The duty of inquiry

Apr 16th, 2007 2:44 pm | By

I’ve just re-read W K Clifford’s ‘The Ethics of Belief’. The first paragraph is well known.

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first…Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections.

He rationalized them away, and was content. In reading that paragraph again, I was struck by a parallel – a very strong parallel. Feynman on the Challenger. The first paragraph there:

It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask “What is the cause of management’s fantastic faith in the machinery?”

Fascinating, isn’t it? Clifford’s example is imagined, and Feynman’s is real, and the mechanism is identical. Wishful thinking in action. ‘Oh, it’s okay, it’s fine, it’s done pretty well so far; bye bye.’

Clifford takes an ethical view of the matter.

What shall we say of [the shipowner]? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

That’s the whole burden of the essay: he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. It’s not a popular view, but I think it has a lot to be said for it.

Allah-o-akbar, thwack, crunch

Apr 16th, 2007 10:22 am | By

Honour is a beautiful thing; so is devoutness; right? Seven or eight men knocking a woman down and then kicking her and breaking several of her ribs – what could be more beautiful and holy than that? Few things I can think of, for sure.

Norwegian-Somalian Kadra, who became famous in Norway for exposing imam support of female circumcision, was beaten unconscious on Thursday…”I was terrified. While I lay on the pavement they kicked me and screamed that I had trampled on the Koran. Several shouted Allah-o-akbar (God is great) and also recited from the Koran,” Kadra told VG. Kadra linked the attack to recent remarks in VG where she said that the Koran’s views on women needed to be reinterpreted. Kadra said that the gang of Somali men attacked her around 3 a.m. in downtown Oslo on Thursday. A medical examination found that she had several broken ribs.

Several broken ribs. Broken ribs really hurt, and they can’t be immobilized the way most fractures can. What a charming idea of ‘God’ these men must have, to think it wants them to shout how great it is while breaking the ribs of a small thin woman lying on the street.

Devout annexation

Apr 13th, 2007 12:32 pm | By

Quarreling with Martha Nussbaum.

I think that in all religions there are people who want to live a traditional life and people who want to be part of modernity, and we ought to make room for both and show both equal respect.

That depends on what you mean by ‘live a traditional life’ and what you mean by ‘show both equal respect.’ Or to put it another way, that sounds nice, if you don’t pay too much attention; it sounds very kind and caring and generous; but what if ‘live a traditional life’ means ‘raise their children to believe that women are inferior to men’ or ‘coerce their daughters into marrying strangers’ or ‘forbid their wives and daughters to leave the house’? Those are among the things ‘live a traditional life’ can mean, and I have no intention of showing equal respect to any of them, and furthermore, I think we ought not to show them equal respect.

What is Nussbaum doing talking in such sweeping vague terms? She knows better than that, so what’s she doing?

What we see in some nations, then, is not Islam itself, but a politicized version of Islam that is not a necessary interpretation of those religious texts. That point has been made repeatedly by dissidents in the societies in which this politicized version of Islam is influential, such as Shiran Ebadi and Akbar Ganji in Iran. Both are devout Muslims, and both insist, with convincing argument, that there is nothing in their sex-equal democratic proposals that is incompatible with Islam.

That’s good, and I hope they win the argument. I really do – but does it need to be pointed out that they’re not winning it at the moment, and that there are a lot of other ‘devout Muslims’ around who insist very much the opposite?

Perhaps a good democracy is one where people express themselves in their own way, and still live with one another on terms of equal respect. I’m just finishing a book on the USA tradition on the topic of religious liberty, and I think for once that there is something to be said in favour of the traditions of my own nation. Namely, people who are different from the norm not only get scrupulous fairness under law, which even John Locke advocated, they also get what is called rights of “accommodation”, namely, they do not have to observe certain laws that burden their conscience, unless there is a “compelling state interest”. In other words, if you are a Jew and you receive a subpoena to testify in court on a Saturday, you may refuse without legal penalty…I believe that this tradition of “accommodation” expresses a spirit of equal respect for minorities living in a majority world. Writing to the Quakers about why he was not going to require them to perform military service, our first president George Washington says, “The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with the greatest delicacy and tenderness”. I wish I saw more of this delicacy and tenderness in Europe today.

