Notes and Comment Blog


Because I Just Got a Real Estate License, That’s Why

Mar 16th, 2006 8:47 pm | By

Hmm. I had moved on to other things for the moment, while still planning to say another word or two later if I got around to it. But I’ll say another word or two now, out of irritation. There’s nothing like irritation to cause one to say a word now rather than later. (See, this is where misanthropy comes in. Lycanthropy too, if you argue with wolves. That’s a swell movie with Kevin Bacon – Argues With Wolves.) I’ll tell you why, since you ask.

I’ve been following with some interest the discussion between Norman Geras and Ophelia Benson about David Irving’s imprisonment. Norm’s most recent post seemed to me to settle things pretty definitively…The best sense I can make of Ophelia’s position, which she has reiterated in a further reply to Norm, is that she thinks that Irving deserves all the moral opprobrium, short of legal sanction (which she says she disapproves of), that comes his way…But that doesn’t touch Norm’s point, as he makes clear here. Which is why it seems odd to me that Ophelia should have chosen to go round the houses again – especially as the clearest bit of the new post just restates Norm’s view for him.

Because it’s my Notes and Comment, that’s why (at least, unless and until its owner closes it down, it is). Because I can go around any dang houses I want to go around; because I can bore up one side and down the other if I want to; because I can talk about dust, or shopping lists, or plumbing, or philately, or Akron, or macadam, or laundry, or weeds, or nail clippings, or bus schedules, or any boring thing I think of, that’s why. Because nobody has to read it, that’s why. Because I like going around houses, and around and around and around, and anyone who doesn’t like going around houses doesn’t have to go, so why bother complaining if I like to? Hah?

And since I’m irritated, I’ll point out that in fact some of the things I’ve been talking about have still been left unaddressed and unmentioned by Norm’s definitive posts, and that I’ve mentioned them again, and that this last most definitive post still didn’t mention them. So I’m not so sure things have been settled pretty definitively. Not the things I was talking about anyway…crooning and mumbling away to myself while I went wandering blamelessly and innocently around all these tiresome houses. The main thing that still hasn’t been addressed, that seems to be an elephant in the living room, is the fact that Irving lied and falsified the evidence. I’ve only said that about four times now, but that aspect keeps getting left out so I trudge around the houses again only to have the point about lying and falsification (oh look, it’s not four times, it’s six) left out yet again. And then I get chastised for going around the houses yet again when Norm has definitively settled the matter. Well, he’s no doubt settled what he was talking about, but he hasn’t settled what I’ve been talking about, because he’s barely mentioned it, and he hasn’t addressed it.

And I am not convinced. All right? That’s the reason for all the house-traipsing; I’m not convinced. I’m not convinced people actually think Irving has a right, whether a liberty right or a moral right or a natural right or an inalienable right, to lie and falsify the evidence. And if people do actually think that, I find it odd that they don’t say it more often. That’s where all this started. I wondered why commenters – in newspapers and the like – who talked of Irving and free speech didn’t mention the lying and falsification question. I still wonder. I suspect it’s because they’re not convinced Irving or anyone has such a right any more than I am, but they’re also not sure what they think about that or how to address it, so they don’t, they just cover it up, instead, and talk about the much easier issue, of what is ‘offensive’ or outrageous or the like in what Irving says. Except Lipstadt and Evans, of course. They’re sharply aware of that aspect, and don’t leave it out, but other people do.

So. That is a house that remains insufficiently explored, let alone settled, as far as I’m concerned, and I might go around it yet again at any time, so consider yourselves warned. If you don’t want to go around the houses again, then don’t join the tour.



Yes Yes and Black is White and Gray is Red

Mar 16th, 2006 7:13 pm | By

John Gray is naughty. He’s not Leon Wieseltier, he’s not Steve Fuller, but he’s doing the same strawmannish kind of arguing. Why do people do that? It’s odd. Why do they attack things people don’t claim? If the claims haven’t been made, what is the point of attacking them? I mean, what do they get out of it? What is their aim? Wouldn’t you think the point would be to say what is wrong with what the person did actually say, so as to alert readers to that and persuade them of what’s wrong with it? What’s the point of saying what is wrong with things the person didn’t say? It just seems like a waste of time and effort.

Typically, philosophers take it for granted that religions are systems of belief, and condemn them for failing to meet standards of proof that are applied in other areas of human life, above all in science.

That’s just wrong, and crudely wrong. It’s not a matter of ‘standards of proof,’ it’s a matter of evidence. Gray must know that; it’s very basic. So why does he get it wrong? What’s the point? And philosophers don’t typically take it for granted that religions are systems of belief, they typically point out that that is what they are, giving evidence (not proof, evidence) to show that that is true. So right from the start we have Gray misdescribing two central issues. That doesn’t bode well.

One cannot make a sharp distinction between natural processes and supernatural agents unless one presupposes a view of the world something like that presented in the biblical creation story, and the distinction is not found in most of the world’s religions. For example, in animism – which must rank as the oldest and most universal religion – spirits are seen as part of the natural world.

Huh? Why can’t one presuppose a view of the world not at all like that presented in the biblical creation story, and not see ‘spirits’ as part of the natural world because there is no evidence for them?

More fundamentally, it is a mistake to assume that belief is the core of religion. This may seem self-evident to many philosophers, but in fact belief is not very important in most religions…For the majority of humankind, religion has always been about practice rather than belief. In fixating on the belief-content of religion, Dennett emulates Christianity at its most rationalistic and dogmatic.

Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t ‘believe’ that. I can believe that religion has always been about practice as well as belief, but not rather than. Not around these here monotheistic parts, anyway – and monotheism does take in a fair bit of the planet. Godbotherers do have beliefs about that god. Gray should ask some one of these days.

Wolpert interprets religion as a type of adaptive behaviour in which our beliefs are shaped by our practical needs. Like Dennett, he seems ignorant of the vast range of religious traditions in which belief is peripheral. Again, he thinks of religion as having to do with supernatural phenomena, writing naively: “Religion is concerned with the supernatural, and this involves forces and causes beyond our normal experience of nature.”

Naïvely. What planet does Gray live on? I’d be quite happy to live there too, it sounds much safer than this one, but I have no idea where it is. (Naïve of me, no doubt.)

[I]t is not supernatural belief that is hard-wired in humans: it is the need for myth, and it fuels secular belief as much as traditional religion…Myths are not primitive scientific theories that belong in the infancy of the species. They are symbolic narratives that give meaning to the lives of those who accept them. The chief difference between religious and secular believers is that, while the former have long known their myths to be extremely questionable, the latter imagine their own to be literally true.

Oh, come on. The Iliad is a symbolic narrative that gives meaning, so is Hamlet, so is Wuthering Heights. Religion is something else, and the people who ‘accept’ religion – and there are a good few of them around – do not in the least know their myths to be extremely questionable, which is why they’re always whanging the rest of us over the head with them. This whole silly trope ‘religion is myth is narrative is questionable and tentative and not believed and it is atheism or ‘secular belief’ that is the real religion and that is truly certain and dogmatic and believed without question’ – is false, and endlessly triumphantly smugly recycled as if it were both true and original. How irritating it is. I said Gray isn’t Wieseltier or Fuller, but he does border on arguing in their style here. Very tiresome.



