Jun 5th, 2004 10:42 pm | By

There is a review by Mary Midgley of a new book by Judith Butler in the Guardian. Midgley has a special place in our affections here at B&W, since in a sense she named it. In another sense of course she didn’t, Al Pope did, because she was quoting him, but in the sense that matters she did, because her use of the quotation is what the Namer of B&W had in mind. Actually the Namer and I have had many violent brawls on the subject, with books thrown and fists pounded on desks and screams screamed and horrible wounding insulting things said. No not really, I’m only joking, because it’s Saturday. But it’s almost true. I have received many emails from readers upbraiding us for not citing Pope, and (until I finally learned better) I used to forward them and ask whiningly why we couldn’t just add two little words – ‘quoting Pope’ – to the About page. Only to receive in reply a blistering indictment of my pedantry, elitism, sucking-up tendencies, docility, sycophancy, conformity, timidity, lack of imagination, tunnel vision, and general fatuity. Not not really, I’m just amusing myself. But it was almost like that. Anyway, Midgley named B&W by using the quotation in accusing someone else of a foolish misunderstanding when in fact the misunderstanding was, not to put too fine a point on it, her own. But all the same, she is at least somewhat skeptical of the profundity of Butler.

Although she does go a bit wrong in the very first sentence –

This little book contains five fairly indignant essays by the distinguished Californian feminist and literary critic Judith Butler…

Distinguished? What’s so distinguished about her? I’m serious. That’s not a jokey question, it’s a real one. There is, as I have noted here in the past, a great deal of inflated praise of Butler kicking around – she is always being called famous, important, significant, etc. But why? On the basis of what? Is her work really so conspicuously better than that of hundreds of her colleagues? There are a lot of knowledgeable people who think it is in fact much worse. So it’s a bit irritating to see her called ‘distinguished’ for no apparent reason. One can’t help thinking that’s just a sort of meme (now that would be ironic), picked up because of all those people who call her famous and important. People can become famous (as of course we all know) just because a lot of other people say they are famous – it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But Midgley does note some flaws, so that’s better than nothing.

I found a large part of the book unhelpful because it is so abstract. It consists of arguments about Foucault’s doctrine of a transition from “sovereignty” to “governmentality” in the structure of states, and about Levinas’s notion of “the face” as the factor that makes us able to see people as vulnerable fellow humans…Discussion of these ideas leads into hair-splitting of the kind that often develops when prophets such as Foucault and Levinas have deliberately used paradox to make an unfamiliar point. Scholars pile in afterwards, trying to domesticate the paradox to fit it for students’ essays. Nietzsche, who started the paradox game, would have been rather cross to see the kind of theorising to which it now leads. And readers might reasonably ask why this theorising is relevant to the moral case against American foreign policy. The trouble is that that case can obviously be stated in perfectly familiar terms – terms widely shared, terms that the transgressing parties themselves already officially acknowledge. Is there anything to be gained by translating it into new and exotic language?

Well, I wouldn’t think so, and that’s exactly why I don’t think Butler is distinguished. I think she’s much more pseudo-distinguished – much more keen to impress the credulous by way of Levinas and Foucault and baroque theoryspeak than to actually say something or enlighten anyone. And that’s exactly why the whole ‘distinguished’ thing is so annoying. That’s not what academics should be doing – writing in a show-offy, obscure for the sake of being obscure way. Necessary obscurity, unavoidable obscurity, obscurity that is inherent in the subject, that’s one thing, but obscurity used to impress and get called famous and distinguished, is another. And I defy anyone to read a few pages of Butler without thinking that is exactly what she’s doing.

Mind Your Peas and Kews

Jun 4th, 2004 9:17 pm | By

Here’s an amusing bit of serendipity. I just added a quotation to Quotations and only after posting it (and doing various other tasks) realized it’s highly relevant to a little argument we were having the other day about the importance and value of precision in language. My colleague posted a Comment which made much of the difference between saying ‘a something’ and ‘the something.’ He also pointed out that ‘Precision of language matters, if you want to be understood.’ That seems like such an obvious, incontrovertible statement, doesn’t it? But people do attempt to controvert it. People in fact actually mocked the idea of making anything of the difference between ‘a’ and ‘the’.

Very well. Behold that Stanley Fish quotation (and he’s a US academic, last I heard, so maybe it’s not a US-UK thing. As I said, I certainly hope it isn’t.):

Everything follows from the statement that the pursuit of truth is a — I would say the — central purpose of the university. For the serious embrace of that purpose precludes deciding what the truth is in advance, or ruling out certain accounts of the truth before they have been given a hearing, or making evaluations of those accounts turn on the known or suspected political affiliations of those who present them.

Italics his. So…he seems to think there’s a difference, a difference worth remarking on in an interjection, a difference worth emphasizing with italics – between a central purpose and the central purpose. He doesn’t seem to think it’s obsessive or peculiar to notice the difference.

I’ve seen a couple of other good remarks on the value and necessity of precise language in the past couple of days. One is somewhat indirectly relevant, but it’s suggestive. It’s by Robin Dunbar, in The Trouble with Science (page 106). He’s talking about strong inference, and the way it has accelerated the progress of science in various fields.

Precisely formulated hypotheses are compatible with a very much narrower range of empirical results than more loosely formulated ones.

He’s not actually talking about language there, but the point is the same. Woolly language allows a much wider range of meaning, which can be nice in poetry (though precise meaning can be very good in poetry too) but is not nice at all in substantive discussion.

The other is from Susan Haack in Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (page 53). She is discussing Peirce’s view of science and inquiry.

…’studying in a literary spirit’…implies a preoccupation with what is aesthetically pleasing that diverts attention from inquiry and pulls against what ought to be the highest priorities of philosophical writing: not elegance, euphony, allusion, suggestiveness, but clarity, precision, explicitness, directness.

So there you are. Keep the wool for knitting sweaters and guillotines, and be precise when using language.

Theory of Mind

Jun 4th, 2004 1:12 am | By

Animal cognition seems to be in the air this month. I read a review by Frans de Waal of two books on the subject a few days ago, and today find that one along with two more at SciTech. Each is about one of the books that de Waal reviews, so the three together make an interesting comparative package, and they’re all interesting in themselves.