I think that’s disgusting stuff, because of the implicit endorsement of the idea that conscience is religious, or that ‘conscience’ deserves special, extra (‘tender’) accomodation when it is religious that it does not deserve when it is not religious. Well, why? Notice that she never says why. (If she does, the editor dropped it.) Notice also that she chooses the easier cases (the elided ones are comparatively easy too). Notice that she chooses a Jew refusing to go to court on a Saturday; how often do courts sit on Saturdays? What about people who refuse to go to court on a Friday or a Wednesday, when courts do sit? Why doesn’t she use that as an example? But much more important, why on earth does she choose to perpetuate the idea that ‘conscientious scruples’ are a monopoly of religious people and hence that atheists don’t have them? And where does she get off dressing up that nasty bigoted coercive prejudice in the glow of self-righteous disapproval? Why is she so pleased with herself for wanting to give special privileges to religion and religious believers that atheists don’t get? Why is she so smugly boastful about identifying conscience with religion?

I’ve questioned this talk about delicacy and respect from Nussbaum before. There was this, in Hiding from Humanity:

But to claim that freedom of speech promotes truth in metaphysics and morals would be to show disrespect for the idea of reasonable pluralism, and to venture onto a terrain where one is at high risk of showing disrespect to one’s fellow citizens. Mill is totally oblivious to all such considerations. He has none of the delicate regard for other people’s religious doctrines that characterizes the political liberal…One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

Well there’s some classic respect creep (to quote Simon Blackburn again) for you. Here’s an earlier and more carefully argued example from Sex and Social Justice (page 110):

US constitutional law has standardly granted special latitude to religion, by contrast with other forms of commitment and affiliation. Religious reasons for exemption from military service, or for refusing to work on a particular day, are granted a latitude that is not granted to other forms of conscientious commitment, such as the familial or the artistic or even the ethical. This remains controversial for the way it appears to privilege religion over nonreligion…[T]his is not the place to make a normative argument on such a complex and vexed matter. Suffice it to say that such privileges given to religion, though highly contestable, can be strongly supported by pointing to the special importance of the liberty of conscience as a fundamental right and the consequent need to give religious freedom special protection from the incursions that, throughout history, have threatened it.

I couldn’t agree less. That works only if you take ‘conscience’ to mean ‘religious conscience,’ and why would anyone take it to mean that? It doesn’t mean that. I looked it up in the Concise Oxford: the definition doesn’t mention religion. Religion does not get to help itself to the word ‘conscience’ and pretend it has the thing while non-religious people don’t; ‘conscience’ is about morality, not religion, and religion has no, repeat no monopoly on either one. Both conscience and morality are secular terms, secular ideas, secular principles, and religion has no business trying to annex them, and Nussbaum has no business helping them do it.

I used to admire Nussbaum, but I’ve gone right off her now. I’m really allergic to this annexation thing.

History matters

Apr 12th, 2007 12:15 pm | By

What children in Japan learn about their own recent past:

We’ve learnt that Japan fought a war with China and colonised parts of the country. Sometimes the Japanese were a bit cruel, forcing places to adopt Japanese names and forcing people to adopt the Japanese language. But we didn’t really get into the details of what actually happened. I feel my understanding of the war is a bit thin.

Yeah, it is. It’s those textbooks we keep hearing about – the ones that infuriate the Chinese and Koreans (and Indonesians? Indians? Burmese? Thais? We don’t hear so much about that) because they radically minimize what Japan actually did when it ‘fought a war with’ (i.e. invaded) China (and the rest of East Asia). It involved a little more than forcing places to adopt Japanese names and forcing people to adopt the Japanese language. Forced labour in lethal conditions would be one item.

Turkey, Japan, Serbia; denial denial denial. Not good.


Apr 12th, 2007 11:11 am | By

What a nice birthday present – Jesus and Mo complaining about me over the urinals. They are so sweet to say so – I’m tactless, my language is disrespectful and offensive, I’m a rude aggressive fundamentalist atheist. [dabs eyes with silken hanky] I know; everyone says that; but when it’s Jesus and Mo themselves, it means something. And then on top of it all Jesus says I have a point. I always said he was a shrewd bastard.

Segregation is integration, slavery is freedom

Apr 12th, 2007 9:20 am | By

Terry Sanderson notes that the sums don’t add up.

The enquiry set up by Communities minister Ruth Kelly aimed at finding ways to challenge “barriers to integration and cohesion” has published an interim report, that can only be described as contradictory and counterproductive. The Commission on Integration and Cohesion’s report suggests that “faith schools” play no part in segregation while at the same time admitting that school is probably the best way to break down barriers between communities.