Not so Fast

Mar 16th, 2006 5:52 pm | By

It’s great that the Home Office is taking on forced marriage. But in looking at their page on the subject, I was unable to help looking at things in the margin of that page, which prompted feelings of dread and nausea and revulsion. So I clicked one of the links and the feelings got worse. Is this just me? See what you think. The page in question is called (the nausea begins already) ‘Faith Communities’.

Multi-cultural communities are often multi- faith communities and this should be fully recognised in policies aimed at promoting diversity. Fostering understanding and respect between different faiths is vital in practically implementing community cohesion strategies.

Partly it’s just the language. It’s the irritating insistence on repeating the words ‘community’ and ‘faith’ as often as is humanly possible, or indeed oftener. As if anyone might be in danger of not getting the idea, that we’re supposed to think both are good things, really good things, really really good things. And then there is the absurdity of insisting on community and diversity at the same time. Well which is it?! But more basically there is the peremptory expectation of understanding and respect between different ‘faiths’. They don’t get it, do they. ‘Faiths’ are just the things that are not good at mutual ‘respect’ and ‘understanding’ because part of what is supposed to be respected and understood, part of what is supposed to be held as a matter of ‘faith’, is who the Big Guy is, who the Big Guy’s prophets or children or PR agents are, what the Holy Book is; and the ‘faiths’ in question have different answers to those questions. So hammering away at ‘faith’ at the same time as expecting them to understand and respect each other is – ludicrous, frankly. It is only to the degree that the ‘faith’ becomes attenuated and weak and not really doctrinally or dogmatically adhered to that mutual respect and understanding become possible.

And that of course is quite apart from the way that the whole idea simply ignores the existence of the faith-free, and of secularists. And then there’s the thing about community cohesion strategies. Oh how that does make the fjords seem to glimmer invitingly in the distance – the welcome antidote to and refuge from mandatory cohesion. I so don’t want to cohere. You know? Not unless I choose to anyway. Not unless I’m allowed first to consider (quietly, in a corner by myself somewhere, in silence and calm, without any social workers or parish outreach personnel or community cohesion officers gripping me by the back of the neck and squeezing) exactly what it is I’m expected to cohere to. Not unless I have time and ability and suitable conditions to examine every line of the contract before signing it. But that’s just what that passage doesn’t mention. It’s all very unconditional and demanding. It’s like conscription rather than like joining a club. As a matter of fact it’s like forced marriage as opposed to the voluntary kind. Ironic that the HO is opposing forced marriage on one page while demanding rhetorically-forced community cohesion on another page. The problem is the same. No, I want to see if I can stand the prospective spouse first; I want to be able to say no. No, I want to see if I can stand the prospective community first; I want to be able to say no.

And it’s the same with respect and understanding, as well as cohesion. All three of them are things that really shouldn’t be expected or demanded ahead of time, sight unseen, no matter what the content. They all ought to be things that are in our own gift to bestow or withold as we choose. We really have to be able to choose our friends and the people we respect because we actually do respect them, as opposed to having them thrust upon us by the Home Office or by the district nurse.



Gremlin

Mar 16th, 2006 5:23 pm | By

Just to let you know, a system crucial for B&W’s functioning seems to have shut down completely, so if it all freezes or disappears, that’s why – it’s not because I’ve run off to the fjords.

Meanwhile I’ll just keep going as long as it works. Who knows, maybe that will be years!



Take That, Leon

Mar 16th, 2006 1:58 am | By

Now this is satisfying. A lot of people telling the infuriating smug NY Times what a crap review that review by Wieseltier was. It would be all the more satisfying to see Wieseltier admit as much and express remorse and embarrassment at the horrible juvenile abusive spittle-flecked tone of it – but this is satisfying all the same.

Sam Harris:

Wieseltier writes with triumphal smugness about the “excesses of naturalism” that apparently blight Dennett’s work. He might as well have pointed out the “excesses of historical accuracy” or the “excesses of logical coherence.” If utter naturalism is a sin, it is one only from the point of view of religious faith — a faith that has grown ever more blinkered in Reason’s glare.

A philosopher at Duke:

There can be few better examples of the sort of protectionism about religion that Daniel Dennett wrestles with in “Breaking the Spell” than Leon Wieseltier’s shallow but interminable ad hominem rant…Nothing makes plainer the extent of Wieseltier’s protectionism about religion than his willingness to pay the price of treating science as just another optional philosophy…[I]t is a symptom of the millennial protectionism that Dennett so patiently and eloquently urges us to forgo at least long enough to examine religion as a natural phenomenon.

Dave Barash:

Asking Leon Wieseltier to review Daniel Dennett on religion is like asking Karl Rove to review Ralph Nader on politics. Wieseltier is one of those who, in Dennett’s terms, has “belief in belief.” Such individuals are hardly likely to provide a balanced — or even interesting — assessment of what it takes to break the spell that holds them in thrall.

And I love this one – Philip Blond and the millions like him, please note:

In his review of “Breaking the Spell,” Leon Wieseltier couldn’t resist the reflexive accusation that building a worldview on a scientific base is reductive, and as is often the case, he trotted out the existence of art to capture our sympathies. As a composer, I am weary of being commandeered as evidence of supernatural forces.

Ha! Yeah. That’s only a sample; read them all; very satisfying.



Out of Order

Mar 15th, 2006 10:42 pm | By

Not a good day. A frustrating day, a malfunctioning day, an irritating day. Email problems – or perhaps correspondent problems. It can be so hard to tell. When someone ignores several emails, you may decide ‘well, I guess I can take a hint (however belatedly)’ and stop emailing, but then when the same person emails on unrelated subjects, you think ‘Hmm, did my emails not get through?’ so you ask – only to be ignored again. Then you scratch your head until the blood drips onto the floor and the cat squalls in alarm, wondering whether what we have here is an email problem or an irritating correspondent problem. This causes bad temper and a strong desire to be in Norway wandering among the fjords.

Actually I always have a strong desire to be in Norway wandering among the fjords, but it becomes stronger and sharper when I’m being frustrated and irritated by either 1) email or 2) paralyzed correspondents, or perhaps both. That’s when I start to think dreamily about dear little huts with one chair and one cup and one plate, 749 miles from the nearest neighbour. You didn’t know that about me, did you? You thought I was very gregarious and friendly and even-tempered – and so I am, most of the time, but I have this side, this element, this aspect that is all misanthropic and hostile. Normally, though, I’m very warm and mellow and approachable. Well okay not really warm and mellow and approachable, but frigidly civil, at least. Not savage. Not violent or explosive. Not the type to shout horrible names and fling dishes around the room. Tame, anyway. Sort of.

Other things are malfunctioning too, of course (well they always are, aren’t they). People asking me if I want to do huge time-consuming jobs for them, and when out of politeness (see? I’m lovely, really) I say okay, they drop the job in my lap with a great thud and say ‘no hurry’ as if the whole thing had been my idea. Very peculiar. People beseeching me to go to a (ohhhhhhhhhh) class reunion. People wearing those ridiculous woolly boots when it’s fifty degrees outside. (It’s worse in California. There they wear them when it’s seventy degrees. Why don’t their feet explode?) People building things and cutting things and polishing things and kind of shaking things up and down and bouncing them around, on all sides of me. Seriously – this neighbourhood is in a permanent state of construction and renovation. Wallop wallop wallop on this side, nerrrrr on that side, mutter mutter shout laugh mutter chat in front. I really ought to move my desk out onto the street, it would be quieter.

