – ‘live’ in the sense of being able to reject customers on arbitrary yuk-based grounds. That’s a rather broad definition of ‘live,’ it seems to me. Granted, if you have a very small restaurant or b-and-b, you do in some sense live with your customers – but surely that is precisely the condition you accept when you undertake such an endeavour. Surely you realize it would be unworkable to include in your advertising and on the signs the stipulation, ‘for Discerning People That I Happen to Like.’ Bobbi Sue’s Flapjack House for Nice Straight People Who Are Pat Boone Fans would make the sign bigger than the flapjack house and would also risk narrowing the customer base to the point that Bobbi Sue has to declare bankruptcy four days after she opens the bidness. Or to put it another way, tough. That’s the free market for you. If you don’t like it, just stick with being a vicar.

Solidarity forever

Dec 2nd, 2006 7:26 pm | By

Pamela Bone points out that ‘if Islam is to be reformed, and the world consequently made safer and happier for all, it is women who will do it…Western men didn’t see last century’s women’s liberation movement as in [their interest]. It had to be driven by women because the status quo advantaged men.’

The Koran seems fairly clear about women’s subordinate status, but then so is the Christian Bible. If Christian women have been able to argue, more or less successfully, that the misogynistic passages in the Bible are merely a reflection of the era in which they were written and have no relevance to today, there should be no reason Muslim women can’t do the same.

She also quotes Maryam Namazie.

“Debating the issue of women’s rights in an Islamic context is a prescription for inaction and passivity, in the face of the oppression of millions of women struggling and resisting in Britain, the Middle East and elsewhere. Anywhere they (Islamists) have power, to be a woman is a crime.” Namazie is of the Left…But in general, she notes, the Left, the traditional defender of human rights, is silent about the oppression of Muslim women. The reasons are that political Islam is seen as anti-imperialist, racism is these days much worse than sexism and minorities are automatically to be supported…Change must come from within, say the good liberals. Strangely, no one said that about South Africa’s apartheid system.

Interesting Pamela Bone should say that, because that’s exactly what Maryam said to me when she interviewed me briefly for her tv show. It was shortly after Ramin Jahanbegloo was let out of prison at the apparent price of giving a tv interview that said he’d been wrong to work for reform of Iran, and especially wrong to attend international conferences and the like. I was therefore worried at the time about the possibility that I could taint people inside places like Iran by the mere fact of my support. I blurted something angsty to that effect, and Maryam retorted, with some heat, that, indeed, ‘ no one said that about South Africa’s apartheid system.’ She said, I think (if I remember correctly), that the whole thing was a shut up device and reformers do indeed want international solidarity and support. So I resolved to cease worrying and do better next time.

Why size matters

Dec 1st, 2006 8:33 pm | By

Simon Blackburn has a very amusing and interesting review of Harry Frankfurt’s new tiny book on truth. One detects a certain…annoyance in places, and one can very well see why. One is in fact unusually well placed to be able to see why, because one shares with Blackburn the experience of having written a slightly less tiny book about truth recently. One is in fact a member of the extremely miniature group of people who have written and published non-tiny English-language books about truth in the past, oh, say three years. There can’t be great huge pulsating throngs of such people, can there? I would guess no. So one really is quite well qualified to know without needing much time for reflection what Blackburn probably thinks of the follow-up to

Harry Frankfurt’s diminutive book On Bullshit, which was an unexpected best-seller for Princeton University Press last year, shyly peeking out next to the cash registers in bookshops everywhere. Evidently the commercial giant Knopf wanted to get in on the act, and the result is this almost equally tiny book, nicely positioned for a similar success this Christmas, since there is an announced first printing of 200,000 copies. Its appearance and its design make it almost identical to its hot little predecessor: at 101 baby pages, On Truth appears to be fractionally longer…

A first printing of two hundred thousand copies. For a short essay dressed up as a book. Hmm.

Right! That’s enough of that. What about the actual review.