Well see that’s because…’faith schools’ are of course obviously a good and cuddly thing (if they weren’t they wouldn’t have the word ‘faith’ in their name) so they can’t play any part in segregation because that would be a bad uncuddly thing, and at the same time of course obviously school is the best way to break down barriers between communities because all of that is good and cuddly too so it’s good and cuddly to say so. ‘Faith’ schools don’t segregate, schools break down barriers between ‘communities,’ ‘communities’ are harmonious and unified and the source of identity and self-esteem and warmth and strong teeth, all ‘communities’ love each other because they are all so well-equipped with harmony and unity and identity and warmth so there are no problems so they have no reason not to all love each other so everything is good and cohesive. Just keep saying the words ‘faith’ and ‘community’ over and over and over and over and everything will be fine. Really. Promise. That will fix everything.

Some people have told us that they see faith schools as a significant barrier to integration and cohesion. Others, especially from faith communities have said faith schools are vital to helping their young people develop as strong and confident British citizens.

Really?! People from ‘faith communities’ tell you ‘faith schools’ are a good thing – you don’t say! So you listen intently and, being madly in love with ‘faith’ yourselves (apparently), you believe them and ignore the people who tell you the other thing. You also ignore quite a lot of recent history. [whispers] Northern Ireland comes to mind…

It is clear that the authors of this report are listening only to those they want to hear. They say that the “faith communities” have told them that faith schools are a good idea. Of course they have. “Faith schools” are the last hope of survival for “faith communities”. This enquiry will achieve nothing – indeed, will make things worse if it is to continue to be conducted in this blinkered way. If it uncovers evidence and then dismisses it because it doesn’t fit in with the government’s policy of promoting faith schools, then it is downright dangerous.

Ah yes the old ‘ignoring evidence because it doesn’t fit with what you want to do’ trick. I think this is where we came in.

A recent report from Professor Irene Bruegel of the South Bank University was emphatic that the government’s idea of “twinning” faith schools achieved precisely the opposite of what was intended. It simply increases the sense of “us” and “them” that “faith schools” engender. Sending children on occasional visits to other schools simply increased tension and suspicion between them. Crucially, Professor Bruegel’s research showed that children from different ethnic groups and religions must mix on a daily basis in primary schools in order for ethnically diverse friendships to flourish into adult life, and indeed for the parents of school children to become better integrated. This is what the cohesion report should have recommended. Sadly, it has been hijacked by religious protagonists both inside and outside government who are more interested in fostering faith than in solving the very real problems that religiously – and increasingly, ethnically – segregated schools will create.

Well, congratulations; you’re well on the way to balkanization by education. Fasten your seat belts.

The other Holocaust

Apr 11th, 2007 3:16 pm | By

I saw something unsettling (to put it mildly) on tv last night. It’s about the Burma railway, and the horrible conditions under which it was built by forced labour. I knew about it, but not enough; not nearly enough. I especially didn’t know that it was built not only by prisoners of war but also by (as the show called them) Asians – simply conscripted people from South India, Malaya, Thailand and other places. Their death rate was much worse than that of the prisoners, which was bad enough.

There was one memorable segment where the film maker and the Indian engineer who accompanies him hike laboriously through dense jungle to arrive at the top of what is revealed to be a constructed embankment. The FM gets the engineer to climb down the embankment. The engineer takes only a few struggling steps down before saying how difficult it is; the FM says ‘And remember most of them were barefoot.’ ‘They had no boots?’ the engineer says. ‘Most of them had no boots.’ The engineer struggles all the way down; the FM calls down to him ‘Now find a 20 pound rock and carry it up.’ The engineer is very miserable, but finds this heavy rock (which stands for the basket of soil the workers had to carry up) and sets off; he falls down almost at once. With immense effort, panting, grunting, wretched, he finally manages it. The FM calculates the length and volume of the embankment and the number of baskets needed to build the embankment then brightly says ‘Now you need to do that only 12 million more times.’ One trip was a nightmare, and the engineer was fully dressed, rested, well fed, and not ill or injured; furthermore it wasn’t monsoon season. The people who did the work for real were all starving, exhausted, injured, ill, underclothed, and much of the time it was monsoon season. It’s hard to imagine.

