One is the act, the other is the agent

May 7th, 2007 11:27 am | By

Hmm. I’ve spotted a possible addendum or amendment that could make the apparent disagreement disappear like a popped soap bubble. I think getting it right – the gerund, the activity, the verb – is praiseworthy; but that doesn’t mean I think people who get it right are necessarily praiseworthy for doing so. I don’t really think that, I suppose – I just think they ought to, we ought to, as we ought to be civil and considerate as opposed to rude and troublesome. Maybe that was the point. I can buy that. Sure – I get it! The smugness and self-congratulation comes in if people preen themselves on simply doing the right thing. Now that, I think, is a reasonable point, and rather interesting.

Getting things right, or trying to

May 7th, 2007 11:05 am | By

I’ve been pondering the connection (if any) between getting things right or getting at the truth, and merit. The pondering was prompted by this post at Talking Philosophy and specifically one part of the overall argument:

I don’t think that getting things right – in the sense of believing or accepting something to be true, rather than finding out that something is true (yes, I know – the distinction is complex) – is praiseworthy. Or, at least, I don’t think it is praiseworthy enough to justify the cloying smugness that some people – and groups – manifest when they think that they have got things right.

I saw the point of that at first (and perhaps still do in the sense that I’m not sure anything is praiseworthy enough to justify cloying smugness, because cloying smugness just isn’t a good thing), but I also had some reservations.

The first is that in fact getting things right even in the first sense is praiseworthy in many contexts. Not necessarily praiseworthy enough to justify cloying smugness, but if that standard is applied too broadly then the point becomes kind of not a point – it becomes just a matter of pointing out that cloying smugness is bad, which few will dispute. It seems fair to assume that there is a question about amount of praiseworthiness here, and that that is the issue, and worth talking about. And my claim is that getting things right, even if it is just belief or acceptance of existing findings, is praiseworthy in many situations, and that its opposite is dispraiseworthy, and in fact wrong. Think forensics, research, engineering, law, medicine, agriculture, education, to name just a few – in all of them, the goal is to get things right and avoid getting them wrong, and doing that always involves quite a lot of acceptance of existing findings. It’s true enough that that’s pretty much a default position, and not really something to glory in (‘Hey, get me, I’m following the rules!’), but it is better than the alternative. Given that there is such a thing as getting it wrong, and that there are such things as lying and cheating and concealment, I think it’s worth hanging on to the awareness that getting it right really is better than getting it wrong, and in that sense praiseworthy. After all, there are entire professions (of sorts) which do not value getting it right, and they can do a great deal of damage. Think advertising, PR, lobbying, political spinning. They don’t rule out getting it right, but getting it right is not their goal and it’s not essential; it is expendable. If we think lies told by PR firms or advertisers or presidents are a bad thing, then we think getting it right is praiseworthy. That’s a very minimal sense of praiseworthy, but perhaps worth keeping all the same.

My other reservation is that I think it’s often not so much that skeptics think they are praiseworthy as that they are reacting to claims by believers that they are despicable. There is an idea among believers that belief and ‘faith’ are necessary for morality as well as various other valuable qualities (wonder, awe, reverence, gratitude) and that non-believers are at the very least handicapped in certain ways. Non-believers get tired of hearing this, and we sometimes (or often) react with vehemence or sarcasm or disdain or all those; this can look like smugness. It can also be smugness; I don’t deny that; but I think there are sometimes reasons other than (or in addition to) pure narcissism for the smugness. I think it’s often reactive.

A fun outing

May 6th, 2007 11:36 am | By


Cellphone videos have appeared on the Internet showing an Iraqi mob stoning and kicking to death a 17-year-old girl after she offended her minority community by eloping with a Muslim man…In the video – on the Kurdish website Jebar.Info and rapidly spreading on the Internet – Aswad is shown lying in the road as men kick her and throw a large lump of rock or concrete at her head. Her face is drenched in blood but uniformed and armed officers of the Iraqi police stand by and do nothing to prevent the attack…At one point she struggles to sit up and cover herself, but a man kicks her in the face knocking her violently back to the ground…Members of a large crowd can be seen filming the murder on their cellphones, some of them shouting or kicking out at the cowering victim. Nobody tries to help her.

What a lovely, lovely, heartening story. How pleasant it is to know that a mob of men can stand around watching and even fucking filming a slight thin teenage girl being kicked and bludgeoned with rocks, and 1) not help her and 2) join in.

No actually it isn’t pleasant. It’s both horrifying and terrifying. It’s despair-inducing – to know that people can and do let stupid, trivial, unimportant rules or traditions or loyalties or ideologies override what ought to be natural pity and revulsion and fellow-feeling to the point that they can take pleasure in battering people to death.


