Close Reading Redux

Jun 30th, 2005 12:43 am | By

Michael Bérubé has a post on that Judith Halberstam article about the putative death of English. Remember that article? The one I had so much innocent fun with last month? Actually (now I look) two sessions of innocent fun – because I wasn’t able to fit all my ridicule and venom into one comment of reasonable length.

Much of my venom was directed at the characterization of close reading as ‘elitist’ – remember that?

But, while Spivak’s investment in the “close reading” and formalism betrays the elitist investments of her proposals for reinvention, I urge a consideration of non-elitist forms of knowledge production upon the otherwise brilliant formulations of The Death of a Discipline. If the close reading represents a commitment to a set of interpretive skills associated with a very particular history of ideas and a very narrow set of literatures, the plot summary indicates a much wider commitments to knowledge production, high and low.

I frothed and gnashed at that – so I’m pleased (though, like the Elephant’s Child, not at all astonished) to see Michael disagreeing too.

When I first read this, I said softly to myself, “no no no no no no no no.” But since that’s not a sufficient argument, let me supplement it by saying that close reading is not, in fact, elitist. Although it was once applied to a particular history of ideas and a very narrow set of literatures, it is not forever tainted by that association. Hey, you can’t use that—don’t you know that Cleanth Brooks once used that on John Donne?


In the right hands (ours, naturally), close reading is a good thing, and we ought to keep on doing it, not least because it remains one of our best defenses against the lies and slander of our attackers. And we should make it clear—much clearer than we have to date—that close readings (or, if you like, skills in advanced literacy) are precisely what English departments have to offer. They’re our distinct product line; they’re what we sell people—and even better, they’re a product that just doesn’t wear out. Once you know how to do one, you can do more of ‘em. And you don’t have to confine yourself to literary works, either. You can go right ahead and do close readings of any kind of “text” whatsoever, in the most expansive sense of that most expansive word.

Exactly. Which is pretty much what N&C is for – close readings of various bits of wool and fluff and dancing around in The Meeja, books, and similar textual-type environments. That was the basic idea of N&C from the beginning: a place to do close readings. I could probably even find the email I sent to my colleague sometime in September 2002 when we were inventing the whole site, saying something along the lines of ‘How about a place to do close readings of whatever comes along?’ And that’s odd, because it happens that in the course of an, ahem, a discussion of a past conversation, PM provided a link to N&C for July 2004 which I read bits of with surprise and interest, as if I’d never seen any of it before (how I wish we had an archive for N&C, but it is Forbidden) – including this one, which is about, precisely, Close Reading – it’s even titled that. But I was going to do this post (this one, the one I’m doing now) talking about close reading, before I saw that one. Apparently there’s some kind of magnetic field shortly after the summer solstice that causes me to write a post about close reading and its connection to Notes and Comment. This is how I said it last year.

And that reminded me, in an almost nostalgic, sentimental way, of the beginning of N&C. In September or October 2002, when we were thinking about and discussing what to include on B&W, what features to add. It reminded me that we didn’t exactly think of N&C as a blog, at first, or even as a blog-like thing. The original idea was that we needed a place to do close readings of nonsense. Sort of Leavisite lit-crit examination of manipulative rhetoric, fancy footwork, evasive tactics, subject-changing, translation, that sort of thing. That was the first thought. I don’t even remember how we got from there to a bloggish sort of thing – whether we just realized, well, that sounds like a blog, or we actually decided, well let’s make it a bloggish sort of thing while we’re at it, since we might as well.

Then I got from there to a close (well, close-ish) reading of the term ‘race’ – which I mention by way of pointing out that close reading (as Michael also points out) is not some artsy-fartsy elitist snob’s night out, it’s a very damn useful and basic activity. If you don’t do it the Patrick Henry colleges and the Bill O’Reillys can just run roughshod all over you merely by throwing around words like ‘spiritual’ or ‘values’ or – listen closely, now – ‘elitist.’