Though records are sketchy, approximately 61,000 Allied prisoners of war are believed to have labored on the railway, including 30,000 British, 18,000 Dutch, 13,000 Australian, and 700 American soldiers. An estimated 16,000 of those troops died, many of them from diseases like cholera, beri beri, malaria, and typhoid, most during an intensified period of construction known as “speedo” that commenced in January 1943. Another 200,000 Asian laborers, mostly Thai, were forced to work on the railway. More than 80,000 lost their lives.

First thing today I googled Burma railway.

The construction of the Burma Railway is only one of many major war crimes committed by Japan in Asia during the war. It is regarded as a major event in the “Asian Holocaust”, during which millions of civilians and POWs were killed by Japanese personnel.

I didn’t know there was an Asian Holocaust – at least I didn’t know it was called that, and I didn’t realize how bad it was outside China. Something else I need to know more about. The narrator of the tv show did say the death rate among the Asians is not as well known (presumably in the West) as that of the prisoners of war. Well clearly it should be. And what about those Japanese textbooks…

Quantum quantumness

Apr 10th, 2007 2:31 pm | By

You did have a look at the work of Carolyn Guertin when I posted the link in News, right? Do rush to have a read if you haven’t – it’s – what shall I say – it’s quantum. That’s what it is, it’s quantum.

Quantum feminist works make no attempt to reconcile this dislocation between networked nodes and their gaps in space-time. Instead, they foreground and use this aspect, highlighting the disjunctures of the subject’s position as she is depicted and as she voyages through the text…In her essay “The Roots of Nonlinearity,” hypertextualist Christie Sheffield Sanford says that modern physics has erased the concept of absolutes in time and space and that this is evident in the texts of the new media as well. She uses indeterminacy theorist Werner Heisenberg to support her theories…

Well of course she does. Who doesn’t? Heisenberg, indeterminacy, quantum, absolutes in time and space and texts of new media; it’s all basically the same thing. Right? Right.

David Thompson comments here. And the author herself comments on this post at the Dawkins site (last comment on the page, number 50). She gives the predictable, and very irritating, defense.

Do I really need to point out that this was a dissertation written for specialists working in my field and not a work for general publication? If it were the latter, it would indeed be a different text and worthy of critique – although not this kind.

Nope. What you need to point out is what ‘quantum feminist works’ might be; what you need to point out is why you use the word ‘quantum’ to mean any old thing you feel like; what you need to point out is why you shelter behind your own specialisthood but don’t scruple to help yourself to the vocabulary of physics; what you need to point out is what is ‘specialist’ about misusing technical language for purposes of ornamenting some uninspiring observations about following hyperlinks.

Guertin has a Teaching Philosophy.

Cyberfeminisms writ large are what I call ‘quantum feminisms,’ lived as much in the scientific world as in the literary, personal as much as political. Quantum feminisms are situated knowledges interpolated by experience and embodied presence and, most importantly, are personal philosophies. As a potential pedagogical model, quantum feminisms allow me to use their own theoretical and scientific principles to produce a student-centred environment…

What she calls ‘quantum feminisms’ – why? Why not call them amyotrophic feminisms? Why not call them fermionic condensate feminisms? Why not call them Huey Dewey and Louie feminisms? Why quantum? Because – erm – it impresses the credulous? That’s my guess. My quantum guess.

What is respect

Apr 9th, 2007 3:41 pm | By

We got in a discussion in comments on Just the questions, ma’am about whether it is reasonable to demand respect, which entailed a discussion of what respect is and what people mean by it. I agreed that it’s reasonable enough to demand a minimal version of respect, but I pointed out 1) that people often mean something very maximal by the word and 2) that that fact is often disguised because the minimal version is available. So I was pleased, while re-reading Simon Backburn’s ‘Religion and Respect’ to see this:

‘Respect’, of course is a tricky term. I may respect your gardening by just letting you get on with it. Or, I may respect it by admiring it and regarding it as a superior way to garden. The word seems to span a spectrum from simply not interfering, passing by on the other side, through admiration, right up to reverence and deference. This makes it uniquely well-placed for ideological purposes. People may start out by insisting on respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call respect creep sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellow-feeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence. In the limit, unless you let me take over your mind and your life, you are not showing proper respect for my religious or ideological convictions. We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one.

This is exactly what I was (and am) claiming.

Phrases like ‘equal concern and respect’ trip off the tongue. But in any more than the most minimal sense of ‘deserving equal protection of the law’ or equal toleration, there are, quite properly, gradations of respect. We respect skill, ability, judgement, and experience. The opinion of someone who has demonstrated these qualities is more important to us than the opinion of a newcomer, or someone who is foolish and wild in his reasonings. We defer to some people more than we defer to others, and this deference is a measure of respect.