So that’s this day’s malfunctions. Therefore tomorrow will be much better – that’s a law of nature.



Eloquence

Mar 14th, 2006 6:33 pm | By

Thought for the Day. Via Deborah Lipstadt’s blog History on Trial, from a correspondent

Although I am not anti-semitic, your Jewish greed is overbearing and crippling.



No in Between?

Mar 13th, 2006 10:58 pm | By

More on free speech and the discussion with Norm, who has said more on the subject.

If the law does not prohibit people from doing something, then legally – and assuming no restraints created by voluntary contracts etc – they have the right to do that thing. It is what is sometimes called a ‘liberty right’, as opposed to a ‘claim right’…If (where) Holocaust denial is not a criminal offence, consequently, Irving and others have a liberty right to say, to write and to publish that the Holocaust did not happen or that it has been exaggerated.

Sure. I’ve stipulated that more than once – though without knowing the term ‘liberty right’, which is useful. But on the other hand, that still leaves out what I’ve been wondering about, which is the fact that Irving did more than just write and publish that the Holocaust did not happen or that it has been exaggerated – he also falsified the evidence – and according to Richard Evans (who spent 18 months with two research assistants looking into the matter), he did so very extensively. I don’t even know if Irving in fact has a liberty right to do that or not, but I think and assume he does. I don’t think it is actually against the law to falsify evidence in scholarly or would-be scholarly books. But doing so can probably get one in trouble in certain legal contexts – a libel trial being one. (I think there are some relevant differences between US and UK law here – whether or not it’s libelous to express an opinion that someone is dishonest, wicked, an exploiter, a purveyor of unhealthy food…Let’s not get into that, or we’ll be here all month.) But either way – whether Irving has a liberty right to falsify evidence or not – I think the fact that that is what he did is a major part of the issue, and should be included in discussions of it.

One might concede, of course, that this is (wherever it is) the legal state of affairs, and go on to argue that it’s a morally bad one: the law should be changed. But as Ophelia herself has repeatedly said that she’s not arguing for criminalization, that can’t be her view.

Eh? It can’t? Yes it can, surely! That colon there – I dispute that colon. I dispute the colon between ‘it’s a morally bad one’ and ‘the law should be changed’. Because we don’t think everything that’s morally bad should be against the law. Do we? Have I missed the boat here? Have I been spending too long on planet OB and missing what the rest of the world thinks? I could have sworn it was common knowledge that there are lots of things that are morally bad that nevertheless should not be agin the law. Rudeness, meanness, selfishness, egotism, lack of consideration – we think those are morally bad but not police matters – don’t we?

If she thinks Holocaust-denial shouldn’t be a criminal offence, then it follows that, according to her, Holocaust deniers should have liberty rights to say, to write and to publish that the Holocaust did not happen or that it has been exaggerated.

Sure. Again, I’ve said as much – saying ‘legal right’ for ‘liberty right’. In other words, I see that my agreeing (without much enthusiasm) that Holocaust-denial shouldn’t be a criminal offence forces me to agree that deniers should have rights, in the thinnest possible sense of rights, to write and to publish that the Holocaust did not happen or that it has been exaggerated. But, also again, what about rights to falsify the evidence? Are we including falsification of evidence in this liberty right? I don’t know. I’m not sure what I think about that. (I don’t think falsified evidence should be taught as genuine evidence in state schools, I can say that much.) But I think in order to discuss it we need to include it. We need to mention it.

In the next bit I think Norm misrepresents what I’m saying a little (not intentionally, of course). He quotes something I said but starts after the part where I talk about falsification, so that it looks as if I’m saying publishers should shut Irving up, full stop, when in fact I’m saying publishers should refuse to publish falsifications.

He says my attempt to talk about rights other than legal rights (or liberty rights) won’t do the job.

None of the points Ophelia makes by way of trying to establish some conceptual ground in between something’s being a criminal offence and its being a right succeed in doing so…But to disapprove of something, think it wrong, decline actively to protect it is perfectly compatible with still holding it to be a right.

A legal (or liberty) right, yes – but any kind of right? Is a legal right the only kind there is? Isn’t there a pretty common ordinary language usage in which a right is – pretty much whatever we think it is? For instance when we shout at each other ‘You have no right to talk to me that way!’ Or when we earnestly tell each other ‘My boss had no right to make me work Saturday on such short notice.’ Or when we darkly mutter that oil companies have no right to you know the rest. Come on, sure there is, I didn’t just make that up. People say things like that all the time. They don’t think they’re citing case law!

In a subsequent post, Ophelia brings forward in support of her argument that we hold the press and broadcast media to certain standards that restrain them from hate speech, abusive and foul language, and deliberate lying. I don’t think the example is to the point.

No, but it wasn’t meant to be to the same point; it was meant to be to a different point. That post was more relevant to the Motoons debate than the Irving debate. I’m just all over the map, that’s what I am.

We agree on the substance, Norm and I do, but there are some wrinkles in the language that need ironing out.



Science Fuller Religion

Mar 13th, 2006 12:15 am | By

Good, someone else besides Richard Dawkins and PZ and me who thinks science and religion are not compatible.

At an August 2005 City College of New York conference featuring a panel of Nobel Laureates, one scientist created a stir by arguing that belief in God is incompatible with being a good scientist and is “damaging to the well-being of the human race.”…Hauptman: The only significant negative reaction came from Cornelia Dean, a reporter from The New York Times. I was later told by several of the other Nobel Laureates that they agreed with me, but for reasons of their own, they just did not respond…[O]bviously this view is unpopular in this overly religious society. People who are outspoken about it are more than just regarded as cranky, they are deeply disliked…I spoke out because of this frustration I have only lately begun to feel about the religiosity in our society.

In other words the pressure of public opinion and social conformity silences a lot of people. I think it is really necessary to resist that pressure and that trend. That’s why I keep yapping about it – I’m applying social pressure from the other direction. (Not that that’s much use, with the NY Times doing its bit for the wrong side.)

The interviewer asks if he thinks there is a relationship between being a good scientist and being a religious skeptic.

What are religions based on? They are not based on evidence but on faith. On the other hand, a good scientist insists that, before one assents to a claim, there must be good evidence for that claim…I think we would be better off if scientists were more open about their lack of belief in God.

So do I. I’ll tell you who doesn’t, though, and that’s Steve Fuller. He would accuse Hauptman of ‘demonizing’.

The contributors to this volume consist of some veterans of the Science Wars over the past fifteen years, including the editor, Gerald Holton, and Paul Gross. Some pieces demonize the quite different senses of “fundamentalism” on offer in contemporary Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism – each of which supposedly threatens the future of science.

Gosh, why would anyone think Christian, Islamic or Hindu fundamentalism would threaten the future of science? There’s no possible reason, therefore those horrid blood-spattered veterans of the ‘Science Wars’ have to resort to demonization. Some people will stop at nothing!