May 3rd, 2007 12:47 pm | By

From Why Atheism? by George Smith (Prometheus 2000) p. 17:

If most Christians (and other religious believers) dismiss atheism outright, this is not because they have examined the arguments for atheism and found them wanting, but because they do not take atheism seriously enough to examine its arguments in detail. Atheism, in their view, lacks credibility, so they have no motive to examine it further. To portray atheism as utterly lacking in credibility has long played a crucial role in religious propaganda. Atheism must be rendered unthinkable, because doubt, if left unchecked, can easily propel the believer down the path of deconversion (the process by which a religious believer becomes an atheist)…To say that atheism is credible is to suggest that the atheist may be right; to say that the atheist may be right is to suggest that the Christian may be wrong; to say that the Christian may be wrong is to suggest that faith may be an unreliable guide to knowledge; to say that faith may be an unreliable guide to knowledge is to suggest that each and every tenet of Christianity should be reexamined in the light of reason.

That would explain a lot. That would explain the way theists fail to engage with the arguments that atheists actually make, and it would explain the way they pretend atheists make silly futile claims that they don’t actually make. That would be because theists aren’t paying attention to what atheists say at all, they’re just ignoring all of it and proceeding on their own pre-ordained track, like a runaway train ignoring all signals because the engineer has stepped outside for a sandwich.


May 3rd, 2007 11:12 am | By

What is the morality behind forcing a girl or woman to carry to term an anencephalic foetus that will die within days of birth?

Doctors have told the girl that her four-month foetus will not live more than a few days beyond birth. She is in the care of Ireland’s health service which has issued an order stopping her from going to Britain…Miss D was informed last month that her foetus has anencephaly, a condition which means that a large part of the brain and skull is missing. Babies with anencephaly live a maximum of just three days after birth.

What is the principle at work here? I don’t understand it. I don’t even begin to understand it. Ireland’s health service wants this teenager to carry the foetus for another five months so that she can give birth to it the usual painful way and then watch it die? Because…what? God is punishing her and we mustn’t interfere with God’s punishments? But then there wouldn’t be such a thing as Ireland’s health service at all. No, I don’t begin to understand it. It just looks like stark sadism and cruelty.


May 2nd, 2007 4:10 pm | By

There’s an irony in all this – or maybe it’s two or three ironies. Steven Poole said yesterday in a comment on his post at Unspeak:

In exciting news, the cudgels of anti-anti-anti-intellectualism or whatever have been taken up by Ophelia Benson, scourge of what she is pleased to call “fashionable nonsense”, who takes me, mystifyingly, to be saying It is forbidden to criticize Zizek. Oh well. I suppose she was not sufficiently delighted with my review of her recent book.

Mystifyingly? But what else can ‘the opinion journalist Johann Hari does not suffer from such uncertainty, and has taken it upon himself to denounce Slavoj Zizek in an article for the New Statesman’ mean? If it doesn’t mean that, what is the point of such tendentious language? (From someone who has written a book about, I take it, tendentious language! There’s one of the ironies.) But that’s not the main irony; the main irony is related to the last sentence. Disregard the resort (as with Johann Hari) to an unwarranted and of course ill-mannered speculation about motivation, in order to consider the substance. In fact I quite liked his review of Why Truth Matters, and I was ‘sufficiently delighted’ with it. (And I didn’t need a fanciful motivation for commenting on his substance-free invective-heavy post on Hari’s article; I simply thought it was bad, and bad in an interesting and noteworthy way; that’s motivation enough.) It wasn’t entirely accurate though. It wasn’t so inaccurate that I decided to wait almost a year and then comment on a blog post of his by way of revenge, but it did contain an inaccuracy. It’s this:

Sadly, the authors also follow a modern tradition of lumping Jacques Derrida in with a bunch of his inferiors and slapping him around too, without showing persuasively that they have actually read much of the man’s work.

The inaccurate part is that we didn’t slap Derrida around, we slapped around some of his fans, which is a different thing. And where the irony comes in is that what we slapped his fans around for is for doing exactly what Poole did in this post: treating criticism of the hero as in some way illegitimate, and doing it not by offering evidence that the hero is better than the critic thinks, but by dragging in irrelevancies. In fact one irony here is that he ought to be right: that ought to be why I wrote the comment on his post yesterday, because it does tie up neatly with the mistake he made in his review of WTM: he was wrong about what we said, and he had made the same kind of mistake we were criticizing, himself. Very very neat. But in fact that’s not why. I remembered he’d written a review, and that it was favourable in parts, but I didn’t remember the details. If anything I felt more benevolent than not, because the review was more good than not. But that’s not the point: the point is that he apparently missed the point of what we said about Derrida’s fans, and that that makes sense because he argues the same way himself. Interesting.