This one on Clive D.L. Wynne’s Do Animals Think? is not only interesting but also quite amusing.

Students in the first-year university philosophy classes that I teach often believe that their dogs, cats, budgies, and goldfish are thinking pretty much the same thoughts they are. Unfortunately, some of them are right, I point out – but I point it out only when I’m in a grumpy mood…Ditto for tales about dolphins using “an elaborate language among themselves that we are not smart enough to decode,” to say nothing of whale songs, weeping elephants, and loyal hounds.

The weeping elephant item is of course a sly reference to Masson’s book When Elephants Weep. I especially like the dig because I had a similar one in the Fashionable Dictionary, but had to take it out on grounds of obscurity. Masson and the book are not well known enough, so the joke would have fallen flat. But I can put it in the FD on the site. I’ll have to do that one of these days.

And another item.

Do Animals Think? contains a series of intermittent chapters in which Wynne describes and enthusiastically marvels over honeybee hive life, bat echolocation techniques, and pigeon homing methods.

That word ‘echolocation’ appears in one of the FD definitions – one of the original ones, so it’s already on the site. My colleague wondered if it was a real word – it looked like something to do with virtual chocolate. Well, see, that’s the difference between sociologists and zookeepers. He is familiar with words like functionalism and Durkheim, and I’m familiar with words like echolocation and shovel. Anyway, there is the word, big as life, and used by someone other than me, which I take to be pretty good evidence that it’s a real word.

The other review, of Intelligence of Apes and Other Rational Beings, is not particularly amusing, but it is interesting.

Robin Dunbar was on Start the Week last week, and he was so interesting that I was inspired to re-read his excellent book The Trouble With Science. (There is a paragraph on the book In the Library.) He talks about social cognition, and whether animals have a theory of mind – chimpanzees have some, the equivalent of a five-year-old child’s, but they are left in the dust by a child of six, and dolphins have none at all. Then he discusses what an elaborate theory of mind humans actually do have, that we can actually go five levels (she thinks that he thinks that they think that you think that I think), and that doing that takes an enormous amount of brain power, which seems wasteful. What is it for? (Wasteful things seem to need explaining, of course, because it seems as if they would be selected against.) He has a suggestion – Andrew Marr thought it was ‘religion’ but Dunbar corrected him: not quite. Imagination, is what he thinks it’s useful for: imagination which makes two things possible: religion and story-telling. Both of those, he thinks, make social cohesion possible. Humans live in groups, with an implicit social contract, which means they have to sacrifice immediate benefits for long-term ones, at times, which is a situation exploitable by cheaters (you know: Prisoner’s Dilemma, game theory, all that). So religion works to discourage cheaters – if Dunbar is right, at least. At any rate it makes for a very interesting discussion. Marr asks if he thinks that that means religion will always be with us. ‘I hope not!’ says Dunbar, and everyone laughs a good deal. And they talk about the way that religion makes small group cohesion possible and by the same token makes people want to kill people who believe differently. Yes doesn’t it though. Well now I’ve told you nearly all of what was said, but never mind, listen anyway.


Jun 2nd, 2004 10:00 pm | By

I’ve been thinking about religion and the arguments people use to defend it, again. Or more likely I’ve never stopped. It’s a line of thought that shrinks or expands, that takes up a position in the middle of the living room or creeps into the back of a closet, depending on what I’ve heard or read lately, but it probably never goes away entirely, never actually packs the wheely suitcase and marches away into the sunset (which would be inadvisable from here, actually, because you would drown). Anyway I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about the idea that religion has something to do with humans’ desire for meaning – that religion does something about that desire. Satisfies it, answers it, solves it in some way. We see that general idea (and it is general) expressed a lot in these disagreements over religion. It’s always (at least in my experience) expressed in a very vague, hand-waving fashion. I’m tempted to say (so I will) a carefully vague, hand-waving fashion – because it can’t really be expressed in any other way, because there’s not really anything non-vague to say. At least so it seems to me.

I was browsing and I found this old Comment on the subject, prompted by a review (now subscription, unfortunately) of Richard Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain by Allen Orr and the similarity of something he said to something Michael Ruse said about the same book. Orr:

You might argue that what conflicts did occur between science and religion were due to misunderstandings of one or the other. Indeed you might argue that Dawkins’s belief that science and religion can conflict reflects a misconstrual of the nature of religious belief: while scientific beliefs are propositions about the state of the world, religious beliefs are something else—an attempt to attach meaning or value to the world. Religion and science thus move in different dimensions, as Gould and many others have argued.


People like Dawkins, and the Creationists for that matter, make a mistake about the purposes of science and religion. Science tries to tell us about the physical world and how it works. Religion aims at giving a meaning to the world and to our place in it.

In that old Comment I focused on the truth-claim aspect, but now I want to take a look at the ‘meaning’ question. One obvious question is, what does it mean to give a meaning, to attach meaning to the world? Give or attach meaning how? How does religion do that? By making factual claims, that’s how. By saying there is a god of a certain kind, and that that god is what makes the world meaningful. Well – factual claims are factual claims, and anyone and everyone can query them, emphatically including scientists; therefore that sharp separation is completely bogus.

And then, what does that phrase even mean? Give a meaning? Surely it’s obvious that that’s simply a very human idea, a human want, reflecting human thoughts and feelings. Yes of course, we want to think our lives (hence the world they take place in) matter, have significance and importance, ‘mean’ something – something more than what they mean to us. And we suspect that actually sub specie aeternitatis they don’t. So we want something – something non-factual, anti-factual, non-empirical, counter-empirical – to ‘give’ the world meaning for us. For the something to ‘give’ meaning it has to be anti-factual because we already know the facts aren’t going to do it for us – that’s the problem, that’s why we talk about ‘giving’ meaning in the first place. The facts are that we live brief lives and in three or four generations at most are as forgotten as if we’d never lived. We might as well give meaning to the life of the chicken we just ate for dinner or the ants we stepped on as we crossed the street. The meaning doesn’t seem to be in the brute facts; we want meaning; so we invent a non-factual magical Something that gives meaning for us. Very well. That’s consoling for many. But the fact remains that the trick only seems to work if this supposed extra-factual transcendent magical Something is after all quite mixed up with The Facts – with factual claims, that is, as opposed to real facts. It has to be there and to have certain attributes for the meaning to stick. So we decide it is and does.