While it is relatively harmless to insist that mastery of a scientific specialty requires training in certain techniques, it is more problematic (pace Kuhn) to insist that all such specialists share the same disciplinary narrative – and still more problematic to require that they pledge allegiance to the same philosophical world-view, say, what the US National Academy of Sciences calls “methodological naturalism.” It makes for bad philosophy, bad science, and bad politics. Yet, we seem to be sliding down this slippery slope, which in the past has led to loyalty oaths and in the future could lead to the genetic profiling of people as unfit for scientific endeavors because of their propensity to belief in, say, the supernatural.

‘Disciplinary narrative’ – right. It’s just a story. And methodological naturalism is a ‘philosophical world-view’ coercively forced on all aspiring scientists. That’s a line that the defense (the ID side) tried to push at the Kitzmiller trial, the one where Steve Fuller covered himself with glory by helping his side to lose the case (by giving his ‘expert’ testimony that ID is indeed religion, when the defense was trying to claim that it wasn’t – boy, I bet they were sorry they’d invited him to the party). Barbara Forrest wouldn’t play.

Q. And methodological naturalism is a convention that’s imposed upon scientific inquiry, is it not?

A. Forrest: No, it’s not a convention that is imposed upon scientific inquiry. Methodological naturalism is a methodology. It’s a way of addressing scientific questions. It reflects the practice of science that has been successfully established over a period of centuries. It’s not imposed upon science. It reflects the successful practice of science.

So now Fuller is setting the record straight, now that there’s no pesky judge to interfere.

Perhaps the volume’s strongest suit is that it does not feature arguments to the following effect:…(b) That the research and educational agendas of democratic societies should be turned over to scientific specialists, by virtue of their superior knowledge, so to prevent society from egregious error…To this reviewer, the absence of (b)-style arguments is the surest sign that the contributors, despite their uniformly establishmentarian scientific sympathies, are still republicans – and not authoritarians. It will be interesting to see whether a successor volume still holds fast to this ideal, since some contributors seem to be chomping at the bit to grant authorized scientists unilateral control over the science curriculum.

How dare they. How dare they want to grant ‘authorized’ (what does that silly dig mean?) scientists ‘unilateral’ (what does that mean?) control over the science curriculum? How dare they not want to include lots of those unfairly ‘demonized’ fundamentalists along with lots of clued-in sociologists of science and lots of, um, baseball players? How dare they not want to hand control over the science curriculum over to The People at large, to do with it as they will? Is this a democracy, or is it not? It is a democracy. Therefore all curricula should be under the control of unauthorized democratic unauthoritarian non-specialists, because that’s democratic and the other thing isn’t. Scientific specialists who have (ew, ew, ew) ‘superior’ knowledge (can’t you just see them, those bastards, sitting around their labs in their horrible white coats fawning on each other for having so much ew superior knowledge and specialistism?) and establishmentarian sympathies are bad, bad, bad people who don’t belong in a democracy, they should all be locked up in missile silos or something, we hates ’em.

Forrest’s effectiveness was reflected in the presiding judge’s interpretation of the US Constitution’s separation of Church and State doctrine in Puritanical rather than Whitmanesque terms: He went beyond ruling that a religiously inspired viewpoint should not dominate the public school curriculum to pronouncing that no such viewpoint whatsoever should ever be introduced into scientific matters. Why science, as opposed to other subjects in the curriculum, should be treated so preciously remained unaddressed. However, it would make sense if a certain self-consciously non-theological conception of science were treated as a secular religion of a civic republican polity, as Dewey seemed to wish for the United States.

Oh, gawd, what a pile of steaming ordure. What a horrible, sly, insinuating, eelish way of deploying rhetoric instead of argument he has. How annoying he is. How I wish he would give it all up and become a church warden instead.



The Marshy Ground Between

Mar 12th, 2006 8:15 pm | By

And more again. It seems worth trying to figure all this out and get clear what we’re talking about (I think discussions about free speech tend to be surprisingly unclear). With clarity goes honesty, rather than the hypocrisy that cartoon-offended Muslims accuse defenders of ‘blasphemous’ cartoons of, in some ways with justice.

To repeat, or restate. I’m claiming that disputes like the ones over the prophet cartoons and over Irving and Holocaust denial are not simply a matter of Free Speech full stop, or of Free Speech unless there is imminent danger of physical harm. They’re also not a matter of either-or, all or nothing; not a matter of: either criminalization or unqualifed Right; it’s a matter of what lies between: of the broad marshy territory of oughts and shoulds, practice and custom, the tacit, the unwritten, the familiar, the accepted, codes of ethics, morality, implicit agreement. Also of vocational norms – which are very strong, often constraining (for good and ill), and enforceable by firing. Just ask Jayson Blair!

It’s important to keep all this in mind – because if we don’t we will just fall into the hypocrisy, double standard trap – of protecting this free speech but not that, and of failing or refusing to give any arguments for doing so. What it amounts to is that we do have (mostly tacit, implicit, customary, intuitive, so hidden and unnoticed and unaware) principles of selection.

One: consider: we don’t actually think newspapers or broadcasters have a ‘right’ to for instance replace the word ‘black’ with nigger, or ‘woman’ with bitch or cunt or ho, or ‘Arab’ with raghead. We don’t think people should be either arrested or imprisoned for doing so, and we don’t think they have a ‘right’ to do it. (That is, we think they have a narrowly-defined legal right, but not any other kind of right.) You don’t (well, maybe among shock jocks you do, but apart from that) hear people resoundingly defending that right. It’s a legal right, but in practice, it’s not a real right, because no one to the left of Fred Phelps would want to exercise it. Imagine Anderson Cooper or Andrew Marr getting a memo from the brass telling them to make such a vocabulary change. Imagine the New York Times or the Telegraph suddenly adopting such a practice – every article and comment full of whores and niggers and kikes and faggots and kikes and towelheads. What would we think? ‘They have a right to do that, and that is all there is to it, there is nothing more to be said’? I don’t think so!

Two: consider again: we also don’t think newspapers and broadcast media have a right to tell us a pack of lies in reporting the news – I don’t mean differences of interpretation, getting it wrong, selection, I mean gross blatant whoppers. Telling us China has invaded Taiwan, an earthquake has killed ten million people in Argentina, India has nuked Islamabad, Mugabe has resigned, the genocide in Darfur has ended – when none of them are true. We don’t necessarily think they should be arrested or imprisoned (though we may wonder, if the false reports do enough damage – retaliatory nuclear strikes, for instance) – but we don’t think they have a right to do that. In fact we think they have no right to do that, and we’d be outraged. We’d all be running around telling each other ‘They have no right to do that!’ I can hear us now.

These fences are perhaps invisible because they’re generally so well heeded. We don’t think about newspapers telling huge whoppers, because they don’t. (Well, except items like the National Enquirer, but that’s a different genre. Again, the convention is generally understood. Serious broadsheets don’t tell gross lies; tabloids need some caution.) But the fact that we’re not aware that we don’t think the Times has a ‘right’ to lie doesn’t mean we think it does have that right. (In fact the more reputation a newspaper has, the greater its [implicit, moral] obligation to tell the truth – because it’s what we expect, so it has the power to do more damage by lying, because we’ll believe the lies. Authority and reputation entail increased responsibility.)