Same again. And to ‘demand’ the upper level of the gradation is to demand something that can’t be given as a mere act of will or generosity, and that thus is not ‘respect’ in the sense intended; therefore it is futile to demand it. I can’t demand that people respect me as a mountaineer, because I’m not one. If I do demand that and people decide to humour me, what they’re giving me is not respect. Thus my demand falls to the ground like a broken moth, forceless.

Our movement is peaceful. We’re not, but our movement is.

Apr 9th, 2007 3:19 pm | By

Here’s a good juxtaposition which Allen Esterson pointed out to me:

“Our movement is peaceful,” he said. “The government too should stay calm. We’ve warned the government that if it ever tried to suppress us by force, thousands of students of madrassas will retaliate with suicide attacks.”

Peaceful indeed. Quaker-like. Peaceful as a pond on a windless afternoon in August.

Say what?

Apr 9th, 2007 2:59 pm | By

How’s that again?

Parents of some of the girls studying at a controversial religious school in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, have voiced concern for their safety. Their fears rose after an ultimatum from madrassa leaders that Sharia law be enforced in the country. The school and adjoining mosque are accused of promoting intolerance and taking the law into their own hands. On Sunday, the chief cleric issued a fatwa against a female minister who had been pictured hugging a man. The madrassa has frequently been in the news in recent months. In February, armed students prevented the authorities from demolishing an illegally constructed mosque, and occupied a nearby children’s library. Last month they abducted a woman they accused of running a brothel, holding her captive for two days.

Kids today eh. But that’s not the ‘say what?’ part. This is:

Parents of some of the girls studying* at the Jamia Hafsa say they are worried by recent events, but do not want to harm their daughters’ education.

Their daughters’ what? Their daughters’ what? What on earth makes the parents think what the daughters are getting at the madrassa is an education? What part of occupying a children’s library or abducting and imprisoning a woman sounds educational to them? What part of going outside in black bags to brandish bamboo poles at enemies looks educational to them? What do they take education to be, exactly? What is it that they don’t want to harm? The aggression? The fanaticism? The stupidity?

*Studying? Studying? What part of kidnapping, threatening, and occupying looks like studying to the BBC?

No sooner has the real moment gone

Apr 7th, 2007 3:04 pm | By

Simon Blackburn on Baudrillard.

Baudrillard’s ideas about simulated reality seem to have touched on an old philosophical panic. Perhaps our senses are no better than our televisions. Perhaps nature has varnished and spun the pictures we receive. They too are commodities, bought in to provide sustenance.

Perhaps, but then again, it’s a mistake to relish the idea, because generalized scepticism implies that nothing is wrong with anything and nothing matters.

[A]nd would any self-respecting culture critic want to draw that conclusion? In any event, it is not all simulacra. We are participants in a public world, not hermits trapped in our own private cinemas. The cure for the sceptical nightmare is action. Nobody stays sceptical while crossing the street, or choosing dinner.

I like that ‘nobody stays sceptical while crossing the street’ – I amused myself with a little riff on that idea in Why Truth Matters. Blackburn reviewed WTM; maybe the riff stuck in his mind. (Or maybe not; it’s certainly an obvious example.)

French postmodernism may be passing, but it had a point. Even if engagement with the world is the cure, the respite it gives may be short-lived. No sooner has the real moment gone than the work of memory begins, once more selecting, massaging, suppressing and spinning.

Just so. I love that last line, and we were just talking about that idea the other week. That’s why I don’t agree with Jeremy that Stannard is being rational to believe that his inner experience of meeting god in prayer is genuine evidence that he has met god in prayer. It’s because even if he can’t doubt the experience while he’s having it, he should be aware that once the real moment has gone then the work of memory begins, once more selecting, massaging, suppressing and spinning. Even if he can’t doubt it while he’s having it, he should be able to doubt it afterwards. Being unable to doubt it afterwards is too credulous, therefore not rational.

The universal enemy

Apr 6th, 2007 9:29 am | By

Oh good. What a relief. How kind of Walter Isaacson to reassure us all on this very material point – Einstein hated atheists! Oh, whew! Hooray hoorah kaloo kalay, I was so afraid he might have thought atheists were okay but no, no, no, hallelujah, he made sure to say otherwise so that we in 2007 would not be put off our feed with worry.