Truth is bigger game than bullshit. Truth and its agent, reason, are the kings of the philosophical jungle, and their capture has excited the finest minds. It is a brave thing for a philosopher to try to bring them down with a little essay — like hunting an elephant, or, better, a herd of elephants, with a pea shooter.

Oh, well, if you aim the pea shooter just right

Frankfurt explains that his book arose because he had failed to explain in the previous book why truth is so important to us, or why we should especially care about it, and hence had failed to explain why indifference to truth is such a bad thing. This is the task he now undertakes. But he also sets himself some quite definite limits in so doing.

We set ourselves some definite limits too. Had to – we had a word limit. But we did have quite a few more words than would fit into 101 baby pages.

Taken together, these represent a fairly dramatic shrinkage of the boundaries of the discussion. It is a contraction that might be regretted as excluding such diverse predecessors as Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, Peirce, Tarski, Foucault, or Richard Rorty.

Check, check, check, no, no, check, check. I fretted about excluding Tarski, I thought it would be highly appropriate and useful for JS to learn all about him and then tell the world, but JS said we had this word limit and couldn’t mention everyone and everything and didn’t want to anyway; we could and should select; I think I probably said something wise about synechdoche; so Tarski was shut out, poor guy. We contracted, but not too much.

Reading Frankfurt’s book, I worried that without chapter and verse the unnamed postmodernists who are so enthusiastically vilified might feel they have not been given their day in court.

Okay, now there we have a clear conscience. That’s exactly what we didn’t do. We named names and gave days in court. That was pretty much the point of the book: to show the kind of thing. We did that. (You’ll notice that this comment turns out to be an exercise in making Blackburn’s review of Frankfurt somehow be about Why Truth Matters. Well, I just couldn’t help comparing as I read, and now you get the benefit.

Spinoza is the only philosopher or writer named or acknowledged in Frankfurt’s book. I found myself made uncomfortable by this, even given the demands of miniaturization…It is a discomfort similar to that arising from the way the unnamed postmodernists are treated. And when I think of Frankfurt’s resolute silence about the philosophical tradition from, say, Protagoras onward, I confess to scenting a whiff of something like — well, negligence with the truth, an affectation of amateur carelessness adopted to mislead or manipulate the audience, and which therefore, by Frankfurt’s own account, characterizes the bullshitter. This is undoubtedly too harsh. “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” as Pope rebuked himself when he talked of Lord Hervey.

Now, I call that a really nice touch, to smuggle a veiled reference to B&W into his review of Frankfurt.

[W]e need an explanation of how the virtue of truth can take on a life of its own and stand opposed to pragmatism, or of how we first learned to separate the question of whether a signal represented how things stand from the question of whether it was a signal that it was expedient for us to hear. But such questions would provoke more than a cute diversion to pick up at the exit to a bookstore.

Yes but then it wouldn’t sell 200,000 copies.


Dec 1st, 2006 2:15 am | By

Nigel Warburton interviews Richard Norman and asks why he rejects the idea that God exists. Norman gives a good clear succinct answer that would cut through a lot of the disputes that keep turning up like clumps of dust under beds.

I believe that the onus is on those who believe in the existence of a god to provide reasons for that belief. (This is a point which the philosopher Antony Flew has well made.) I can’t prove that there is no god, but in the absence of good reasons for believing that a god exists, I live my life without belief in a god. In particular, the success of scientific explanations of the natural world makes religious explanations redundant. It’s in that sense that there is a tension between science and religion. The two are not logically incompatible, but the more we succeed in discovering well-founded scientific explanations of the origins of the cosmos, the origins of living species, and so on, the more the explanations in terms of a divine creator become redundant. They add nothing.

There. Quite simple really. We can’t prove there is no god, but in the absence of good reasons for believing there is one, we don’t. There are good explanations of the natural world, so the religious ones are redundant. They add nothing. So – we do without them. That’s all.

Well, yes and no

Dec 1st, 2006 2:14 am | By

Ken Livingstone offered a Millian version of multiculturalism in the Indy yesterday.