So – the point about all these people who say ‘of course free speech, but‘ – is not that there never is any but, or that there never is any but except in cases of imminent danger – it is that they have the wrong but. There are buts and then there are buts, and there is no alternative to evaluating them on the merits. To judging each but, each exception, each ‘ought’, on the merits, on the substance, as opposed to waving the Free Speech flag and thinking that does the job. It doesn’t.

And by the way Holocaust denial is not the right retort to Motoons. That would be Mosestoons or Jesustoons. Holocaust denial is parallel to denying what happened in Gujarat, Bosnia, Chechnya.



What Trumps What

Mar 11th, 2006 6:56 pm | By

Another thought or two on free speech and lying.

Part of what I think I disagree with is Norm’s implication that there are only two possibilities, protection of lying as free speech or criminalization of it.

Now, even though Ophelia puts the point interrogatively and not as a conclusion, one can only assume she does so to leave open the possibility that falsehood, lying and such shouldn’t be protected under norms of free speech, and therefore may in certain circumstances be criminalized.

I’m not sure that ‘therefore’ is a therefore. I’m not sure that failure or refusal to protect X translates to a belief that X should or may be criminalized. It seems to me it can fall well short of that. Are we (logically, or morally, or both) obliged to protect everything we don’t think should be a crime? Surely not. Surely there’s a whole mess of things, a whole choppy sea of them, that we disapprove of and think wrong and wouldn’t dream of actively protecting, without therefore thinking they should be felonies, or even the equivalent of parking tickets.*

And I suppose this is how I look at the whole issue. I don’t see it as all or nothing, as free speech or nothing, as a blanket endorsement of free speech or a blanket criminalization of everything that’s not an explicit right. I suppose I look at it in a ceteris paribus way, and I often think other things aren’t equal. I suppose I see blanket or unconditional endorsements of free speech as a pre-emptive move similar to that executed by words like ‘respect’ and ‘blasphemy’. I think I’m going to write a book about this.

It’s not that I don’t think free speech is a good, and a tremendously important good at that, it’s just that I think 1) that it’s often a competing good and 2) that the things it competes with have to be evaluated on their merits rather than just dismissed by the trumping-power of free speech and 3) that as Stanley Fish and Onora O’Neill (among others) point out, pretty much everyone else thinks that too. If that’s true, if pretty much everyone else does think that too, then the blanket endorsement of free speech would seem to be functioning as a rhetorical tool.

Dave put it neatly in comments:

This is, of course, why politics is inevitable. There is no foundational response to the issue, other than to continue the clash between differing viewpoints over what constitutes a ‘correction’ and what a ‘falsification’, and to hope that those who defend freedom do not sell the pass one day…

There is no foundational response to the issue. Free speech is one good, but truth, accuracy, scholarship, reliable scholarship, the reliable universality and intercommunicability of scholarship and research and knowledge, methodological reliability, evidence, standards, trust – are also goods. It is by no means self-evident that free speech should protect a putative right to falsify history at the expense of all those very real and important goods. Research, inquiry, the steady accumulation of reliable, warranted knowledge would become impossible if everyone came to believe that free speech meant the right to simply invent one’s findings – to cheat, as Robert Pennock called it during the Kitzmiller trial. But – that doesn’t cash out to saying that scholars who lie should be hauled off to prison.

Onora O’Neill put it this way:

Yet even committed liberals don’t seriously think that rights to free speech are unlimited or unconditional, although they seem to be unsure about which limits should be set. They are often torn between an aspiration to justify free speech as minimal and uncontroversial, and a contrary belief that free speech matters because it is not minimal but powerful…Rights to free speech have always been seen as limited by other serious considerations, and must often be so restricted if we are to respect other rights. Nobody thinks that a right to free speech confers an unconditional licence to intimidate, to incite hatred, to defraud, to deceive or the like, and nobody thinks that the law should protect speech acts that harm, injure or put others at risk.

That’s what I’m saying. I don’t think Irving should be in prison (although I have to admit I don’t think it with much intensity or passion or even conviction, and I don’t mind much that he is there, especially after listening to Radio 4’s documentary on the trial last week) but I don’t think he has a right to falsify published history, either.

It’s all about lying, after all. Irving accused Deborah Lipstadt of lying by accusing her of libel – he was accusing her of lying about him, and he wanted the accusation to have an effect: the pulping of her book. He lost the case because he was shown to have lied extensively himself. His right to free speech didn’t trump that verdict – so in that sense it was not protected. It lost out to other, competing rights. Lipstadt won the case not because she had a right to free speech, but because the evidence showed that she told the truth and Irving lied.

Another distinction that I think helps to disentangle this is that between speech (such as speech to political meetings and rallies) and published writing. But that’s enough for now.

*Mind you, a lot of people do make exactly that translation, as I’ve remarked before. They do, oddly, hear strongly-worded disapprobation of, say, a certain kind of tv show or movie or book as a demand for censorship of same. But those are confused people, who are beside the point for the purposes of this discussion.



Must not Strive Officiously to Keep Alive

Mar 10th, 2006 7:01 pm | By

Norm wrote a post a few days ago on lying as speech, taking off partly from some of my posts on Irving. I’ve been wanting to consider the subject a little more.

I think we may be talking about slightly (or perhaps not so slightly) different things.

Now, even though Ophelia puts the point interrogatively and not as a conclusion, one can only assume she does so to leave open the possibility that falsehood, lying and such shouldn’t be protected under norms of free speech, and therefore may in certain circumstances be criminalized.

Hmm. No, it’s not really criminalization that I’m talking about. I don’t think Irving should be in prison, but I’m not sure I therefore think his falsehoods should be protected. I’m not talking about criminalization so much as about right, and rights. I don’t think Irving should be in prison, but do I therefore think he has a right to falsify history? No, I don’t – at least not a moral right, and that’s part of what I’m saying – that the fact that falsification of history should not (on the whole – there could be exceptions) be an imprisonable offence does not necessarily mean that it’s a right in all possible senses. Is that incoherent? I don’t think so. Look at the Dover school board – they found via Judge Jones’s decision that they don’t have a right to force science teachers to teach religion in the classroom, but they didn’t go to prison.

I cannot imagine there would be an argument for innocuous falsehoods, even where these are deliberate, to be criminalized. Surely people must still be allowed to maintain that the world is flat (whether knowing this to be false or not), to claim – at Hyde Park Corner – Napoleon as a direct blood ancestor when he is not, and to assert that the Romans had mobile phones though no trace of these has survived. The examples may be frivolous, but the point isn’t; it’s that what matters in the present context is not any old false or lying claims for which there is no evidence, but falsehoods which could do grave harm.