But throughout his life, Einstein was consistent in rejecting the charge that he was an atheist…And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists…In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful.

Yay! Yay, yay, yay. That’s so good. Because the US is so teeming with atheists who are always denigrating theists while there are no theists at all who ever say a harsh word about atheists (or what they choose to call ‘Darwinists’ either). There is such a massive disproportion in US discourse between atheist denigration of theists or theism and theist denigration of atheists or atheism that it is 1) a miracle and 2) a very good thing that Time has published this gobbet of phlegm just in time for Easter.

Just the questions, ma’am

Apr 5th, 2007 12:59 pm | By

And, not for the first time, there’s Howard Gardner.

‘In his new book Five Minds for the Future, he argues that the 21st century will belong to people who can think in certain ways.’ One of the five is ‘the respectful mind, which shows an appreciation of different cultures.’ Why is that called the respectful mind? Why isn’t it called the appreciative mind? Or why isn’t the explanatory phrase ‘which shows respect for different cultures’? (Because minds can’t show things, for one reason. Okay but besides that.) I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that it’s because unconditional respect for (undefined, unspecified) different cultures is slowly but steadily being made mandatory. Which is stupid, in a way – if it’s mandatory, it’s not really respect, is it, it’s just obedience or obeisance or slavishness. Extorted or required respect isn’t respect. It’s also not a kind of mind. It may be an idea or a way of behaving, but it’s not a mind.

Gardner believes that the education policies of today, which still revere rote-learning, are preparing children for the world of yesterday. He points to my digital recorder, the size of a cigarette lighter: “Something that small can contain every fact that you ever need to know. So what a waste of time it is to sit around learning facts! All the premium in the future is for people who can do things that machines can’t do yet. So, the capacity to ask a good question, rather than getting the right answer from a machine, becomes so much more important.”

Really. How can people ask good questions if they don’t know anything? What can their good questions be about? How can they even dig facts out of ‘machines’ if they don’t know anything?

Parting of the ways

Apr 5th, 2007 12:40 pm | By

Matthew Parris is amusing.

During Holy Week we are treated to a variety of decent-sounding people in print and on the airwaves explaining that religion – or “faith” as they now prefer to call it – is basically all about shared moral values, making the world a better place and gaining a proper sense of awe at life’s mystery…Such faith sounds so reasonable. Churlish nonbelievers like me are made to feel it is we who are being arrogant, dogmatic, closed-minded. How can we be so sure?

Beeeeecause (as Parris of course goes on to point out) that’s not in fact what religion or ‘faith’ really is all about, that’s how.

You are living, dear reader, at a watershed in human history. This is the century during which, after 2,000 years of what has been a pretty bloody marriage, faith and reason must agree to part, citing irreconcilable differences. So block your ears to the cooing voices on Thought for the Day, and choose your side. “But how can you be sure?”…Words cannot express my confidence in the answer to the question whether God cured a nun because she wrote a Pope’s name down. He didn’t.

Moral values good (if they’re the right moral values, a question which has to be decided on secular, universalizable grounds), making the world a better place good, sense of awe more a matter of taste; but supernatural truth claims, not good; the thinking that goes into belief in supernatural truth claims, not good at all, in fact bad.

It’s the training

Apr 5th, 2007 10:31 am | By

It never ends. Drip drip drip; whine whine whine. Those mean fashionable intellectual mean people at their fashionable parties aren’t Christians and aren’t impressed by Christianity. It’s so unfair.I would never admit to any left-liberal social gathering that I sometimes go to church…Christians are likely to be depicted in my paper’s pages as zealots or people who inexplicably haven’t caught up with the modern world.

That could be because Christians believe implausible things for epistemically questionable reasons. It’s not self-evident that there is no problem with believing implausible things for epistemically questionable reasons.

To the average funky young columnist, Christians are as relevant as Cliff Richard, but where does that columnist think the philosophical roots of his own opinions lie?

A number of places, probably, most or all of them secular. Christianity doesn’t provide philosophical roots, it provides theological or theistic ones. Jesus is quoted as saying quite a few good things, and some bad ones, but aphorisms don’t provide much in the way of philosophical roots; for those people must and do go elsewhere. Christianity doesn’t deserve much credit for those roots.