Multiculturalism versus its opponents is simply one manifestation of the age-long struggle between liberty and its opponents. It is not about personal differences of opinion but between the values of an open and a closed society.

Yes but which side is for the values of the open society and which is for those of the closed? Things don’t necessarily line up the way Livingstone claims.

The foundations of liberalism and multiculturalism were outlined with great clarity in what is justifiably the most famous political essay in British history, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty…Every individual who exists is unique, and wishes to pursue their life in a different way. The individual must be able to choose for themselves…Multiculturalism has nothing to do with an assertion that there are no universal values. The very statement that people should be able to do only such things that do not interfere with others is clearly an assertion of a universal value. It merely states that insofar as they do not interfere with others, people should be able to choose freely which values they wish to pursue and they may not have these imposed on them…What is prohibited is one group or person imposing their will on others…Female genital mutilation is another such imposed act of violence and equally should not be tolerated.

Good; admirably clear and forthright; but that’s not actually what everyone understands by multiculturalism, and that’s why multiculturalism has opponents who are in fact not enemies of the open society. There are cultures – and they are neither few nor obscure – which do not agree that all individuals must be able to choose for themselves; on the contrary. That being the case, multiculturalism does not have quite the same freedom-loving ring to it that Livingstone seems to think it does.

Update: article in Guardian about Livingstone’s attack on Trevor Phillips.

More on atheist appreciation of religious art

Dec 1st, 2006 2:13 am | By

Nigel Warburton has a very interesting guest post by Richard Norman on the ‘Whether Atheists Can Appreciate Religious Art’ topos. Norman talks about Piero della Francesca’s ‘The Resurrection,’ which his comment caused me to look at again. It’s a terrifically interesting painting; I already thought so, but the discussion intensifies that thought (as such discussions tend to do, which is one huge reason art criticism and literary criticism are not footling wastes of time); it also made me think about why.

Some of what Norman said:

The assumption here is that the truth presented by a religious work of art must itself be a religious truth. That is what I want to question. Of course Piero’s painting is a depiction of the resurrection, but it does not give us any reason for believing the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. How could it do so? (It’s not as though it were photographic evidence or anything of that sort.) The truths which it conveys are human truths, truths which help us in the understanding of our human condition…And that is specifically a truth about human beings, because the features of the work which convey it are the recognisable human characteristics of the figure rising from the tomb.

Yeh. I’ve been claiming something similar in the earlier thread on atheists and appreciation of art – that paintings about some part of the story of Jesus interest us or move us for human reasons rather than specifically religious ones. As an atheist I am in fact left cold by paintings of Mary ascending into heaven amid blasts of trumpets (yes, those are painted blasts), for instance, but not, as I mentioned last week, by the supper at Emmaus, which is very human.

Piero’s painting is enthralling in somewhat the same way as ‘Las Meninas’ – maybe partly for the same reason – Jesus fixes us with his cold straight gaze in just the way Velasquez does in Las Meninas. We feel seen: pinned: examined: weighed in the balance and found – we know not what. He’s uncomfortable to look at – in fact he looks slightly fanatical (well he would, after all that) – and perhaps that telltale reaction is exactly the wrong, ‘atheist’ one that does get in the way of my proper appreciation. But then again perhaps not, perhaps it’s just a variation in preference: I would surmise that a lot of religious people prefer their Jesus with a different expression. Some want him angry, militant, dividing the sheep and the goats; others want him meek and mild; others want him looking like a mensch. Is that religion or just de gustibus?

Back to Richard Norman.

The truths conveyed by The Resurrection are also to be found in the figures of the sleeping soldiers at the base of the tomb. Again the truths are conveyed in the significance of the poses and expressions of the human figures. They say something about the propensity of human beings to miss the miracles that are going on in the world around us – in this case, to be oblivious to the transformation and renewal of human life, and to the corresponding transformation and renewal of the natural world, as represented by the change from the bare trees on the left of the picture to the new growth on the right…The general point is that the truths conveyed by great religious works of art are human truths.