Which of course raises the question, what’s the difference? What is a blog or a blog-like thing, and how does it or would it differ from a place to do close readings of other people’s rhetoric? That’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. It’s not unlike the question ‘What does the word ‘race’ mean, and is it a word that refers to something real that exists in the world, or is it a word that refers to a human idea about or description of something that exists in the real world?’ Then again it’s not all that much like the question, since blogs are clearly a human invention, whereas the word ‘race’ purports to name something in the world, though whether it actually does that or only purports to has been much debated in human history. And then again, again, the question of what a blog is doesn’t matter much, whereas the question of what race means, if anything, has massive implications. People have been slaughtered in wholesale lots on the basis of the reality of that word, which seems unlikely in the case of blogs.

Michael closes with a promise of more fun in the future.

Hey! This post is already too damn long. I was going to proceed from here to do a close reading of Mark Bauerlein’s essay on “Theory’s Empire,” recently posted at Butterflies and Wheels, but I think I’ll give you all a break for once. Stay tuned for John McGowan’s Thursday Guest Post tomorrow, and I’ll be back on Friday with an arbitary but fun value judgment. The close reading of Bauerlein will just have to wait until after the weekend.

That’s the thing about close reading, once you get started it’s hard to stop, and posts get long and longer.

Remarks on Theory

Jun 30th, 2005 12:39 am | By

People have been commenting here and there on Mark Bauerlein’s “Theory’s Empire”, no doubt because of the links on Arts and Letters Daily and (cringe) National Review Online’s The Corner. There’s this colleague of Mark’s for example:

If the original impulse of theory was to shatter orthodoxies and challenge hierarchies (it wasn’t all that, but that’s the mythology), the current incarnation is tediously hegemonic…I’m sure deconstruction was really exciting back in the day, but, well, I don’t live back in the day, and I don’t care…the theory evolved into elaboration for its own sake, turning a corner of literature departments into Philosophy-Lite (“Just as much deep meaning, but a third less logical rigor”). You can see how theory for its own sake could take over…But in the end theory has alienated people from literature rather than drawing them in with all the cool new tools of analysis. Why? Because theory, as it is currently constituted, is no longer about finding things out but rather about obscuring them…Theory is dying a long, slow death because it has become boring and opaque. When it comes to praxis, it’s predictably pseudo-radical. When it comes to literature, it’s predictable. Theory won’t die out entirely because there is a quorum of young scholars who have staked their careers on it (I know someone who says “I am the person who does Lacanian analysis of female saints’ lives; That’s my niche” — and a tiny niche it is…).

Snicker, snerk. Lacanian analysis of female saints’ lives – I wish I’d known about that while we were doing the Dictionary. There’s nothing in there about Lacanian analysis of female saints’ lives, although Lacan is definitely there.

There’s another medievalist, this time one who doesn’t think much of B&W:

Sure, the article is a shameless plug, and it is found on the frequently disappointing Butterflies and Wheels site, but he still acknowledges the institutional nature of theory study.

Now see here – B&W may well be frequently disappointing (all depends what you were looking forward to, dunnit), but the article is not a plug, shameless or otherwise – I asked Mark to write it and he kindly consented; plug doesn’t come into it. Plug, indeed – given the kind of site B&W is, it features a lot of talk about books, doesn’t it! That doesn’t make it plugs. [mutter mutter]

Like a lot of cutting-edge work, theory has always had a strongly smug narcissistic quality about it, and to suggest that in the 90s “the institutional effects of Theory displaced its intellectual nature” ignores that theory has always been strongly institutional — else it would never have gained the slightest foothold in the Academy. The very nature of universities prevents them from ever studying (or observing) anything that is not institutionally oriented. French theorists gained prominence not because they were saying particularly smart or interesting things (though of course some were), but because academe happened to be institutionally headed by francophiles, in the same way that 19th-century German philologists ruled before two world wars made German politically suspect.

Eh? Academe happened to be institutionally headed by francophiles? That’s a bit question-begging, isn’t it? Why did it? Why wasn’t it institutionally headed by slavophiles or magyarophiles?

But no matter. I’m just quibbling (I need a break from plugging). Then there’s this site called, catchily, C8H10N4HO2O2.