Then there’s some wool about consumerism, then some wool about how claustrophobic Dawkins makes him feel. There’s no argument or even clarity, just some disconnected musing. That’s one reason some of us are not fond of religion: it doesn’t generally teach or encourage people to think clearly; all too often it teaches or encourages them to do the opposite – witness that discussion between Rick Warren and Sam Harris in which Warren says one confused or inaccurate thing after another and Harris does better than that. It is very difficult to avoid drawing the conclusion that Warren simply can’t think properly at all, and to blame his training for that.

A nice day out

Apr 4th, 2007 2:49 pm | By

A pretty story.

Naked men, women and children, some of them in chains to prevent them escaping, cower in front of the men in charge in a dimly-lit room in the church of St Mary on Mount Entoto…The church…sits above a mountain stream, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church believes the stream is holy water with the power to cure HIV/Aids…Plastic jerry cans are filled with water from a pool, and passed along a human chain to priests dressed like deep sea fishermen. The bright yellow waterproofs protect them from the drenching they administer to their congregation. They hurl the water over the mass of people kneeling in front of them who shriek and scream, either through devotion or the simple shock of the cold water hitting their naked flesh…The church claims that more than a thousand people have been cured in the past two years. And yet the head priest Father Geberemedhen admitted to me that only the newly diagnosed are likely to be helped…”We don’t allow patients to take medication if they want to receive holy water,” he told me. That means they must stop taking the antiretrovirals which prevent the disease taking hold, and prolong the life of those who carry the HIV virus.

Jesus saves. Or not.

Memory and imagination

Apr 4th, 2007 2:26 pm | By

I’ve been thinking about things like this lately, so it interests me a lot. Though it probably would even if I hadn’t been thinking about it – it probably would have started me thinking about it.

Humans are born time travelers. We may not be able to send our bodies into the past or the future, at least not yet, but we can send our minds. We can relive events that happened long ago or envision ourselves in the future. New studies suggest that the two directions of temporal travel are intimately entwined in the human brain. A number of psychologists argue that re-experiencing the past evolved in our ancestors as a way to plan for the future and that the rise of mental time travel was crucial to our species’ success. But some experts on animal behavior do not think we are unique in this respect. They point to several recent experiments suggesting that animals can visit the past and future as well.

They have to go by themselves though. That’s what I was thinking about recently – the fact that they can’t discuss the past with anyone, or inform anyone about it, or be informed about it.

Endel Tulving, a Canadian psychologist, defined episodic memory as the ability to recall the details of personal experiences: what happened, where it happened, when it happened and so on…Episodic memory was also unique to our species, Dr. Tulving maintained. For one thing, he argued that episodic memory required self-awareness. You can’t remember yourself if you don’t know you exist. He also argued that there was no evidence animals could recollect experiences, even if those experiences left an impression on them.

Some researchers are skeptical, and have done experiments that they take to indicate something like episodic memory; other researchers are skeptical.

“Information is not really what characterizes mental time travel,” Dr. Suddendorf said…Episodic memory also depends on many other faculties that have only been clearly documented in the human mind, Dr. Suddendorf argues. He said he believes it evolved after our ancestors branched off from other apes. The advantage lay not in knowing the past, however, but in providing “an advantage for predicting the future,” he said…Daniel Schacter, a psychologist, and his colleagues at Harvard University recently studied how brains function as people think about past experiences and imagine future ones.

That interests me because I’ve long been interested in the fact that there is no real difference between remembering something and imagining it – no phenomenological difference. It’s interesting if remembering past experiences and imagining future ones are essentially the same adaptation.

Constructing an episodic memory causes a distinctive network of brain regions to become active. As a person then adds details to the memory, the network changes, as some regions quiet down and others fire up. The researchers then had their subjects think about themselves in the future. Many parts of the episodic memory network became active again.

There you go. And that’s why memory is so unreliable – it gets mixed up with imagining, and we not only don’t know how to disentangle them, we don’t even know when they’re tangled.

The deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks

Apr 3rd, 2007 3:36 pm | By


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is maneuvering to fundamentally weaken the Endangered Species Act, its strategy laid out in an internal 117-page draft proposal obtained by Salon. The proposed changes limit the number of species that can be protected and curtail the acres of wildlife habitat to be preserved. It shifts authority to enforce the act from the federal government to the states, and it dilutes legal barriers that protect habitat from sprawl, logging or mining…Many Fish and Wildlife Service employees believe the draft is not based on “defensible science,” says a federal employee who asked to remain anonymous…[T]he proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act should come as no surprise. President Bush has hardly been one of its fans. Under his reign, the administration has granted 57 species endangered status, the action in each case being prompted by a lawsuit. That’s fewer than in any other administration in history…Furthermore, during this administration, nearly half of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees who work with endangered species reported that they had been directed by their superiors to ignore scientific evidence that would result in recommendations for the protection of species, according to a 2005 survey of more than 1,400 service biologists, ecologists and botanists conducted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit organization.