I’ve always loved the sleeping soldiers – slouched and snoring away while miracles happen all around. We’re all the soldiers, crumpled, shapeless, all anyhow, of the earth earthy, while Jesus is almost rectangular in his uprightness and straight-aheadness and his chilly stare. I can appreciate the painting (I think), despite being an atheist, in the same way I can appreciate the presence of the ghost in Hamlet despite not being a ghostist. They work almost like thought experiments, such works; we have to (and we do, at least we can) think our way into them. It has to do with imagination. The Romantics would probably have thoght it was downright heresy to think imagination has no power to help atheists appreciate religious art.

Where this ends and that begins

Nov 29th, 2006 2:04 am | By

From Geoffrey Nunberg’s new book Talking Right page 134.

In the 1920s, the [Wall Street] Journal warned against the threats to freedom that were implicit in minimum wage laws [and] the child-labor amendment to the Constitution (“an assault upon the economic independence of the family…”)

I’ll get to my point, but first I’ll clear up a detail. I frowned in puzzlement when I read that, thinking ‘The – ? I didn’t know there was a child-labor amendment to the Constitution. Ignorant me.’ So I looked it up, and there isn’t; Nunberg apparently meant attempts to pass a child-labor amendment, which (no doubt with the help of the WSJ) failed.

But my point is that that is another example of the kind of thing I was talking about in that comment on Michael Bérubé’s book (What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts). It’s another example of tensions among the freedoms, entitlements, rights, wants, and needs of different people; another example of the fact that a protective law for one person may be an interference with the freedom of action of another person; and that this situation isn’t even all that rare or hard to find. We don’t think about the child labor example much in the US now, because even reactionaries mostly don’t want to defend child labor any more; like slavery, that idea is pretty dead. But there was a time when the WSJ framed child labor laws as an assault upon the economic independence of the family, which of course it is. And a good thing too, but not everyone thinks so and not everyone has always thought so.

Michael replied to my comment last week, at the end of a longer reply to a review by Jodi Dean. He found my point (cough) reasonable (that’s his cough, but I’ll cough too, because I might as well). We agree that it is a problem, indeed the problem.

Both sides

Nov 28th, 2006 11:51 pm | By

Alan Boyle posted Allen Esterson’s reply to Troemel-Ploetz on ‘Cosmic Log’ today. I meant to say something else about the November 20 post (the one with Troemel-Ploetz’s reply) yesterday but I forgot. (I know, I know. But I can only hold one thought in my head at a time. Be patient with me.) But it’s interesting, and it’s always coming up. It’s something Boyle said this time:

We’ve gone back and forth over the role that Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, may have played in the development of the special theory of relativity…and now I’ve gotten the other side of the story from Senta Troemel-Ploetz…

The other side. Of the story. But it isn’t a story, and there isn’t another side.

Or, of course, it is and there is, in a sense, but in another and more important sense, it isn’t and there isn’t. It is a story in the sense that journalists mean a story: it can be shaped into a story, it has some interest. There is another side in the sense that journalists mean another side: there is someone who said something. But that is not a very weighty sense. There is no story in the sense of a genuine, valid, difficult controversy with merit on each side of the question. There is no other side in the sense of a claim backed up by a lot of (or even a moderate amount of) genuine evidence or by compelling questions about missing evidence or shaky inferences. There is simply a claim, based on almost no real evidence (I say ‘almost’ simply because ‘our work’ could perhaps in conjunction with a lot more, real evidence be considered one piece) and a lot of wild surmise and ‘for all we know’ hand-waving. That’s not an ‘other side’ in the normal meaning of the term. But that’s how journalism does these things, which is one reason there’s so much nonsense flying up and down the corridors. Somebody claims something; with a little luck and hard work, the something makes it into a newspaper or a movie or a book or tv; the something gets passed around and discussed and chatted about, and in a few short months it has become common knowledge. And then we’re stuck with it. And then people with better sense become aware that this claimed something has become common knowledge and they point out that it is based on little or nothing and is, if one looks into the matter carefully and impartially and with an attention to evidence, wrong. But what happens then is not necessarily that everyone looks at the evidence on both sides and promptly grasps that side one has no evidence to speak of but just said something one day while the other side has abundant evidence that things were otherwise; no; what happens then is often that people simply say ‘Ah, two sides here, let us have balance and attend to both sides.’