There are other ways of ‘giving’ meaning, that don’t rely on a special external supernatural Something to ratify the meaning – but of course they are so much the less consoling. They make smaller humbler claims, they don’t deny death and extinction, they settle for human versions of meaning.

But that’s the nature of the enterprise. Either ‘meaning’ is a limited, temporal, human creation and interpretation – the world has meaning because of love, or art, or progress, or hope, or beauty, or all those – or it’s a timeless transcendent non-human creation ratified by a supernatural being – in which case it is making factual claims that are entirely open to dispute and investigation.

It’s a dishonest form of sleight of hand to try to blur the two and then pretend the whole thing is off-limits to inquiry.


Jun 1st, 2004 8:30 pm | By

There is a lot lurking behind this question (as there so often is with questions of this kind) about what is more interesting – the widespread acceptance of a given social practice or custom, or the minority dissent from it. For one thing there is the comparison or analogy with everyday life and with present politics, reform, ideas of progress and improvement. Looked at in that way, it may be said that at least in some ways the reformist side is more interesting than the pro-status quo side. That’s almost a truism, or what Jerry S calls in that scholarly way of his that I can never hope to emulate, an argument by definition. Imagine to yourself a conversation. X says ‘the way this is done is all wrong and could be done much better’ and Y says ‘nonsense, the way it’s done now is exactly right and should be left as it is.’ Which is more interesting? Which offers more of an opening for further conversation, for thought and research, for something to do and plan and hope for? (Other things being equal, of course – assuming the reformer is not a monumental bore and windbag while the status quo-ist is not. Sadly, not always the case in the real world.) Or to put it another way, X says ‘the way this is done is unjust and an outrage and causes needless misery to millions of people’ and Y says ‘Oh? I’ve never thought about it’ and changes the subject to last night’s game. Which person (ceteris paribus again) seems more boring?

So in that sense it may seem true that dissent from the majority way of doing things is more interesting than mindless or conformist acceptance of it. Thoreau certainly seems a great deal more interesting than the quietly desperate people around him. Huck is more interesting, with his despairing decision to go to hell, than the self-regarding slaveowning hell-avoiders around him. The great Bartolomé de las Casas is more interesting than the murderous Indian-abusers he exposed. Montaigne is more interesting in his views on Indians in ‘On Coaches’ than the indifferent people around him. As people, dissenters and reformers are generally more interesting – though that also of course depends on our views of what it is they’re reforming. On exactly what the majority and minority practices are. I’m not sure I find people who rail about the dangers of women running around in the streets with their hair uncovered just doing whatever they want to do without asking a man, particularly fascinating. So there’s another complication, another place we have to be careful to distinguish between some and all. But in addition to that, another reason the conformist view is also interesting is because it is not just personal. It is also for instance a moral question. I for one find it fascinating to read about the rationalizations that Southern slaveowners were able to come up with, because it is interesting to know how people can justify to themselves what now seem to us intolerable cruelties. I find it interesting to read the Jefferson-Adams letters, for instance, partly for this reason. Jefferson is a fascinating study (and I’m obviously not the only one who thinks so: there have been a good few books on the subject lately). He had all the equipment to see things otherwise, including his friendship (broken for many years then restored) with both Adamses, yet he didn’t. Surely the reasons are interesting! Was it just because he wanted the wine and the books and the upkeep of Monticello? Would he have thought the same if he hadn’t owned any slaves? If not, can any of us trust ourselves to make disinterested judgments on moral questions? And that’s just one example.

Well it’s a large subject, and I don’t have time to write a book on it, so that will do for now.

Is the Ubiquitous Interesting?

Jun 1st, 2004 1:55 pm | By

Some people find inter-blog disputes tedious, other people fun. And no doubt many people who claim to find them tedious actually find them fun. But this at least is a dispute about a substantive matter…

So to business. Ralph on Clio. He claimed, a while ago, on B&W:

“When something is ubiquitous, the interesting question isn’t ‘how could it have been tolerated?’ because it was commonly and widely accepted.”

I think this is very silly. Ralph objects to my thinking it very silly. He says:

I made the claim in the context of a discussion of slavery and its ubiquity in the early modern world. Explaining the presence of pro-slavery arguments in a world in which slavery was ubiquitous is less interesting, I think, than explaining how an anti-slavery argument emerged in the face of slavery’s ubiquity. It is important to understand received frameworks and institutions and, beyond that, to understand how even a ubiquitous institution like slavery varied from place to place. But history’s drama is not found in received frameworks and institutions. Rather, it is found in the emergence of subversive challenges to and contentions with them. So, the interesting question is how anti-slavery emerged in the face of slavery’s ubiquity or, as certainly, how feminisms emerged to challenge the ubiquity of patriarchal “known worlds.”

So let’s unpack this paragraph.

I made the claim in the context of a discussion of slavery and its ubiquity in the early modern world.

Yes, but the claim was not a specific one about slavery. "When something is ubiquitous…" It would have been very easy to have phrased it in a more restricted way (e.g., "what was interesting about slavery"). Precision of language matters, if you want to be understood.

Explaining the presence of pro-slavery arguments in a world in which slavery was ubiquitous is less interesting, I think, than explaining how an anti-slavery argument emerged in the face of slavery’s ubiquity.

Sure. I can agree with that. But it isn’t the same claim. The fact that something is "less interesting" doesn’t mean it is not interesting. But the definite article in the first claim ("the interesting question") suggests that other issues are not interesting at all. Again, precision of language counts.

It is important to understand received frameworks and institutions and, beyond that, to understand how even a ubiquitous institution like slavery varied from place to place.


But history’s drama is not found in received frameworks and institutions.

There’s a hint of an argument by definition here. If the claim is that it is only drama which is of interest in historical terms, then that’s just wrong.

So, the interesting question is how anti-slavery emerged in the face of slavery’s ubiquity or, as certainly, how feminisms emerged to challenge the ubiquity of patriarchal “known worlds.”