Why Hyde Park Corner, I wonder? Why the stipulation, between hyphens, as an afterthought, of Hyde Park Corner? It’s interesting, because I agree with Norm if he really does mean ‘at Hyde Park Corner’ and not in textbooks or history books by reputable (trusted) publishers. But if he means ‘at Hyde Park Corner’ and in textbooks and history books by reputable (trusted) publishers, then I don’t. But he probably doesn’t mean that, or he wouldn’t have stipulated Hyde Park Corner. But this is just where the difficulty (or one of them) comes in. The park soapbox doesn’t matter much, because it’s wide open (like the internet), there are no filters, anyone can stand on a chair and say any old fool thing, and most hearers know that. But in textbooks and history books (for instance) readers don’t know that. So do people have a ‘right’ to falsify the evidence – by mistranslating, dropping a few zeroes from numbers, that sort of thing – in history books? I don’t think they do. And, actually, I’m not sure anyone thinks they do. It’s not usually considered a violation of rights when copyeditors and fact checkers and researchers correct mistakes in manuscripts is it? (Assuming they actually do correct mistakes as opposed to inserting mistakes of their own, which can happen, she said through gritted teeth.) And then consider science. Scientists tend to be really quite harsh about falsification of evidence. Really very sharp indeed, when it comes to their attention. They don’t think their colleagues have a right to fake their experiments, do they? No. In fact fakery is a firing offense, even though not (usually) one that gets you sent to prison.

So – given that Irving was found by the judge at the libel trial to have not merely got things wrong but to have faked the evidence – it’s not clear to me that he does really have a meaningful ‘right’ to do that, even though a prison sentence is probably the wrong way to deal with the matter.

Yet, if rights of free speech on scientific, historical and other such matters are not to be held to cover the assertion – even deliberate – of untruths, then it assigns the task of determining truth to some political authority, and that is surely a danger of its own kind. There is truth and untruth, to be sure, but in the domain we are discussing, the (always provisional) finding of truth is left to processes of free enquiry, the standards set by communities of scholars, public debate and criticism. It is an open-ended and democratic search, and it countenances opposition to and denial even of the most established results. Stipulation of the truth by a political or legal authority does not fit in well with this and it has a bad historical track record.

Yes, ideally, but what about for instance public hearings about textbooks, at which religious campaigners attempt to insert ‘corrections’ that have no scholarly basis? It is in fact a political authority that makes the decision. The issue of falsifications and inaccuracies in books becomes a matter of political or legal authority when state schools are involved – that seems to be inevitable.

Perhaps the relevant distinction is between prevention and punishment. I don’t think Irving should be punished, but I do think he should be prevented, at least from publishing (by publishers rather than by cops). So in that sense, I don’t think he does have a right to protected free speech. I don’t think we’re obliged to make any affirmative efforts to see that his falsifications get placed in the permanent record. I don’t think he should be forcibly silenced, but I don’t think he should be officiously handed a megaphone, either.



Guardianophobia

Mar 10th, 2006 5:13 pm | By

This is an immensely irritating article. Very typical, and symptomatic, and all the more irritating for that.

More than half of Americans believe there are more violent extremists within Islam than in any other religion and that the faith encourages violence against non-Muslims, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll yesterday…Analysts blame the surge on a confluence of factors…above all, the riotous protests across the Muslim world against Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Analysts ‘blame the surge’ on ‘riotous protests’ in which a lot of people were killed – killed dead, over some cartoons, the most ‘offensive’ of which was faked. Well, yes, that probably was a factor. In other words analysts ‘blame the surge’ on real events, and people’s awareness of those real events. Well – is that not allowed? Are people not allowed to observe real events and draw conclusions from them? What are we supposed to do? Observe real events and decide on principle not to draw any unpleasant conclusions from them? Are we supposed to observe Fred Phelps and his followers (one of whom gave an interview on the World Service last night that was quite astonishing) and not draw any conclusions about them?

But nearly half of Americans, 46%, said they held unfavourable attitudes towards Islam – compared with 24% in January 2002. The Post quoted analysts as saying that the demonisation of Islam by politicians and the media during the past four years had led to an erosion of tolerance.

So, there’s our answer: yes, we are supposed to observe real events and not draw particular conclusions from them. There are conclusions we’re not supposed to draw, no matter what the evidence for them. There are certain conclusions that are ruled out in advance. There are certain conclusions that are ‘demonization’ and the opposite of ‘tolerance’ (and, no doubt, ‘respect’), and they are forbidden. The only permitted conclusion, apparently, is that all religions (or ‘faiths’) have exactly, and I mean exactly, the same ratio of good to bad, the same number of faults and virtues, the same moral value. That is simply a revealed truth, and it cannot be gainsaid by any amount of actual real-world actions or speech, any amount of facts and evidence. No number of beheadings of schoolgirls, stonings to death of women buried up to the neck while their children are made to watch, exploded tube trains and buses and pizza restaurants and discos, death threats, ‘honour’ killings, riots, fires – no such number is permitted to be taken into account. No. It is simply Forbidden to think that it might possibly conceivably actually be a mere fact that there are more violent extremists within Islam than in any other religion and that Islam does encourage violence against non-Muslims. But what if it is in fact true? If it is in fact true, don’t we want to be able to take that in? Do we want to be forbidden to take it in by being told it is ‘demonization’? I would say no. Again, consider Fred Phelps. I don’t want to be told to ‘tolerate’ Fred Phelps – I want to reject him and everything he says. That principle applies across the board. We need to be able to judge religions and the ideas that animate them, and to say they are bad and harmful if they are in fact bad and harmful. It’s no good assuming anything is good or harmless without looking first. The use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ in the title of course sets the tone, by right from the outset (‘Islamophobia’ is the first word in the piece) telling us what to think: telling us to equate opinions critical of Islam with the loony-sounding ‘Islamophobia’. It was Islamists who came up with that idea, telling followers to use the word whenever possible; it’s pathetic that the Guardian helps out. It’s worse than pathetic.

James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, told the Post he was not surprised by the poll’s results. Politicians, authors and media commentators have demonised the Arab world since 2001, he said.

And here we just descend into hopeless confusion and inanity. The survey was about Islam, remember? Not Arabs? Islam? What’s the Arab American Institute got to do with anything? What’s ‘the Arab world’ got to do with anything? What are we talking about? Anything? Everything? Whatever comes to hand? Is this just a none-too-subtle ploy to equate criticism of Islam with racism? Similar to the ‘Islamophobia’ ploy? Either that or hopeless confusion. Anyway, classic.



Dworkin

Mar 9th, 2006 7:37 pm | By

Dworkin also good. I don’t agree with all of it, but there’s plenty of welcome clarity.

Freedom of speech is not just a special and distinctive emblem of Western culture that might be generously abridged or qualified as a measure of respect for other cultures that reject it…Free speech is a condition of legitimate government…So in a democracy no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended. That principle is of particular importance in a nation that strives for racial and ethnic fairness…Whatever multiculturalism means – whatever it means to call for increased “respect” for all citizens and groups – these virtues would be self-defeating if they were thought to justify official censorship.

Yes, what does it mean to call for increased ‘respect’ for all groups – and ‘cultures’ and religions and practices and beliefs? It means complete and total abdication of judgment, as far as I can tell, and that seems like a bad idea. It’s disrespectful to people who recognize the need for judgment.

It is often said that religion is special, because people’s religious convictions are so central to their personalities that they should not be asked to tolerate ridicule of their beliefs, and because they might feel a religious duty to strike back at what they take to be sacrilege…But religion must observe the principles of democracy, not the other way around. No religion can be permitted to legislate for everyone about what can or cannot be drawn any more than it can legislate about what may or may not be eaten. No one’s religious convictions can be thought to trump the freedom that makes democracy possible.