If you’re curious about which fans of Derrida we slapped around, you can revisit this – it’s Judith Butler’s letter to the New York Times protesting against ‘Jonathan Kandell’s vitriolic and disparaging obituary’ of him. I’ve commented on it before here, but it was years ago – before we wrote WTM. Oh look – she cites ‘reactionary anti-intellectualism’ too. There’s even more irony than I thought. Well there you go: criticism of Derrida and Zizek is impermissible and ‘reactionary anti-intellectualism.’ Why? Well, according to Butler at any rate, it has to do with fame. Derrida is too damn famous to be criticized by some mere reporter (cf. Poole’s scornful repetition of ‘the opinion journalist Johann Hari’).

If Derrida’s contributions to philosophy, literary criticism, the theory of painting, communications, ethics, and politics made him into the most internationally renowned European intellectual during these times, it is because of the precision of his thought, the way his thinking always took a brilliant and unanticipated turn, and because of the constant effort to reflect on moral and political responsibility.

Uh huh. And if his contributions didn’t make him into the most internationally renowned European intellectual during these times, what is that because of? Who knows. But the inconsequentiality of the argument and the air of high dudgeon in the whole letter are, shall we say, not unfamiliar. That’s the irony.

Reason crash

May 2nd, 2007 3:02 pm | By

This is really tragic. Those poor sad deprived confined young people.

At Harvard these days, said Professor Gomes, the university preacher, “There is probably more active religious life now than there has been in 100 years.” Across the country, on secular campuses…chaplains, professors and administrators say students are drawn to religion and spirituality with more fervor than at any time they can remember…A survey on the spiritual lives of college students, the first of its kind, showed in 2004 that more than two-thirds of 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually…

That’s terrible. Almost 80 percent! Almost 80 percent of first year students can’t think straight. Well we knew US high schools are mostly not very good, but all the same, that’s pretty shocking.

How dare you, sir

May 1st, 2007 10:27 am | By

Steven Poole muses on

a possible tension in what passes for my “thought”: evincing on the one hand a kind of Anglo-empiricism, I nonetheless have a soft spot for the works of such writers as Derrida, Baudrillard and Zizek, all of whom are anathema to the Anglophone analytic tradition…[P]erhaps the common factor was this: I was not at all sure that I was as clever as any of these men, and so even when I was troubled by seeming opacity or nonsense, I reckoned that I had better tread carefully.

That’s an interesting ‘and so,’ since it leads to something that doesn’t follow from what ‘and so’ seems to claim that it does. It is not necessary to be sure that one is as clever as the writer of something one is reading, in order to think that the something one is reading is either opaque or nonsense and ought not to be. In fact that’s a silly way of looking at the matter. It could make much more sense to view it the opposite way: ‘This writer may well be cleverer than I am, so why did the writer not write this clearly and/or non-nonsensically?’ One could surmise that there is something else in operation, something other than or in addition to cleverness – vanity for example; a desire to impress; pretension; a taste for posturing opacity which is not incompatible with cleverness. One could surmise that the writer had enough cleverness to write in a posturingly opaque way, but not enough to conclude that that’s a narcissistic, preening, and fundamentally anti-intellectual thing to do. One could recall other clever writers and thinkers who do research and also write about it in clear, accessible ways so that a larger public can learn from it, and one can decide that that is much more worth admiring and respecting than is ‘seeming opacity or nonsense’; one can wish that clever writers who go in for seeming opacity or nonsense had applied their cleverness in different ways. One can think a lot of things. ‘I had better tread carefully’ is not the only thing one can think as a consequence of thinking ‘I was not at all sure that I was as clever as any of these men.’ And I would argue that one ought to think other things, partly because the ‘they are clever: I had better tread carefully’ thought is exactly the thought such writers want readers to have, and that coupled with opacity and/or nonsense is an unworthy desire. Readers ought not to submit to the manipulation; readers ought to resist it; readers ought to expect writers to want to address them as clearly as they know how, not as opaquely. Argumentative writers, that is, of course; literary writers can do what they like, and readers are welcome to be impressed if they fancy it; but I take Poole’s three to be all argumentative writers, and I think there is no merit in chosen (as opposed to genuinely unavoidable) opacity in argumentative writing. I think this slavish idea that opacity could be a sign of great cleverness and therefore ought not to be dissed is a mistake.

The mistake leads Poole to say some peculiar things.