And we’re back to the definite article again. The interesting question…

Jokes and Conversations

May 30th, 2004 11:20 pm | By

One or two or more unrelated items of interest. One from Normblog, a moment of dialogue with a very sophisticated theorist of some sort –

All Googling, and that includes self-Googling, is culturally specific and also gendered. There’s an excellent paper on it by Lesley DeTrobe. He-or-she – that’s Lesley I’m talking about, who has renounced maleness and femaleness since June 1999 – there deconstructs the notion of a universalizing universalism, showing this to be a grwelphdoop. The concept of grwelphdoopism is one of DeTrobe’s most illuminating accomplishments. Think Foucault, think Derrida, think Dr Susie Nupledor Jr and her black dog Melvy. Of course, ‘dog’ is itself one of the very grwelphdoops sent packing by DeTrobe, but in the language game ‘humans and animals’ Melvy is a dog.

In the language game animals and humans, on the other hand, no doubt Melvy is a human and Nupledor is a dog – or perhaps Nupledor is just That One and the beloved Nylabone is a human. What would Wittgenstein do? Anyway. There was also a great deal of innocent fun to be had in reading this article about Colin Wilson. I also heard him interviewed on Front Row the other day. What a dork he does sound! I’ve never been the smallest bit tempted to read him, I must say, especially not after reading Kingsley Amis’ and Dwight Macdonald’s lovingly savage essays on The Outsider, both of which make him sound like the biggest pseud of all time. This article merely reinforces that impression – which makes it a very amusing read.

Where it drags is when he gets on to his ideas. His philosophy is basically existentialism with non-rational excrescences and characterised by bizarre nomenclature – Faculty X, Upside Downness, Peak Experiences, Right Men, The Dominant Five Per Cent, King Rats. It seems to constitute an attempt to classify human feelings and behaviour as written by a Martian who has never met an Earthling…As a child he was so introverted, so uninterested in other people, he might have been diagnosed today with Asperger’s syndrome…In a way, sex was his salvation – he wanted to sleep with girls so was forced to talk to them.

You know – I’m not sure that’s all that Asperger’sish. As a matter of fact I have an idea it’s quite common. But maybe the men are just odd here in Antarctica.

And then there was this Thinking Allowed with Deborah Cameron. I commented on another Thinking Allowed with Deborah Cameron a longish time ago, perhaps a year or so ago, and this one is very good too. About the globalization of nicey-nice talk and why that’s not an entirely brilliant idea. Then there was this one more recently about shyness, which deals with some of the same issues. Sometimes not talking is simply a choice rather than a social handicap or a disease, but that possibility seems to get overlooked. Interesting stuff.

The Gulf

May 29th, 2004 8:31 pm | By

It’s all quite interesting, as I said – albeit in a rather depressing way. It shows what a great yawning gulf there can be between secular modes of thought and the non-secular variety; between rational discussion and irrational discussion; between unbelief and belief; between atheism and theism. I’m not sure I think that’s always the case. I think it may be possible for atheists and theists to find some common ground at least sometimes. At least I think I think that – but maybe I only hope it, or would like to think it, or feel as if I ought to think it, because it seems so rude not to. (Which of course is a bad principle, and just the sort of thing B&W is supposed to be against, but it’s not always easy to extirpate every vestige of bad thinking from one’s equipment, is it.) But I must say sometimes I’m just not sure. Thinking airily in the abstract about generalities and likelihoods, it seems possible to think that the two sides can talk (surely?), but then when we get down to it, it becomes rapidly apparent that we can’t.

At least, not unless we maintain a polite silence. Not unless atheists are bashfully tactfully politely quiet about their atheism. Not unless we in fact pretend that we don’t actually disagree with our theist pals about anything. If we pretend it’s all just a matter of taste or inclination – you like blue, I like red; you like pizza, I like curry – then it’s all right. If the atheists pretend or at least allow it to be assumed that they’re atheists because they haven’t thought about it, or they’re lazy, or they just haven’t met the right god yet, then that’s okay, and we can all get along. But if atheists are so aggressive and unfriendly as to say they’re atheists for a reason, and to say what that reason is – then they are ‘strident’. And that’s at best – that’s almost a compliment. ‘X is strident but not actually a homicidal maniac.’ To the really committed theist, atheists are indeed – apparently by definition – homicidal maniacs. Atheists are to be called Madame Defarge and fans of Stalinist outrages – and this by the very people who complain of the fact that secularists don’t always want to work with theists! It’s really quite hilarious, in one way.

But in another way it isn’t, in another way it’s a symptom of the entrenchment of irrationalism in sectors where it ought to have faded away a long time ago. And this is another reason – or another version of the same reason – secularists don’t want to work with theists. It’s because theism depends on irrationalism, and secularists are just never sure that the theists can keep their irrationalism confined to that one area. How can we be sure? How could we? If you let yourself believe something against the evidence in one area, why would you not do so in other areas? What is the difference? What is the bright line that tells people ‘faith okay here, not okay there’? How do people know when to be credulous and when not to be? That’s what secularists don’t know, and that’s why we’re always a little leery of working on secular political issues with people who are not committed to secular ways of thinking. Maybe that’s wrong, maybe there is a bright line, maybe the theists are perfectly capable of keeping things separate. But it’s hard to believe that sometimes.

I’m Knitting a Guillotine

May 28th, 2004 8:22 pm | By

Well, I tried to preserve the anti-secularist’s anonymity, but I was not permitted. So very well. Now that that’s not an option, I’ll just go ahead and take a look at some more over-the-top religious rhetoric. Barn door me no barn doors, this sort of thing is both interesting and important, so I will not machine-gun it (despite being Mme. Defarge) but I will question it.

Cite me, if you will, Mr. Halasz, the secular leftists in the French Revolution who fought its excesses. Cite me, if you will, the secular leftists in Stalin’s Soviet who did not support it or look the other way when churches were razed. Cite me, if you will, all the secular leftists, in Mao’s China, who fought for the right of traditional religion there.