Often of course that is just the right thing to do. Often there are, even, more than two sides. But not always. Not always. If the original claim is just…more or less pulled out of someone’s (cough) ear, then giving equal time and attention to both sides may well be just a waste of time and attention, and in addition to that it may be misleading to the unwary, who think that if there are two sides there must be two sides with a good case and sound evidence. Alas for the innocent and pure of heart.

A reader who commented at Cosmic Log sees things that way. It would be right if it were right, but in fact…it isn’t.

It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference of opinion here which can never be resolved until someone invents a time machine, and goes back to find out. Each point of view is an opinion which cannot be verified by objective fact. The fragmentary evidence which exists does not support either side of the argument except when taken out of context, because the larger context no longer exists, both parties under examination having been dead for some time.

Well, in this particular example, that just isn’t the case: the evidence does support Allen’s side of the argument – more especially since in fact Troemel-Ploetz offered literally no evidence at all. Sometimes the ‘both sides of the story’ thing can just confuse the audience.

Sad but true

Nov 27th, 2006 7:25 pm | By

Democracy isn’t always and necessarily aligned with justice, progress, equality, women’s rights, freedom – it’s not always and necessarily aligned with anything except majority will. Majority will can be even more tyrannical than a military dictator.

Pervez Hoodbhoy’s critique of General Pervez Musharraf as a leader and as an author, in last month’s Prospect, is depressingly familiar. Of course we wish that Pakistan was a more liberal and democratic society…But simply repeating the same liberal pieties about instituting democracy and strengthening civil society won’t change the situation…There are certainly massive problems for women in Pakistan. Human rights activists suggest that a woman is raped in Pakistan every two hours. As Hoodbhoy points out, Musharraf’s government recently failed to enact a revision of the rape laws, which would make the burden of proof placed on the prosecution more realistic (a successful rape prosecution currently requires four male witnesses to the act). However, that climbdown came in the face of intense political opposition—the uncomfortable reality is that it was democracy that prevented the reform, not the dictator.

It’s important to keep in mind that democracy and majority will are not automatically on the side of human rights.

Yes but do you have any actual evidence?

Nov 27th, 2006 6:45 pm | By

So maybe women really do think logic is ‘a pestiferous male invention’ (The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense). It would seem so by this, anyway – Senta Troemel-Ploetz replying on Alan Boyle’s blog to Allen Esterson’s article on Troemel-Ploetz’s paper claiming that Mileva Marić ‘did Einstein’s mathematics.’ It’s a cringe-making performance, frankly. She offers no real evidence, she simply cites ‘a tradition that always attributes achievement to men even if the men themselves claim their wives were the authors’ and then gives three quotations from Einstein to Mileva Marić:

“How happy I am to have found an equal in you (eine ebenbuertige Kreatur) who is as strong and independent as I am.” “Until you are my dear little wife, we want to eagerly work together scientifically so that we won’t become philistines….” “When I look at other people, I realize what I have in you / what mettle you are made of.”

Later, Boyle says, she wrote an addendum:

Sophia Yancopoulos, an American physicist, speaks of the ‘subtler issues of collaboration,’ and we are far from knowing much about them. What we do know is that again and again the work of creative women was appropriated by men in the arts and the sciences, and men who fairly give credit to their female collaborators are the exception. Einstein was a very normal man, as I said in New Orleans anno 1990.

And that’s it. That’s really embarrassing – embarrassing the way watching ‘The Office’ is embarrassing. Offering three affectionate comments and a couple of broad generalizations to back up a claim that Einstein’s wife did his mathematics for him – and being willing to go public with that. Ow, ow, cringe.

Esterson replies – with admirable temperance – here.