Luckily, the opinion journalist Johann Hari does not suffer from such uncertainty, and has taken it upon himself to denounce Slavoj Zizek in an article for the New Statesman, on the occasion of the British release of the documentary film, Zizek!. In doing so, he furnishes a useful example of the word “postmodernist” as it is almost always used nowadays, as a kneejerk insult from reactionary anti-intellectuals…[T]he opinion journalist Johann Hari shows no sign of actually having read any of Zizek’s books…Nonetheless, the opinion journalist Johann Hari finds it within himself to accuse Zizek, in his film performance, of “intellectual suicide”. In another world, it might be considered intellectual suicide to denounce a writer with whose works one has only a hurried and superficial acquaintance.

What can he mean, ‘taken it upon himself to denounce Slavoj Zizek’? Why does he word it that way – as if it were some kind of violation of the holies or lèse majesté? Why shouldn’t Hari ‘take it upon himself’ (much as Poole has taken it upon himself) to ‘denounce’ (meaning criticize) a particular writer? Was he supposed to ask someone’s permission first? Whose? Poole’s? The Archbishop of Canterbury’s? The Department of Homeland Security’s? And then notice the way Poole goes from his assertion that Hari ‘shows no sign of actually having read any of Zizek’s books’ to apparent certainty that Hari ‘has only a hurried and superficial acquaintance’ with Zizek’s works – when in fact he obviously has no idea how much of Zizek Hari has read, or how deeply. Notice also the repetition of ‘denounce’ – which is a sly word, probably meant to leave incautious readers with a vague impression that Hari has ‘denounced’ Zizek to the secret police. And of course notice that ‘reactionary anti-intellectuals’ remark. Inaccurate and bullying, groupthink-enforcing and toadying; it’s unpleasant stuff. For my part, I think it’s Poole’s view of the matter that is really anti-intellectual: by telling people not to question or criticize or resist when they read what strikes them as opaque or nonsensical but instead to think ‘this writer [because opaque or nonsensical] may well be cleverer than I am so I will read respectfully and denounce people who denounce this clever [opaque or nonsensical] writer and call them idiots and reactionary anti-intellectuals,’ Poole makes it that bit harder for people who pay attention to him to read critically and thoughtfully.

Utter certainty, yet leavened by humility and doubt

May 1st, 2007 9:28 am | By

Speaking of unshakeable faith, Andrew Sullivan gave a pretty good display of that (and I don’t mean that as a compliment) in the debate with Sam Harris. A pretty good display of knowing what he can’t know, of labeling beliefs as ‘truth’ merely because he has decided to believe them for no very good reason, of admitting it’s all nonsense yet insisting that he knows it all the same.

The reason I cannot conceive of my non-existence is because I have accepted, freely and sanely, the love of Jesus, and I have felt it, heard it, known it. He would never let me go. And by never, I mean eternally. And so I could never not exist and neither could any of the people I have known and loved. For me, the radical truth of my faith is therefore not that God exists, but that God is love (a far, far less likely proposition). On its face, this is a preposterous claim, and in my defense, I have never really argued in this dialogue that you should not find it preposterous. It can be reasoned about, but its truth itself is not reasonable or reachable through reason alone. But I believe it to be true – not as a fable or as a comfort or as a culture. As truth.

His admission that it’s preposterous is disarming, in a way, yet that also makes it all the more annoying. As Sam Harris firmly points out at the end.

In your last essay you admit that your notion of God is “preposterous” and then say that you never suggested I should find it otherwise. You acknowledge the absurdity of faith, only to treat this acknowledgement as a demonstration of faith’s underlying credibility. While I have yet to see you successfully pull yourself up by your bootstraps in this way, I have watched you repeatedly pull yourself down by them. You want to have things both ways: your faith is reasonable but not in the least bound by reason; it is a matter of utter certainty, yet leavened by humility and doubt; you are still searching for the truth, but your belief in God is immune to any conceivable challenge from the world of evidence.

Just so – Sullivan acknowledges the absurdity of faith, only to treat this acknowledgement as a demonstration of faith’s underlying credibility. Well, at that rate, everything has underlying credibility, and epistemic chaos is our own true home.

Shake it

Apr 28th, 2007 2:41 pm | By

In this tv documentary Irshad Manji says – before going on to say in what ways she is critical of contemporary Islam – ‘My faith in God is unshakeable.’ It takes an effort to balk at that statement, precisely because she does go on to say in what ways she is critical of contemporary Islam, and because she gets a lot of threats for doing so; but all the same I do balk at it. I admire Manji, and I hope she succeeds, and I earnestly hope there are a lot of people like her; but all the same, I wish unshakeable faith were not considered a virtue, as (one can tell by the way she says it) Manji clearly does consider it.