That part is interesting as an example of – what, self-deception, confirmation bias, careless reading? Something like that. Because of course the problem is that in the original comment our anti-secularist forgot the word ‘leftists’. A key omission – and one that he apparently didn’t even notice. Obviously, there is a large difference between saying ‘the same cannot be said of the secularists. They were all on the side of the outrages committed in the French Revolution, in Stalin’s Soviet, and Mao’s China’ and saying what I quote above. Simply as a factual matter (and that’s all I was talking about) it’s just absurd to say that all secularists were ‘on the side of’ anything whatsoever about Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China. Does the name Ayn Rand ring any bells for example? Or, as I said, Bertrand Russell, who had no use at all for the Soviet version of Communism. Or any number of other secularists, right-wing, left-wing, apolitical, you name it. Not all secularists were fans of Stalin, that’s all there is to it.

But it gets livelier.

Ophelia Benson’s Bertram Russell is no evidence against what I said. The infidelity of the secular left is a huge embarrassment, of course. It is both unfaithfulness toward G_d and unfaithfulness with its religious allies. Our friend, OB, is simply Madam DeFarge at the keyboard, instead of fiddling with her knitting needles.

Well of course Bertrand (not Bertram, obviously) Russell is indeed evidence against what he said, if not what he now wishes he’d said. But that’s by the way. It’s the next bit that’s really fascinating. The ‘infidelity’ of the secular left? Infidelity according to whom? And a huge embarrassment? Meaning secular leftists are supposed to be hugely embarrassed by leftist atheism? Well, I’m not, I can tell you that much. What I’m embarrassed by is woolly-mindedness in people who ought to know better. And then I have to wonder, how can one be ‘unfaithful’ toward a being that doesn’t exist? Yes I know, now all the defenders of wool will get indignant with me for making such a flat assertion. But if the theists get to say that it does exist, why don’t we get to say that it doesn’t? (It’s a rhetorical trick, you know, that business of assuming god exists as opposed to arguing it or leaving it tentative.) But if you prefer, how can one be ‘unfaithful’ toward a being that one has no good reason to believe exists? How can one be ‘unfaithful’ to someone or something one has never made the slightest promise or commitment to of any kind whatever? Eh? One might as well go up to a perfect stranger in the street and shout ‘You bastard, you’ve been unfaithful to me!’ And then unfaithfulness with its religious allies. Ah. Perhaps now we can begin to understand why people like me don’t want religious allies in the first place. It’s because we don’t want to risk having to listen to this kind of thing. Because we don’t want ‘allies’ who expect us to be ‘faithful’ to some non-existent figment of their imaginations, and actually feel entitled to reproach us if we’re not, that’s why. And of course because they get so worked up about the whole thing that they end up calling us names. Our ‘friend’ forsooth. I suppose Mme. Defarge is the only murderous ruthless secular woman he could think of on short notice. If I’d been a man perhaps he would have called me Josef Stalin, at the keyboard instead of fiddling with the Gulag. So believers demonstrate what polite, civil, calm, reasonable people they are. But actually that’s not fair. I know perfectly well that not all believers are as out of control as this particular one. He’s in a class by himself.

Gotta New Pair of Shoooooes

May 28th, 2004 1:22 am | By

Okay I just got through saying I don’t drone about personal stuff here and don’t chatter about trivia, and now I’m going to do just that. Well not trivia – it’s immensely important, actually. But chatter, and drone, and personal(ish), yes. Well not exactly personal, but of more interest to me than to some people. Most people. Okay all people.

What, what, what, what is it, you’re screeching, what can it possibly be, hurry up and tell us, we’re on the edge of our chairs, please please tell us. Okay. You remember the baby. The one that got launched into the world in such an almighty rush, the one that zoomed off into the distance without a backward look, the ungrateful little bastard. The one that came back for a day to get improved and polished and corrected and slapped. Right? That one. Well it’s back for an even shorter visit, so short that it doesn’t even have time to make it all the way over here to the back of beyond thousands upon thousands of miles away from that big city where all right-thinking people live, to visit me. No, it’s only visiting that other fella, who kind of wishes it would go the hell away and leave him alone. But that’s not the news! No no! You thought it was, didn’t you. You were rolling your eyes and sighing and telling each other what a pathetic bore I am. But that’s not it. No, it’s that the baby has a new suit of clothes. Boy does it ever. It has such a gorgeous set of clothes that – that I don’t know what. Words fail me. That people will not be able to keep their hands off it, I guess.

In short, and to drop the tiresome metaphor, which amuses me but no one else – the Fashionable Dictionary has a cover. We now know what it’s going to look like. And dollink, it looks fabulous. Seriously, it does. It has a great cartoon on the front, and blurbs on the back, and red lettering – sweetie I just can’t tell you how nice it looks.

There. That’s my ration of inane self-obsessed frivolous jokey trivia for the month.

All? Really, All?

May 26th, 2004 11:46 pm | By

Weird statement for the day:

Of your first point, however, ___, the same cannot be said of the secularists. They were all on the side of the outrages committed in the French Revolution, in Stalin’s Soviet, and Mao’s China. They were all pushing the secular vision of progress.

‘The’ secularists – that’s an odd usage right there. As if secularism were a team, or a movement, or a club, or a party, or a faction. As if it were safe to assume that secularists act as a body. But the next sentence really takes the biscuit. Excuse me? All of ‘them’? They were all on the side of the outrages committed in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China? Dang, that’s news to me! I could swear I know of some secularists who weren’t one bit on the side of not only the outrages but the whole shebang – Bertrand Russell leaps to mind. He thought the Bolsheviks were dreadful right from the start, and said so, loudly. But I must be wrong, I must be misremembering, because all secularists were on the side of those outrages.

There are times when I just can’t believe what I’m reading. I blink, and look again, and blink some more, and look some more. I think I must have missed a word – a ‘not’ or a ‘nearly’ or a ‘some’…but no. ‘They were all on the side…’ There are no qualifications or negatives there. I keep thinking I can’t be surprised any more, and then…

Left Behind What?

May 25th, 2004 11:55 pm | By

We were talking (somewhere) about the Left Behind series, and the Rapture, and that nice Tim LaHaye fella. And then coincidentally I was browsing around, tidying up attics and things (figuratively speaking), and found an old Comment on the subject. Very old. So old that I’m just giving you the whole month instead of the Permalink – because the whole month is only four brief items. Isn’t that sweet? That was when B&W was brand spanking new, fresh out of the bandbox. I wasn’t as talkative then, either because I was too busy hammering joists and looking for the blueprints, or because we were still deciding on format, content, timing, etc. I don’t remember.