That’s the basic point. No religion can be permitted to legislate for everyone – about anything, actually, not just what can or cannot be drawn or eaten or worn or read, but about anything. Religion is the wrong tool for legislation, so it can’t be treated as universally applicable.



Disrepute

Mar 9th, 2006 7:16 pm | By

Wole Soyinka asks: who is really bringing Islam into disrepute? He mentions the riots and death fatwa over the ‘Miss World’ contest and a journalist’s comment in Nigeria two years ago.

Predictably, I denounced the murderous orgy. To my astonishment, some liberal voices of the Western world, always liberal with the blood of others, and liberal in defense of the aggressor, chose to concentrate on the “impropriety” of importing “Western decadence” to the pristine innocence of and polluting her cultural values…The core of the main discourse was nearly lost – the sanctity of human lives over and above the claims of any icons of faith, however universally revered. Through such distractions is impunity born, and the law of the mob and its manipulators tacitly endorsed by the appeasers of the world.

As we have been seeing for the past several weeks – impunity is born, and the law of the mob and its manipulators is tacitly endorsed by the appeasers of the world. The more violent the protests are, the more bashful mumbling there is about respect and sensitivity. I wonder – were there a lot of liberals wandering around German towns the day after Kristallnacht, saying everyone should be sensitive and respectful about Nazis’ feelings and beliefs?

The Danish government, thank goodness, declined to assume the burden of guilt by succumbing to the call to apologize for the conduct of one of its citizens, an individual who at no time was accused of being its official, representative or spokesman, but a free agent in his own cause, however censurable. The proposition that a government should act as monitor for individual choice within a free society is repugnant.

The Danish government has done some apologizing now, unfortunately – perhaps understandably, in the circs, but unfortunately.

Even more determinedly, however, must we reject the attempt of any sectional authority or quasi-state to foist its will on those who do not subscribe to the mandates of its beliefs, cultures and values.

That’s exactly what we must reject. We must not embrace it or applaud it or sympathize with it or march beside it, we must reject it. Will-foisting is held in oddly high esteem at the moment, and that is a catastrophe. That’s a giant step down the road to theocracy, and we must reject it.

What the atavists of religion have done is to expand the “territory of insult” into a limitless one…More to the point, they have raised questions about the followers of the Prophet and their understanding of the world’s complexity.

And not only their understanding of the world’s complexity, but their priorities, and their compassion – as Soyinka also notes.

Is it in the midst of this rampaging, racist obscenity called Darfur that the world is being invited to shift even its hazy focus, close down shop on vital concerns, wallow in an orgy of remorse, while the United Nations suspends its operations on behalf of traumatized humanity, all on account of some obscure cartoonist possessed by the Muse of irreverence? Clearly the world is askew, but not in the way some see it.

Spot on. Stonings and beheadings, fine; cartoons, the end of the world. Disrepute.



Kitchener Poster

Mar 9th, 2006 6:01 pm | By

Your time has come at last. Remember last November I did a post called Things Fall Apart about the way bits were dropping off B&W which I couldn’t fix, and great crowds of you came surging forward to offer to help? Yes you do. Come on, of course you do. You said. Come back here right now –

No but really, it’s not much. I promise. It’s just to do with the update, and sending it out. I still keep getting sad emails from people who really liked reading the update every week, and passed it around to other people and discussed it, and miss it terribly. Each one is like a stab from a serrated dagger. So I’m going to send it out by hand. That means I have to put it together by hand, which means a lot of extra copying and pasting, which takes up some time; and after all that, I have to send it to about a thousand addresses, about fifty at a time. That’s twenty sends. If just a few of you dear loyal fans would help with the sending, that would cut down on the extra pasting and clicking at my end, thus freeing up more time for me to write hectoring nagging screeching N&Cs. The webmaster is going to send me the list of addresses, and I hope to send the first resurrected update on Monday, so if any of you would like to volunteer (you there in the back, creeping out the door, I see you, we all see you), email me to that effect. Love and kisses.



More Swinny

Mar 7th, 2006 10:35 pm | By

I mentioned that interview with Swinburne in What Philosophers Think.

It’s based on a discussion of a paper he gave at a Congress, about God and evil. He says the usual sort of thing –

…it’s a good thing that humans should have free will, not just free will to choose between alternative television channels, but free will to choose significantly between good and bad – good and evil in the terms of the paper. But, they can’t have that unless there is the actual possibility of them bringing about evil The possibility of evil occurring unprevented is the necessary condition for them having a free choice between good and evil.

That’s the same problem we had with his discussion with Dennett. Why is it a good thing that humans should have free will? We don’t even agree that it’s a good thing (for the universe, or the planet, or other biological systems, or anyone or anything other than humans themselves, which doesn’t seem to be what he means, or surely he would have said that, instead of saying ‘objectively’) that humans exist, so why would it be a good thing that, existing, humans should have free will? Why should that be any more of a good thing than that humans should have moles, or teeth, or calf muscles? Never mind – it gets more interesting, when the discussion turns to ‘natural evil’.

Human suffering as the result of disease – very frequent, not the result of free choice, or at any rate not the result of free choice unless there are bad angels at work causing it. That is possible, but it’s not something I would wish to promote very strongly. That sort of suffering is necessary because it gives the sufferer the opportunity to either be sorry for himself or to deal with it courageously. If he didn’t suffer he wouldn’t have the opportunity to deal with his suffering in either a courageous way or in a self-pitying way. It also gives other people – friends, spouse, children etc. – the opportunity to be sympathetic, to try and help him, for showing sympathy, feeling sympathy and doing something about it or not to bother. That is to say this is the grit that makes possible the pearl of different kinds of reaction. If the world was without any natural evil and suffering we wouldn’t have the opportunity, or nearly as much opportunity, to show courage, patience and sympathy. Of course I’m not suggesting that God ought to multiply suffering ad infinitum in order to give us endless opportunity, but I do think the world would be a poorer place if we didn’t have some opportunity to show ourselves at our best in this kind of way.

Actually, that is exactly what you’re suggesting, you simp. You can’t help suggesting that, because of what you’re saying. Because look – if the suffering as a result of disease is not real suffering, if it’s trivial, if it’s a mere mild lassitude or a slight ache in the calf muscle, then courage is beside the point, it’s not needed. For the courage to be actual courage, as opposed to just dramatizing, or downright joking (like howling the place down when you bump your elbow slightly, to make the dog look puzzled), it has to be real suffering. Right? So – the worse the suffering is, the more courage is needed, and the more courageous the courage is. So, if you’re fool enough to think the courage is worth the price of the suffering, then you do indeed think the more the merrier, or ‘that God ought to multiply suffering ad infinitum‘. That’s exactly what you are saying in that revolting passage. You might as well say people should whip their children every few hours so that the children can bear it courageously and the parents can show them sympathy. It makes just that much sense.

We’ve seen this argument before. Some rabbi on Thought for the Day – I think arguing against the legal right to die, on the grounds that he wouldn’t have wanted his father to have had that option, because then he would have missed the opportunity to show his father compassion – during his suffering. So he wanted his father to suffer so that he could show him compassion – badly enough that he was glad his father wasn’t able to choose whether to suffer (and get the compassion) or not. Excuse me, but I think that’s disgusting.