There’s a real problem here, because I do get why people want to have unshakeable faith, and why they do think it’s a virtue, but in spite of that, I think that’s a bad way for humans to think, and that it ought not to be valorized.

We’re too fallible and limited to have unshakeable faith in anything. Anything that is doubtful enough to need faith to begin with, is therefore doubtful enough to be dangerous to have unshakeable faith in. It’s okay to have unshakeable confidence that if the stove burner is red hot, you really really really shouldn’t place the palm of your hand firmly on top of it; but you don’t need faith to know that: long experience of burns and pain and hot things are plenty. But faith is about things that aren’t like red hot stove burners, and that’s why it should be cautious and minimal rather than blind and maximal. It’s unfortunate that even generally sensible people think unshakeable faith is a good thing.

Intercepting curiosity

Apr 27th, 2007 11:13 am | By

And there’s Stanford President Emeritus Donald Kennedy.

Kennedy argued that teaching creationism discourages students from applying the scientific method, which emphasizes conducting experiments with reproducible results and drawing logical conclusions from observable, measurable evidence. “What the creationist alternative does to students is to intercept and deaden curiosity,” he said. “If relationships or correlations can be simply allocated to the cleverness of a designer, there’s very little incentive to think up an experiment or undertake an analysis.”

Exactly. That’s one of the most annoying things about the whole brawl – the way believers claim that there are all these profound mysterious areas in which science has no place but religion does, with the implication (which is often made explicit) that science is useful but shallow while religion is Deep, when in fact it’s religion that closes off real inquiry and investigation and settles for utterly banal, boring, small answers. It intercepts and deadens curiosity, and pats itself on the back for doing so. If every question can be answered with ‘God’ then it’s not being answered at all, but the illusion that it is removes the incentive to think further.

Another excerpt

Apr 27th, 2007 10:59 am | By

Hitchens on large claims.

Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require. Thus…Islam in its origins is just as shady and approximate as those from which it took its borrowings. It makes immense claims for itself, invokes prostrate submission or “surrender” as a maxim to its adherents, and demands deference and respect from nonbelievers into the bargain. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – in its teachings that can even begin to justify such arrogance and presumption.

In fact it’s a little hard to think of any teachings that would justify such arrogance and presumption.

God is not great

Apr 26th, 2007 11:01 am | By

Hitchens’s new book is out. He’s an eloquent bastard.

And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins…is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication.

And that is not a minor difference, or a trivial one, or one that has no consequences; which is why it is irritating when people claim that non-dogmatism is dogmatic.

There is no need for us to gather every day, or every seven days, or on any high and auspicious day, to proclaim our rectitude or to grovel and wallow in our unworthiness. We atheists do not require any priests, or any hierarchy above them, to police our doctrine…[T]o the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage, or the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth or beauty.

The sacred ‘shallow depression in the earth’ versus the library. A good synechdoche.

We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness. While some religious apology is magnificent in its limited way – one might cite Pascal – and some of it is dreary and absurd – here one cannot avoid naming C. S. Lewis – both styles have something in common, namely the appalling load of strain that they have to bear. How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible!

I think what he means by ‘strain’ is the peculiarly twisted, ad hoc quality one often finds in apologetics – talk about suffering being good because it gives people an opportunity to show compassion, for instance; that kind of thing. That strained quality. As if every time we have an injury we think ‘Oh good, a chance for people to show compassion!’ And as if the more it hurts, the more pleased we are, because the more compassionable we are and therefore the larger the opportunity for others to show compassion. I accidentally whacked myself a couple of weeks ago, and it hurt like hell, and interfered with my functioning for days; it never once crossed my mnd to be pleased about it for that reason (even though I did get compassion and was glad to get it). The proportion was all wrong, you see, just for one thing – the pain and interference with function were bad and nasty out of all proportion to the pleasantness of the compassion. That’s the load of strain. Urrrgghh – drop – crash. No, it won’t work, will it.

The argument with faith is the foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning – but not the end – of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning – but by no means the end – of all disputes about the good life and the just city.

I think that’s right. The argument with faith is not some side issue; it’s what it’s all about.

A buffoon

Apr 25th, 2007 2:46 pm | By

Fun and games with the cult studs.

[W]e attended a recent PhD confirmation at the Queensland University of Technology, where we teach. Candidate Michael Noonan’s thesis title was Laughing at the Disabled: Creating comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains….Noonan went on to affirm that his thesis was guided by post-structuralist theory…He then showed video clips in which he had set up scenarios placing the intellectually disabled subjects in situations they did not devise and in which they could appear only as inept. Thus, the disabled Craig and William were sent to a pub out west to ask the locals about the mystery of the min-min lights. In the tradition of reality television, the locals were not informed that Craig and William were disabled. But the candidate assured us some did “get it”, it being the joke that these two men could not possibly understand the content of the interviews they were conducting. This, the candidate seemed to think, was incredibly funny. Presumably he also thought it was amusing to give them an oversized and comically shaped pencil that made it difficult for them to write down answers to the questions they were meant to ask.