Anyway. I found him and what he said just as repulsive as I thought I had.

When Jesus shouts in the sky and all the believers are instantly taken up into heaven, to leave the rest of us down here to be tortured for all eternity (after a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing with End Times and tribulations and killing all the Jews and the Anti-christ and never being able to find a parking space)…I was repelled but not at all surprised by the obvious relish plus loathing in LaHaye’s voice when he talked about all the people who refused to ‘call on God’ (and thus were doomed doomed doomed), about the way they ree-bell, and their attitude. And the air of faintly surprised generosity with which he said he hoped that as many as a billion people might be saved. And the naive fatuity with which he said that because Jesus said ‘Whosoever believes…’ that means he meant everyone, without stopping to reflect that Jesus didn’t actually speak English or that the translation might possibly not bear out his interpretation. But I was (I shouldn’t have been, but I was) a little surprised to learn that the rapture crowd believe that the Bible predicts that ‘one world government’ and world peace are part of the plan of the Anti-christ. Not figuratively but literally. Now there’s a reassuring thought. And there are 50 million of them sold.

There’s an interesting item here that provides a lengthy synopsis-critique of the first Left Behind novel. It’s quite funny in an enraged sort of way.


May 25th, 2004 8:52 pm | By

Another argument we get a lot of is the ‘You’re defining religion too narrowly’ one. The ‘Religion is anything and everything that’s not science, not numerical, not proven’ one. Err – that covers a lot of territory! To put it mildly. Let’s see – I like Austen better than Trollope, and I also think Austen is a better writer than Trollope; I think I can offer evidence for the reasonableness of that view, but I certainly can’t prove it, or establish it beyond a reasonable doubt – because it’s not the kind of thing one can prove or establish beyond a reasonable doubt. Just as I can’t prove that I like someone, or that someone is my friend, or that friendship or affection or hatred or enmity exists. I can offer evidence of a kind that they exist, at least I think I can, but the evidence would be far from decisive. The possibility of trickery, self-deception, error would always be there. But does it follow that all those items belong in the category ‘religion’? If my view of what religion generally means is too narrow (which I don’t think it is), isn’t that one quite a lot too broad?

One of our reader-commenters defines religion (somewhat arbitrarily, I can’t help thinking) this way:

Hence I would define religion, in a logically neutral sense, i.e. one that applies to all human beings regardless of their beliefs, religious or otherwise, as the justification of existence: because of the close intrication of agency and human identity and because human existence inn the world is fundamentally exposed to otherness, human beings feel a compulsion to justify themselves in some wise.

Well, I certainly wouldn’t disagree that humans do that. Nor would I disagree with what I take to be the implication: that how humans do that is interesting and important, and that it’s also mostly not the kind of thing one can prove or establish beyond a reasonable doubt, though I would say one can offer evidence of a kind. But what I don’t agree with is that that attribute – the non-susceptibility to mathematical proof – makes it religion. Perhaps it’s some other attribute that makes it religion. But if so, what? What attribute?

I suppose what it boils down to is that most of what humans really care about is subjective rather than objective. Well I don’t dispute that. But what follows from that? People seem to derive several conclusions from that fact which make them resist criticism of the truth-claims of religion: 1) values, judgments, emotions, affections have a different epistemic status from facts about the world, 2) values, judgments, emotions, affections, and ideas of meaning should (because of that epistemic status?) be called religion, and 3) rational inquiry into values, judgments, emotions, affections and religion is mistaken. Well, I think 1 is indisputable, 2 is quite wrong, and 3 just doesn’t follow. If 3 did follow, wouldn’t that mean that we could talk about, say, poetry, art, ethics, psychology, and myriad other subjects only in a carefully irrational way? That if we ever ‘deviated into sense’ we would have to be corrected and steered back to merely making emotional exclamations? But surely we can all think of counter-examples – of discussions of those subjects that were not programmatically irrational, and that nevertheless deepened our understanding of the subject at hand? In short I don’t think it follows from the fact that many subjects are woolly and subjective that there is nothing rational to be said about them. So I just don’t buy the argument that rational discussion of religion is nonsensical or beside the point even if the truth-claims of religion are not part of the discussion.

Yes but Why?

May 24th, 2004 10:14 pm | By

Yes but why bother? goes one argument we get a lot of. What’s the point? You’re never going to convince anyone. Religion is never going to go away. So why all this disagreement? Anthony Flew calls this the ‘But-those-people-will-never-agree Diversion.’ (How to Think Straight p. 61)

If one is trying to thrash out some generally acceptable working compromise on how things are to be run, then one must consider the various sticking points of all concerned. But if instead you are inquiring into what is in fact the case and why, then that someone refuses to accept that this or that is true is neither here nor there.

Just so. And that is the question we’re looking at: the question of whether the truth claims of religion are true or not, not whether they are influential or of long standing or popular or passionately clung to or not. So if the question really is Why bother to ask whether the truth claims of religion are true or not, the answer is that there are a great many reasons, the first of which is that the epistemic standing of truth claims is the basic subject of B&W. We are concerned with truth in general, and religion is a large category within that inquiry.

Further reasons are 1) Because religion has protected status. It is hedged about with taboos, which function to inhibit precisely this kind of inquiry. If there is no very good reason for this protected status (as I’m arguing), then that status ought to be done away with. One way to do that is to do what we’re doing. Obviously. Taboos work because people observe them, and cease to work when people don’t; they work via conformity and groupthink and social pressure. The more people inquire into religion, the more acceptable it will be to do so. 2) Because there are a lot of debates about secularism around, and this is one of them. 3) Because the immunity or protected status of religion rests on bad thinking, and bad thinking doesn’t stay isolated and quarantined, it leaks out into the wider world. 4) Because religion thinks it has the right and good grounds to rebuke and reproach non-religion, so it needs to be countered. 5) Because religion is all about wishful thinking and we are opposed to wishful thinking. Looking at the operation of wishful thinking in religion is a way to look at it in general. 6) Because religion is very powerful and influential. 7) Because religion interferes in education, public issues, morality, politics. 8) Because there is a widespread misconception that religion and morality are the same or inextricably linked and that religious views on morality are valuable, are somehow better warranted than secular ideas. It is difficult to challenge that idea (and we do want to challenge it) without challenging religion.