Then there’s a really dreadful passage about being of use to others. ‘I brought out several examples of that, of which, of course, the most striking would be the person who dies for his country in a just war.’ Julian asks about suffering that seems to be of no use to anyone, and cites the Battle of the Somme as an example.

Well, that particular soldier’s life is also of use…someone sent him there, some general high up has taken a decision about this matter…Innumerable people, through negligence, through stirring up hatred, through not bothering, have contributed to war. It’s a great good for them that they are allowed to make big differences to things, and they can only make big differences to things if there are going to be possible victims.

That’s – beyond disgusting. That’s blood-curdling. That’s enough to make you run screaming from the room. As Julian (more politely) notes.

Swinburne had already said that his argument wouldn’t convince the committed atheist and wouldn’t make much difference to the committed believer. Reconciling God and evil is of most value to the undecided or unsure. Leaving the interview, I was unsure as to whether the very precise reconciliation Swinburne describes will have the effect of clearing the way for belief in God or making the very idea of God a more chilling one.

More chilling!



Resisting Obscurantism

Mar 7th, 2006 7:10 pm | By

And André Glucksmann says what badly needs saying.

Offence for offence? Infringement for infringement? Can the negation of Auschwitz be put on a par with the desecration of Muhammad? This is where two philosophies clash. The one says yes, these are equivalent “beliefs” which have been equally scorned. There is no difference between factual truth and professed faith; the conviction that the genocide took place and the certitude that Muhammad was illuminated by Archangel Gabriel are on a par. The others say no, the reality of the death camps is a matter of historical fact, whereas the sacredness of the prophets is a matter of personal belief.

Thank you. Finally! No, evidence-based facts are not the same kind of thing as religious beliefs. They are, in fact, in crucial ways opposites, diametrically opposed, incompatible. It’s about time we got that straight.

This distinction between fact and belief is at the heart of Western thought…Civilised discourse analyses and defines scientific truths, historic truths and matters of fact relating to knowledge, not to faith. And it does this irrespective of race or confession. We may believe these facts are profane or undignified, yet they remain distinct from religious truths. Our planet is not in the grips of a clash of civilisations or cultures. It is the battleground of a decisive struggle between two ways of thinking. There are those who declare that there are no facts, but only interpretations – so many acts of faith. These either tend toward fanaticism (“I am the truth”) or they fall into nihilism (“nothing is true, nothing is false”). Opposing them are those who advocate free discussion with a view to distinguishing between true and false, those for whom political and scientific matters – or simple judgement – can be settled on the basis of worldly facts, independently of arbitrary pre-established opinions.

And not only can be, but have to be, on pain of being consigned to the horrible mental prison where intensity of belief determines what is true.

A totalitarian way of thinking loathes to be gainsaid. It affirms dogmatically, and waves the little red, or black, or green book. It is obscurantist, blending politics and religion…It is high time that the democrats regained their spirit, and that the constitutional states remembered their principles. With solemnity and solidarity they must recall that one, two or three religions, four or five ideologies may in no way decide what citizens can do or think.

Damn right.



Remember, the Pope is a Catholic

Mar 7th, 2006 6:48 pm | By

Julian has a good thing in the Guardian. Makes a change from Andrew Brown.

In order to be a distinct belief system, a religion has to have specific doctrines. That automatically creates two types of dissenters. Heretics are those who claim to be of the same conviction, but who disagree on some fundamentals…Apostates reject the religion altogether…In public life, we allow heretics and apostates their sinful ways. But within religious institutions, to grant the same liberty would be absurd. For example, you can’t have a Pope who thinks the Bible is a good book, but is no more the product of divine authorship than The Da Vinci Code.

Just so. That’s similar to the point Edmund Standing makes in ‘Misdirected Outrage’: that if a religion teaches something, then that is what the religion teaches, and it’s no good pretending it doesn’t.

Either choose the human rights culture born of the rejection of the old discriminatory approaches of religion, or choose the moral order of Allah, the divine dictator. Allah is not a proponent of human rights. Allah does not believe in the right of the individual to choose how to live. Anyone who thinks that Islam and homosexuality can be reconciled is living in a fantasy world. Take a look at what the Qur’an has to say about homosexuality. This is what Islam teaches. Don’t like it? Then get out.

This confusion is behind (or at least enables) a lot of the soft squashy but relentless pressure to ‘respect’ religion at the moment: the mistaken idea that religion is compatible with human rights. But it isn’t. That’s why we hate it, that’s why it’s coercive, that’s why it can’t be argued with or reasoned with, that’s why it has to be kept out of public policy: because it rests on divine dictatorship. It’s really really important to keep that in mind, especially when the ‘let’s be nice to religion because that’s where the votes are’ crowd is writing its wrong-headed polemics.

Back to Julian’s piece:

This matters to more than just believers. The idea of a secular state is currently under fire as people call to bring religion into more areas of public life, such as education. But if more institutions become the domain of religion, questions of heresy and apostasy will become relevant to all who use those institutions, and work for or with them.

And what a nightmare world that would be. Wouldn’t you say? Questions of heresy and apostasy muddying things up in what should be secular institutions? Let’s not go that way.



Objectively?

Mar 7th, 2006 2:51 am | By

A little more on Swinburne, just for drill.

Why do all particles behave in exactly the same way as each other, so as together ultimately to produce human life? This enormous coincidence in particle behaviour requires explaining. I’ve got a good theory which explains it; you haven’t. And if you are really telling me that the production of humans is not, objectively, a good thing, I find myself wondering if you really mean something so implausible.

He’s got a good theory to explain it. His good theory to explain it is a big person (where? where is this big person? outside the universe? on one side of it? or all sides, going all the way around? a big round person with the universe at the middle of it?) who is perfectly this that and the other, that no one can see or smell or talk to, that doesn’t take phone calls or answer letters, but does answer prayers, sometimes, maybe. That’s a good theory? It’s not just a tiny bit, erm, implausible, on the face of it? I have to be honest: it seems very implausible to me. Not just mildly implausible, but very implausible. A big person, wot made the universe, in order to make yooman beings. Nope – don’t buy it.

Okay, next bit. (And what’s that we’re always being told about how uncertain and modest religious believers are? Not if Swinburne is anything to go on they’re not.) It’s implausible to say that the production of humans is not objectively a good thing. But why are they a good thing to anyone but themselves? Well, maybe not quite only themselves. I can see why rats would be pleased, and pigeons, and flies, and various types of virus and bacteria. And of course wheat and soybeans and potatoes are delighted – it’s worked out terrifically well for them. I do quite see that. But that’s not objectively – that’s just to a few species (and who knows how many naysayers there are even there, eh? maybe lots of pigeons and rats would really have preferred to go it on their own and let things fall out as they would), it’s not objectively. How can the production of humans be objectively a good thing? What ultimate, general, non-personal, non-local good does our existence do? How is Jupiter, or Alpha Centauri, or the next galaxy over, better off for the existence of humans?

Is this the best theists can do? I suppose it must be. Since I don’t think they have any good arguments, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the arguments they do give seem awfully thin. But – then why do they get to be Topp, and publish books, and so on? It seems a little strange.