So vulgar cruelty is dressed up as poststructuralism now? I didn’t know that.

It is not our intention here to demolish the work of Noonan, an aspiring young academic and filmmaker. After all, ultimate responsibility for this research rests with the candidate’s supervisory team, which included associate professor Alan McKee, the faculty ethics committee, which apparently gave his project total approval, and the expert panel, which confirmed his candidacy…Lest the reader think we exaggerate, let us turn to the views of McKee, the enfant terrible of the post-structuralist radical philistines within the creative industries faculty at QUT. In the university newspaper, Inside QUT, he was reported as saying: “Teaching school students that Shakespeare is more worthy than reality television is actively evil” (italics added) and in his “ideal world programs such as Big Brother would be at the centre of thecurriculum”.

So naturally I googled this Alan McKee genius, and found this brilliant item.

I’m trying to encourage people to break out of their normal habits, to think about the culture they consume. I’m thinking that maybe we shouldn’t just do the same thing, every day week in, week out. So I’m going to start ‘Put down a book week’.

Ha ha ha – like turn off the tv week, only different; geddit? Is that funny or what.

‘TV Turn off week’ is gaining media attention around the world. Under a rhetoric of encouraging people to try something different, it focuses on one particular part of culture and tells them that they should give it up. But why only television, and not books?

Because tv makes you stupid in a way that books don’t, because reading is more active than watching tv is; that’s why we prefer to watch tv rather than read when we’re exhausted; duh. You know that, but you’re pretending you don’t, you pretentious git.

TV is popular culture. It is particularly popular with large working class audiences. And it is consistently attacked more than other media. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I’m guessing that there’s a connection there. There’s no harm in asking people to think about the culture they consume – but how come it’s only the consumers of popular mass culture who have to do it? Why not force some emeritus Professors to watch Channel Ten for a week? It would shake up their habits just as much as turning off tv would for some other citizens.

Who have to do it? They don’t have to do it, you ridiculous pseud; the campaign is voluntary. And that’s why not force some emeritus Professors to watch Channel Ten for a week; because nobody is being forced to turn the tv off.

That’s the guy who approved his student’s reality video that makes fun of a couple of guys with intellectual disabilities. Impressive.

More tiresome guff

Apr 25th, 2007 10:46 am | By

This is getting to be an entire cottage industry, or maybe not even so cottage, this enterprise of saying ‘that Richard Dawkins and those other militant fundamentalist atheists are insulting and patronizing and rude and aggressive while the rest of us are tolerant and respectful and kind and good.’ Now it’s Robert Winston’s turn to take the same old guff out for a spin.

“I find the title of ‘The God Delusion’ rather insulting,” said Lord Winston, “I have a huge respect for Richard Dawkins but I think it is very patronising to call a serious book about other peoples’ views of the universe and everything a delusion. I don’t think that is helpful and I think it portrays science in a bad light.”

But if other people’s views of the universe and everything are in fact a delusion, is that really something that should never ever ever be pointed out on the grounds that it is insulting and patronizing? Should a mistake never be pointed out? Should a delusion never be called a delusion? Should all mistakes and delusions and illusions be sheltered from disagreement in that way? If so – why?

Lord Winston…will argue for a more conciliatory approach to religion in a public lecture at the University of Dundee tonight…”The reason I’ve called it the Science Delusion is because I think there is a body of scientific opinion from my scientific colleagues who seem to believe that science is the absolute truth and that religious and spiritual values are to be discounted,” said Lord Winston. “Some people, both scientists and religious people, deal with uncertainty by being certain. That is dangerous in the fundamentalists and it is dangerous in the fundamentalist scientists.”

But do they? Do they seem to believe that science is the absolute truth? Do they ever in fact say that, or anything that really resembles it? Not that I’ve seen – they tend to say the opposite: that one of the great things about science is that it’s not ‘absolute,’ that it is always subject to change if better evidence comes along.

People keep doing this – extrapolating from what Dawkins and others say in order to claim that they are saying something different and much sillier; but that is not a good thing to do (whatever your ‘religious and spiritual values’ are); it’s not legitimate; it’s not even helpful, not even to people who do think Dawkins is all wrong, because it addresses phantoms. Who is portraying what in a bad light? I’m not sure it’s Dawkins.