Those are some of the reasons. There are more, but that’s enough to be going on with.


May 22nd, 2004 9:19 pm | By

And some more serendipitous reading that makes the same point I’ve been making. I happened to pick up a collection of essays by Richard Rorty and found ‘Religion as Conversation-stopper.’ Just so – my point exactly. And Rorty takes issue with Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief.

The main reason religion needs to be privatized is that, in political discussion with those outside the relevant religious community, it is a conversation-stopper. Carter is right when he says: ‘One good way to end a conversation – or start an argument – is to tell a group of well-educated professionals that you hold a political position (preferably a controversial one, such as being against abortion or pornography) because it is required by your understanding of God’s will.’

Yup, it sure is. Rorty actually lets Carter off much too easily at that point. Because note what Carter has done – note how easy he’s made it for himself. Note how he’s helped himself to the moral high ground while sort of kind of pretending not to (that weasel-word ‘controversial’). Let’s do a little thought-experiment, shall we, and replace the items in his parenthesis with some different ones. Like, oh, I don’t know – how about slavery, or stoning to death, or forbidding women to vote or work or drive or leave the house, or flying loaded airplanes into tall buildings full of people. All of those items represent some people’s – quite a lot of people’s, in the first three cases – understanding of ‘God’s’ will. So why the hell does he make it a matter of reproach that educated people, whether professionals or amateurs, don’t leap and clap their hands for joy when people announce that they hold a political position because they think it’s God’s will? Why should we? Why does he think we should? Even apart from the obvious objection that imaginary beings shouldn’t be telling us how to make political decisions – even apart from that, what about the issue of what terrible creatures those imaginary beings so often are? Humans invent them, humans invest them with their own nasty hatreds and sadistic urges, and then humans triumphantly point to them as authority for their nasty hatreds and sadistic urges. And we’re supposed to not mind that? Not going to happen!

A Basic Tension

May 21st, 2004 8:24 pm | By

The discussion continues. Norm Geras continued it with a post yesterday.

Twice during recent years I tried to engage people I know well, and whom I also like and respect, in a discussion about religion – this with a view, not to challenging their beliefs, but to trying to see if my own assumptions about the way in which they held them were even half-way right. Both conversations ran, pretty well immediately, into the ground…I don’t report this as proving that all conversations between the religious and the irreligious must go the same way. I hope not, in fact. My own reason for embarking on these two conversations was to explore what levels of mutual understanding are possible across the boundary that divides religious belief from atheism. But that is my limited, and so far unsuccessful, experience.

No, not all conversations between the religious and the irreligious must go the same way, as people have been pointing out in our comments. But at least in my experience and observation they often do, and I think it’s a reasonable inference to think that a great many potential conversations of that type simply never happen because the parties involved know or expect that they would go that way. That’s one way the taboo on such discussions works – it makes people reluctant to get into them in the first place, as well as limiting what they’re willing to say once the discussion begins. Because the subject is somehow ‘special’ and an exception, because it’s seen as not like talking about politics or other sets of ideas, because there is a circle around it, because it is sacred or holy or sacrosanct, it is also Forbidden. Not formally, not legally, not officially, but de facto. The internal censor warns us not to hurt people’s feelings or make them feel foolish or threaten beliefs that comfort them, so to a considerable extent we don’t. We remain silent on the subject.

This might be all right in some senses, or in some settings. But in other senses and settings it’s not all right at all. For one thing, there is a massive tension between this polite silence and forebearance and the part religion expects to play in public life. Religion wants a voice, religion bristles when anyone suggests that the public sphere ought to be secular rather than religious or sectarian, religion arrogates to itself the right to pronounce on public issues. But if religion is going to do that, surely it’s a problem that religion itself can’t be discussed on the same terms as other ideas can? Surely this automatic, deeply-entrenched, habitual politeness and tact and abstention from criticism, is somewhat dangerous? Religion can issue moral pronouncements, but secularism can’t ask how it knows what it claims to know? Does that work? I don’t think so.

I was thinking about all this earlier today, and writing a few notes for this N&C, and then I read a section of The Flight From Science and Reason that makes exactly the same point. First in the editorial introduction to the section (page 491):

…the studied obsequiousness toward all religious truth claims, no matter how extreme…this attitude reigns in the media and is unchallenged by those – including liberal religionists and intellectuals – who should know better.

And then in Paul Kurtz’ article ‘Two Sources of Unreason in Democratic Society: the Paranormal and Religion’ (page 500):

In present-day America it is usually considered to be in bad taste to question the claims of religion…Clearly, liberty of thought and conscience and the right to profess and to practice one’s religion is not at issue; what is at issue is the reticence to criticize religion in the public square or to subject its basic premises to scrutiny…This posture is especially questionable given the constant effort by militant religionists to apply their doctrines in the political process, thus seeking to impose their views on others.

That seems to me to be incontrovertible. If religion is going to play a part in public life – and it obviously is – it can’t at the same time demand or expect immunity for its basic assumptions, and the rest of us really ought to learn to steel ourselves and challenge those assumptions, or at least inquire into them.

Sign-up now, OB!

May 21st, 2004 6:20 pm | By

I’ve just received a bit of Spam email that really should have been sent to OB, so I’m reproducing it here.


Become a legally ordained minister within 48 hours

As a minister, you will be authorized to perform the rites and ceremonies of the church!

Perform Weddings, Funerals, Perform Baptisms, Forgiveness of Sins
Visit Correctional Facilities

Want to start your own church?

Click here to sign-up!


I wonder what’s involved in performing forgiveness of sins?

Time, Time, Time

May 20th, 2004 8:57 pm | By

One side effect of all this blathering I do at B&W is that I get a lot of correspondence, and get tangled up in protracted email discussions and debates. In fact, having said that, I’m reminded that Jerry S told me that would happen, a couple of years ago, after he’d thought of B&W and invited me to participate but long before he’d created it. There was an interval of a few months when B&W was an Idea but not yet a Reality – and sometime during that interval he had an amusing exchange with some indignant reader of TPM Online (someone in Prague, it seems to me, but that could be wrong – my memory isn’t up to much). He told me about it and then added something like ‘Just think, soon you’ll be having amusing exchanges like this too!’ And he was right.