In historical investigations such as this one must be guided by the hard evidence, not (as Troemel-Ploetz writes) by what is “plausible”, or “for all we know”. Nor should we take (as Troemel-Ploetz does in her 1990 article) as serious evidence the mostly third-hand statements obtained many decades after the event from interested parties taking nationalist pride in what they fondly believe to be a Serbian achievement. In his book Don’t Believe Everything You Think (2006), Thomas Kida reports the research of two psychologists who secretly recorded a meeting held in Cambridge, England. Two weeks later, the participants were asked to write down everything they could remember. Among other gross inaccuracies in their memories, many participants ‘remembered’ hearing comments that were never actually made. That puts into perspective the utter unreliability of third-hand reports provided decades later…

It looks as if Senta Troemel-Ploetz urgently needs to read that book.

Doubting Giles

Nov 26th, 2006 8:07 pm | By

Giles Fraser is getting bored.

Perhaps it’s time for a new sort of conversation about religion. The old one is getting really very tired, as in some overblown boxing match between two bruisers who just won’t topple. They slug it out. Land huge blows. Declare victory. Only for the opponent to rise again (no resurrection reference intended) and for the whole sorry circus to wind itself up for a rematch.

Well could that be because one side refuses to admit that it’s making it up as it goes along? It does tend to keep futile brawls going when people refuse to admit that. I know it’s what I always do when I don’t have any evidence or argument – I just keep talking. I don’t mind; I don’t have to be anywhere else just at the moment.

For a more interesting discourse about religion would also have to involve the reclamation of agnosticism, of the ability simply to admit that one doesn’t know.

Well, that would be an idea, but surely Giles Fraser knows that many believers don’t do that, but on the contrary insist that they do know, because they have ‘faith’ (or because they read it in the [translated] Bible or the Koran). But those people (suprise surprise) aren’t Giles Fraser’s main prey.

For the Bible constantly refuses to give God a definite shape and size. That’s what the Hebrew Scriptures call idolatry and what Marxists, following on, came to call reification. It’s turning God into a golden calf. Kant was right when he argued in the Critique of Judgement that it is the second commandment, the refusal to allow human beings a fixed view of God, which offers the most significant protection against religious fanaticism.

All right, but then if that’s true, human beings who believe in this unfixed God have no basis on which to tell everyone else what to do – except the same human secular earthy basis that everyone else has.

And those who work out their faith in a certain doubt and confusion are, in fact, the true believers. Walking by faith and not by sight, as St Paul puts it.

Fine, but then you don’t get to tell us what to do. You have no special authority, or even special insight (except whatever insight comes from the sources that are naturally available to all humans – a habit of thinking about moral questions, for instance). You’re on the same footing as everyone else. So that spells an end to clerics appearing on panels as clerics, as if that gave them some sort of expertise or inside dope. You don’t get to do both. You don’t get to insist that ‘faith’ is all doubt and uncertainty, and still pretend you have special knowledge.

Some atheists are threatened by non-fundamentalist faith. They reckon it a liberal alibi for fundamentalism, offering a more superficially plausible account of God which serves only to shelter fanatics from the sort of criticism that would put them out of business…A contrasting approach would be to work on the assumption that the most effective way to attack bad religion is with an alliance that includes good religion.

Yes – I can see that, up to a point. (Up to a point because I wouldn’t want to join such an alliance on all issues; I would always want to reserve the right to ignore god and all its works on the grounds of extreme improbability and lack of corroborating evidence.) But there seems to be so little ‘good religion’ of the kind you describe around the place – religion that is genuinely doubting and uncertain. The endless valorization of ‘faith’ may be one reason for that dearth. At any rate the god-botherers who keep haranguing us incoherently about the virtues of faith don’t motivate me to make an alliance with them. Thanks for the invitation though.

Respect me or I’ll say the devil wears a condom

Nov 24th, 2006 9:34 pm | By

Careful when talking to the Vatican. Don’t forget those 2.1 billion people who call themselves Christian – they expect respect you know.