Also bad.

A top-ranking official overseeing the Fish and Wildlife Service at the Interior Department rode roughshod over agency scientists…Ms. MacDonald, an engineer by training, has provoked complaints from some wildlife biologists and lawyers in the agency for aggressive advocacy for industries’ views of the science that underlies agency decisions…The report, citing a lawyer in the Sacramento office, noted that Ms. MacDonald lobbied for a decision to combine three different populations of the California tiger salamander into one, thus excluding it from the endangered-species list, and making the decision legally vulnerable. A federal district judge overturned it in 2005., saying the decision was made “without even a semblance of agency reasoning.”…The inspector general also found that Ms. MacDonald had sent internal government documents by e-mail to a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation — a property-rights group that frequently challenges endangered-species decisions.

And so on, and so on. The Republican War on Science rages on. Bastards.

The silence of the left

Apr 3rd, 2007 11:36 am | By

If you get tired of Butler and Spivak – this is better.

The most astute argument presented by Postel is his revelatory account of how Western leftists, by prioritising their own opposition to American imperialism, have abandoned Iranian liberals in their fight for freedom and democracy. Postel vehemently renounces the argument that support for pro-democracy interests in Iran somehow amounts to supporting the neo-conservative agenda. He presents engaging ideas as to how Iranian liberals have accomplished this very task. He relates in detail how Iranian human rights activists such as Akbar Ganji shun any contact with the United States government when visiting the country and focus solely on engaging with scholars, human rights organisations and civil society groups. Postel recounts an incident in which Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, during a visit to the U.S., was confronted by an anti-war protester who suggested that she stop talking about human rights abuses in Iran because her arguments could be appropriated by the neo-conservatives. Ebadi’s response was clear and unequivocal: “Any anti-war movement that advocates silence in the face of tyranny can count me out.” Iranian intellectuals, despite being in the direct line of fire of the neo-conservative military agenda, are demonstrating that fighting the expansionist military agendas of the Bush administration does not require silence about the injustices perpetrated by the Iranian regime.

And not only does it not require silence, but Iranian intellectuals and liberals and feminists and secularists don’t want silence. They urgently, badly, energetically don’t want it; they want the opposite; they want noise. Noise from us. Noise from the left, noise from liberals, noise from people who oppose tyranny and injustice and oppression of women. They do not feel pleased and grateful when large swathes of the Western left are silent about all that, much less when those large swathes throw metaphorical rotten eggs and squashy tomatoes at people who are not silent about all that; they feel displeased and ungrateful and angry. The large swathes of the Western left who are silent about all that and congratulate themselves on their silence are under a very serious misapprehension.

This same conundrum confounds Western liberals. They, as Postel documents, have been silent in the face of repeated student protests in Iran, imprisonment of Iranian activists and numerous other human rights violations that should have logically attracted their support. They are so locked in the singular prism of anti-imperialism that they are unable to make peace with the idea that it is liberalism rather than radicalism that is the true fighting creed in Iran. They are even less amenable to the reality that “the denunciations of U.S. Empire in Iran today are the rhetorical dominion of the Iranian Right, not the Left”. As Postel states, “it is the reactionary clergy who wield the idiom of anti-imperialism and regime hardliners [who] legitimate the suppression of Iranian students”. This aversion to recognising reality in Iran has exacted a huge cost; it has delegitimised the Western left and exposed its disinterest in championing the cause of Iranian liberals and pro-democracy fighters who suffer daily at the hands of an increasingly repressive regime. Postel exposes how the insistent prioritisation of anti-imperialism over all else has produced a repugnant inversion of itself – a new form of imperialism equally blind in its U.S.-centric perspective as its ugly counterpart…This book is a timely indictment of the Western left’s apathy, which justifies itself by constructing a deceptively dualistic model of Western engagement with the world. The time has come for the emergence of a new “radical” liberalism that rejects such misguided political perversions and reclaims the right to both engage with the struggles of human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists in Iran and elsewhere, and denounce the Bush administration’s tyrannical politics of military intervention.

Damn right.