Some are more amusing than others though. Some just get tedious, like trying to escape from underneath a duvet the size of Delaware. That’s especially true, obviously enough, when they’re entirely futile – which is one reason I avoid discussions with religious zealots. Because they tend to be futile, and time and energy are so very finite, and I have so very many other things to do. And yet – strange to say, I still have correspondents who try to convince me that such discussions are not futile. That discussion, any discussion, is always and invariably healthy and useful and productive, and the source, ultimately, of truth. I don’t believe a word of it.

The reason I don’t believe a word of it is that not everyone knows how to argue and discuss, and that trying to discuss things with people who don’t know how and refuse to learn does not produce truth, it only distorts. PZ Myers talked about this problem at Pharyngula last week, in a post on a debate between Michael Shermer and Kent Hovind.

I heard from someone who attended…that the recent debate between the skeptic Michael Shermer and the creationist fraud Kent Hovind was a debacle, and that Hovind walked all over Shermer…Shermer is right that if the debate were judged on technical merit and accuracy and logic, all the sorts of things scientists are good at, he was a winner. There is no logical, accurate creationist science. If you read any account of any of Hovind’s talks, you have to conclude that the man is freaking insane and dishonest, but—and this is the scary part—that doesn’t matter.

Then he quotes Shermer on the matter:

The problem is that this is not an intellectual exercise, it is an emotional drama. For scientists, the dramatis personae are evolutionists v. creationists, the former of whom have an impregnable fortress of evidence that converges to an unmistakable conclusion; for creationists, however, the evidence is irrelevant. This is a spiritual war, whose combatants are theists v. atheists, spiritualists v. secularists, Christians v. Satanists, godfearing capitalists v. godless communists, good v. evil…Thus, I now believe it is a mistake for scientists to participate in such debates and I will not do another.

So at least I’m not the only one who thinks the whole thing is at best futile and at worst a train-wreck. Because the two parties do not play by the same rules. To put it bluntly, one side feels some obligation to the truth and the other feels none, but just yells out any old thing that pops into its head, no matter how dishonest. Then it wonders what on earth you mean when you talk about asymmetry. That’s when it’s time to remember how finite time is and how many other things there are to do.


May 20th, 2004 12:12 am | By

So there’s this new show on US public tv, ‘Colonial House,’ another in the series that included ‘Pioneer House,’ ‘1901 House,’ and ‘Manor House’ (though that one was called something else in the UK, wasn’t it…). At least I think it’s all the same series, but I could be wrong. I must say I find them all highly compelling – the combination of interpersonal tensions, acute discomfort and exhaustion, and missing shampoo and hot running water and supermarkets – fascinating.

The conceit of this one is that it’s a group of settlers on the coast of Maine in 1628, and the governor of the colony is (in real life) a Baptist minister from Texas. He seems like a very decent guy in many ways, but he’s also a little scary, in the way that Texas Baptists can be scary.

At one point in the first hour the minister’s college-age daughter addresses the Sabbath meeting and talks about her idea of god – she can’t really understand what it’s like not to believe in god, she says, she wouldn’t know how to get through everyday problems without his support. But that’s not very surprising, is it, for the daughter of a Baptist minister in Texas. One imagines (I could be wrong) she hasn’t been exposed to much in the way of alternatives. She’s probably heard a vast amount, both at home and at church (which she loves, she’s already told us), about the goodness of belief and the goodness of god, and very little if anything about either 1) the badness of belief (i.e. that there could be anything wrong with it, and what that might be) or 2) the goodness of non-belief, of skepticism or secularism let alone atheism. It seems reasonable to think (highly reasonable given the sort of things her father says) she’s never really thought about it, she’s only been urged, encouraged and trained to believe.

Her father gives an interesting muse on the harshness of life in the colony and how it has deepened his admiration for the original 17th century colonists and the strength of their faith. He does seem, as I said, an admirable man in some ways (less so in others), which makes it easier to think one’s way into a kind of imaginative sympathy with such a view. And yet it’s all wrong. It’s wrong because faith itself is wrong – in the sense in which he’s using it, that is. Faith in peace or a friend or art or ideals can be a good thing, if often over-optimistic, but faith in an immaterial supernatural omnipotent benevolent entity that is our Higher Authority – that is not a good thing.

But, as so very often with religion, it doesn’t do to say so. In fact it’s nearly verboten to say so. One can just about get away with avowing one’s own disbelief, but saying faith or belief itself is a bad thing – now that’s going too far. But it is. It’s bad for one’s capacity to think clearly, to judge, to reason, to argue, to follow arguments, to discriminate. Those are all useful capacities. In fact one could argue that in a democracy, they’re essential capacities. The trouble with ‘faith’ is that it’s the exact opposite of all those capacities. That is, in a way, why it is considered a virtue at all. It’s not considered partcularly admirable to believe the obvious, is it – to believe 2 + 2=4. That’s no more admirable than breathing or eating – it’s just what you do. No, the admiration only comes in because the whole matter is in doubt. So thinking faith is a virtue amounts to thinking it is good to believe something there is good reason not to believe, or a lack of reason to believe, or both. This is normally not considered a good thing. Some examples of it are considered a symptom of mental illness; others are considered a symptom of ignorance or stupidity or both; others are considered foolhardy. It’s hard to think of a great many cases where it’s considered either useful or virtuous. Parents believing in the goodness of their children no matter what, possibly, but other than that…not too many. Except in the case of religious belief. And yet we don’t really confront the possibility that this habit of thought can do harm. That’s unfortunate, I think. I even believe it.

Shaun Williams – AKA STAMP

May 19th, 2004 5:46 pm | By

OB mentions below that Shaun Williams, aka STAMP, long-time cartoonist of The Philosophers’ Magazine, has died.

Here are a few examples of his work, including the Hume, constant-conjunction cartoon I told her about.

Cartoon 1

Cartoon 2

Cartoon 3

Cartoon 4

He really was a good cartoonist. The major academic Waterstone’s bookshop in London liked his work so much that on one occasion they decorated their front window with his TPM cartoons.