The World Health Organisation’s head of HIV/Aids called on the Vatican yesterday to speed up a decision on the limited use of condoms in pandemic-hit countries. Kevin De Cock welcomed the news that condoms could be sanctioned for married Catholic couples where one partner has HIV. “We’re very pleased to hear this,” he said. “But our concern is that these deep theological decisions take account of the biological consequences of infection. Could we please have this debate in a hurry. Lives are at risk and time is short.”

Maybe he was being sarcastic instead of respectful. One can hope so. ‘Deep theological decisions’ indeed – what’s so deep about them, and for that matter, what’s even theological about them? Nothing. They’re just nasty human prejudices dressed up as what god wants, in the usual manner. Deep shmeep.

Faith-based organisations play a huge role in forming opinion and fighting the pandemic. In Africa, they deliver 40%-50% of care. “I think the involvement of the faith-based community in Aids is extremely important,” he said. “As with any other group that has its own special beliefs and ideas and philosophies, we have to accept that that is so and remember that there is far more that unites us than divides us in the struggle against Aids.”

No, he probably wasn’t being sarcastic then, not when he slipped the ‘faith-based community’ in there to replace the more neutral and comprehensible ‘religious people.’ Sarky people don’t do that – they refuse, and if people try to make them they lash out and swear dreadful oaths. They also don’t usually talk anodyne fluffy burble about own special beliefs and ideas and philosophies, because they know too well what a lot of ground that covers, including the stark staring mad, so they don’t invoke it in that sentimental way.

It’s not the WHO guy with the unhappy name’s fault though, it’s the horrible situation we’re all stuck in where people who believe wrong things demand fulsome honeyed respect from people who don’t, on pain of making millions more people die of AIDS because the condom is excommunicated. We have to grovel and suck up to them or they’ll carry right on killing lots of us. There’s a deep theological decision for you.

Keep it buttoned, please

Nov 24th, 2006 9:05 pm | By

Yes, respect for religion is mandatory, why do you ask?

For the better part of 30 years, British Airways has operated a uniform policy without incident. The rules allow check-in staff and cabin crew to wear jewellery, but only underneath their shirts. There are many reasons for this, one of them being that people working at check-in have to lean over and tag bags. A necklace could easily get in the way…British Airways is at fault. For it is mishandling for a religious issue, betraying both its multicultural principles and a huge potential market. For, Ms Eweida not only has a strong argument of freedom of religious expression on her side, but also hundreds of millions of potential passengers. The 2001 census showed that 71.1 per cent of Britons identify themselves as Christians. According to Aquarius, a marketing consultancy focused on religious affairs, there are 2.1 billion people who call themselves Christian, by comparison with 1.1 billion who describe themselves as secular, non-religious, agnostic or atheist. The devout represent a powerful market: The Passion of the Christ has grossed $613 million at box offices worldwide…There are a growing number of Christians who feel threatened by secularism…By sticking to its guidelines on uniforms, BA is insensitively, perhaps unintentionally, appearing to use its professional code to make a secular case. People of faith expect not just tolerance, but respect. BA needs to show it.

Uh? BA has a longstanding and reasonable rule about external jewelry, which all in an instant turns out to be a violation of freedom of religious expression as well as a foolish flouting of the, um, hunger for a sight of external jewelry on the part of Christians, who are more numerous than atheists and who made Mel Gibson’s horrible sadism-porn flick a lot of money, therefore, BA is inthenthitive, and thus we see that ‘people of faith’ expect not just tolerance but ‘respect’ and therefore BA is obliged to show it. There’s a good knockdown argument for you!

No but seriously. What is this idea that people ‘expect’ ‘respect’ and that therefore everyone else ‘needs’ to give it to them? Why hasn’t that imbecilic and tiresome idea been nipped in the bud yet? People can expect anything and everything they like; that doesn’t oblige the rest of us to give it to them. I can sashay around the place announcing that I ‘expect’ everyone to fall down and knock their foreheads against the ground when I pass, but that doesn’t oblige them to oblige, does it. Expect away, ‘people of faith’, I don’t have to respect you unless you do something I consider respect-worthy. So get busy.