Lord Winston, who is a practising Jew, said the tone adopted by Prof Dawkins and others was counterproductive. “Unfortunately the neo-Darwinists, and I don’t just mean Dawkins, I mean [the philosopher] Daniel Dennett in particular and [neuroscientist] Steven Pinker are extremely arrogant. I think scientific arrogance really does give a great degree of distrust. I think people begin to think that scientists like to believe that they can run the universe.”

Right, that’s just what people begin to think; a trio of Darth Vaders trying to run the universe, that’s Dawkins and Dennett and Pinker. You bet.

The philosopher AC Grayling at Birkbeck College, London, dismissed Lord Winston’s arguments as “tiresome guff”. “Belief in supernatural entities in the universe … is false, and in the light of increasing scientific knowledge about nature has definitely come to be delusional,” he said.

Yes but we’re not allowed to say so.

Because they are so clear, they tell you nothing

Apr 24th, 2007 1:48 pm | By

Someone made a very funny comment on Stephen Law’s interview with Nigel Warburton on the subject of clarity. It’s hard to be sure whether the hilarity is intentional or accidental – I find myself hoping, perhaps maliciously, that it’s accidental, because if so it does so neatly make Nigel’s points for him. This point especially:

[M]any lightweight thinkers are attracted to Philosophy because it seems to promise them power through looking clever. Hiding behind a veil of obscurity is one way in which such people have traditionally duped their readership.

Now the dupe:

although you raise some good points about clarity, i think you are only rehearsing the rather tired analytic vs continental divide;clarity is certainly important, especially for politics and things of immediate public and moral interest…yet, philosophy to be philosophy should say things that are not just obvious; this is the problem with most analytic philosophy; it is one dimensional and the clarity reveals nothing. i mean, analytic philosophy is relatively shallow in its clarity, while that of hegel etc have great depth and enable us to think in ways that are perhaps not normal or obvious.this is what philosophy is for philosophy to be philosophy. For example, hegel and the traditions that follow hegel; or for that matter lacan and deleuze etc are not clear, they require repeated reading and thinking about, yet that is what is good about this kind of philosophy, after really wrestling with the language and the mode of expression, we feel that we are in fact thinking more deeply about the issues of philosophy. for me, nagel, ayer, etc are not the equal philosophically of hegel, deleuze, sartre etc because they are so clear, they tell you nothing.

That describes exactly the process Nigel meant, I think – ‘after really wrestling with the language and the mode of expression, we feel that we are in fact thinking more deeply about the issues of philosophy.’ Yes, we feel that we are, but that’s an illusion, created by the merely surface-level difficulty. And then the absurdity of saying that ‘because they are so clear, they tell you nothing.’ That’s so silly and so perverse that I hope it’s genuine and not a joke – but it’s so silly and so perverse that it probably is a joke. It’s too on-target to be accidental.

Strut strut strut

Apr 24th, 2007 1:15 pm | By

And let’s not neglect good old Iran, and its positive discrimination in women’s favour.

Police say they stopped more than 1,300 women for dressing immodestly on the first day of the campaign in Tehran. More than 100 women were arrested on Saturday; half of them had to sign statements promising to improve their clothing, the other half are being referred to court. The focus of the new campaign is to stop women wearing tight overcoats that reveal the shape of their bodies or showing too much hair from beneath their headscarves…The police complain that some young women strut the streets looking like fashion models – and it is not a bad description.

Oh, well then. Lock them up. If the police are complaining about what women ‘strut the streets’ looking like, then obviously the women have to be imprisoned for not looking the way the police think they should look. Obviously that’s all very right and proper: it’s up to the police to decide what women are supposed to strut the streets looking like. Naturally that’s a police matter; what else would it be?

Get back, slut

Apr 24th, 2007 10:50 am | By

Taking the bus in Jerusalem.

When the Number 40 bus arrived, the most curious thing happened. Husbands left heavily pregnant wives or spouses struggling with prams and pushchairs to fend for themselves as they and all other male passengers got on at the front of the bus. Women moved towards the rear door to get on at the back. When on the bus, I tried to buck the system, moving my way towards the driver but was pushed back towards the other women.

Towards the other servants, the other slaves, the other niggers, the other untouchables.

The separation system operates on 30 public bus routes across Israel. The authorities here say the arrangement is voluntary, but in practise, as I found out, there is not much choice involved.

Well, no, it’s voluntary for the men, you see. If they decide to choose to have the buses divided into front and back, that makes the arrangement voluntary. Capeesh?

Shlomo Rosenstein explains further:

This really is about positive discrimination, in women’s favour. Our religion says there should be no public contact between men and women, this modesty barrier must not be broken.

And that’s why they get pushed back, threatened, and, not to put too fine a point on it, beaten up if they refuse. On a public bus.

Well…what is religion for if it’s not for keeping women down? I ask you. What good is it if it doesn’t sanctify the loathing of women?

Naomi Regen says the buses are just part of a wider menacing pattern of behaviour towards women in parts of the orthodox Jewish community. “They’ve already cancelled higher education in the ultra-orthodox world for women. They have packed the religious courts with ultra-orthodox judges. In some places there are separate sides of the street women have to walk on.” She says that there are signs all over some religious neighbourhoods demanding that women dress modestly. “They throw paint and bleach at women who aren’t dressed modestly…”

Which of course is positive discrimination, in women’s favour. Lucky lucky women.

The quality of mercy

Apr 24th, 2007 10:26 am | By

It’s a very merciful religion if you try to understand it – we’re told. Is that right?

A community debate over religious freedom surfaced in Western Pennsylvania last week when Dutch feminist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee who has lived under the threat of death for denouncing her Muslim upbringing, made an appearance at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. Islamic leaders tried to block the lecture…They argued that Hirsi Ali’s attacks against the Muslim faith in her book, “Infidel,” and movie, “Submission,” are “poisonous and unjustified” and create dissension in their community.

Thus artfully demonstrating just how open to discussion and criticism ‘the Muslim faith’ is, at least according to them.

Imam Fouad ElBayly, president of the Johnstown Islamic Center, was among those who objected to Hirsi Ali’s appearance. “She has been identified as one who has defamed the faith. If you come into the faith, you must abide by the laws, and when you decide to defame it deliberately, the sentence is death,” said ElBayly, who came to the U.S. from Egypt in 1976.

Of course Hirsi Ali didn’t ‘come into the faith’ in the sense we would normally understand that: she was born into it; that is, she was born to Muslim parents and raised as a Muslim child; that’s a physical kind of coming into it, but it’s hardly an intellectual kind. And that’s even before you get to the question of whether any intellectual commitment should be irrevocable on pain of death, to which I would with all due modesty and uncertainty answer ‘No.’

Although ElBayly believes a death sentence is warranted for Hirsi Ali, he stressed that America is not the jurisdiction where such a crime should be punished. Instead, Hirsi Ali should be judged in a Muslim country after being given a trial, he added. “If it is found that a person is mentally unstable, or a child or disabled, there should be no punishment,” he said. “It’s a very merciful religion if you try to understand it.”

That’s an interesting idea of mercy.

When in doubt, issue a press release

Apr 23rd, 2007 6:34 pm | By

This guy is worse than I thought – this ‘humanist chaplain’ guy. I thought he’d just been talking to a reporter about ‘atheist fundamentalists’ – but no. He (and perhaps other people tangled up in the ‘Harvard chaplaincy,’ whatever that means) put out a press release on March 6 that started right out with that stupid inaccurate (indeed oxymoronic) phrase, along with the fact that the humanists were having a conference for the very purpose of ‘taking on’ these here ‘atheist “fundamentalists.”‘ This wasn’t some chat with a journalist at Starbuck’s, this was the subject of a conference. These humanists are so distraught about the ‘militancy’ and ‘fundamentalism’ of Dawkins and Harris that they’re holding an entire conference to ‘take them on’ – and they issue a press release whose first sentence features that tendentious and inaccurate phrase – albeit, notice, with ‘fundamentalist’ in scare quotes, so that everyone would know they didn’t mean it. Well if they didn’t mean it, why hold a conference to take it on?

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – A group of renowned Humanists, atheists and agnostics will gather at Harvard in April, to take on an unlikely opponent: atheist “fundamentalists.”

This stalwart fella Brian Flemming called them on it.

[C]ertain humanists have a very weird strategy for bringing us all together. One prominent humanist apparently believes that the way to achieve this unity is to hurl brainless epithets at his allies.

Just so. Then Flemming nails Epstein’s refusal to apologize, not to mention his use of an epithet that he himself doesn’t consider accurate –

Of course, Epstein doesn’t actually believe that Harris and Dawkins deserve the appellation he used (“I absolutely do not think Dawkins, Harris, etc. are actual fundamentalists”). Which, to put it simply, makes his claim that they are “fundamentalists” an intentional false accusation. I think it’s safe to call using an intentional false accusation in the first sentence of a press release a really stupid thing to do. Especially to people you claim to want as allies. Especially if it’s obvious that you did it to frame the argument in a way that favors you (My Reason vs. Their Dogma: discuss).

Stupid, and also morally dubious. Or contemptible, to put it a little more harshly.

Then Flemming got a very informative email from frequent B&W contributor Joe Hoffmann. It’s an amusing read (and posted with permission).