Without literature, I’d put myself firmly in the camp of those (Ms. Benson, maybe? I don’t want to put words in her mouth) who mostly think that post-modern ideas about the significance of context to observations might be useful things to keep around, but anyone taking this so far as to suggest this implies there is either (a) no tractably knowable objective reality or (b) actually no objective reality is probably either (1) incredibly silly, (2) sadly deluded, (3) grinding an axe for a pseudoscience, or (4) all of the above…Beyond these goobs, of course, there’s the out and out apologists for unreason, hiding behind postmodernism’s flag. You can’t live long as an atheist without encountering at least one slackjawed evangelical preacher who insists his firm belief in an invisible sky fairy is somehow ‘post-modern’… or justified because post-modernism sez there’s no reality anyway, so he can believe whatever he durn well wants, thank you very much… Or somesuch rot. True story: one of these I met, attempting to answer my ridicule of his rhetoric, responded to me with the line: “You’re such an Enlightenment thinker”… as though, apparently, I was gonna take this as an insult or something.

Yup, I’ve encountered some of them too.

And there’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast who finds B&W helpful for dissertation writing.

I do, however, have a new weapon in my battle against such propensities for skillfully written perpetuation of nonsense: It’s my newest favorite blogrolled site, Butterflies and Wheels…The site’s entire mission appears to be an innoculation against poor academic writing, faulty scholarly thinking and reasoning, and ideological monarchs clothed in scientific clothes. It’s a good companion, in my mind, to the book Fashionable Nonsense by Sokal and Bricmont. One gradstudent-relevant point to take from these resources is the importance of not copying the mistakes of our elders in order to be accepted into the academic fold. It is possible to think clearly. It is possible to write well. It is possible to communicate complex scholarly ideas with clarity, honesty, and flair.

Yes – that is indeed our entire mission. And a dang good mission it is, too. (And not as small as it may sound – look how full it’s made these pages in the last almost three years.)

The sun is setting in its usual decorative fashion, and I must scamper off to admire its descent over the silvery waters of Puget Sound. Good night.


Jun 29th, 2005 2:50 am | By

What was that we were saying about Bible-clutchers who avow their belief that everyone ‘outside’ of JC will get conscious torment for eternity? And about the thought that people who choose to believe that, and sign a statement saying so at the beginning of their college careers, and carry on as usual in a cheerful tranquil manner – have something badly wrong with them; that such people are not, as is so often assumed of ‘devout’ believers, better than other people, but worse?

Well. Last January, some six months before Edgar Ray Killen was convicted and sentenced for the murder of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a piece in The New Yorker about a visit to Killen a few years earlier at his house near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

A sign on the narrow road that leads to Edgar Ray Killen’s house, in the low hills southeast of Philadelphia, Mississippi, reads “If You Don’t Believe in God, the Hellfire Awaits You.”

But Killen’s a preacher, so no doubt he does believe in God.

Killen is known around Philadelphia as Preacher. He used to preside over a small church nearby, where he taught the inerrancy of the Bible and the superiority of the Caucasian race, but that day he was apparently caring for his weapons. “My gun’s clean and ready,” he said…The killings took place on Rock Cut Road, a short walk from Killen’s house, and it has long been alleged that Killen, who, according to the F.B.I., was a founder of the local Klavern, organized the murder party. He was indicted on federal charges not long after the killings, but he benefitted at trial from a deadlocked jury. A holdout juror said she could not convict a preacher.

So not only does the Hellfire not await him, but he got four decades of impunity that he otherwise wouldn’t have. How spiritual.

He’d been more talkative a few years earlier in an interview with David Oshinsky for the Times Magazine. “I’m a right-winger who supports the Constitution as written by the Founding Fathers,” he’d said. When Oshinsky asked him about the murders, he replied, “Those boys were Communists who went to a Communist training school. I’m sorry they got themselves killed. But I can’t show remorse for something I didn’t do.”

I’d like to read that interview, but I haven’t found it online. David Oshinsky wrote a very good (horrifying) book, Worse Than Slavery, about Parchman Farm, the state prison in Mississippi and how it and the labor laws of the state functioned to reimpose slavery on the supposed freed slaves after the Civil War. Reading him on Killen would be pretty interesting.

I mentioned a conversation I’d had with Stan Dearman, who was then the editor of the local paper. Dearman had told me that some people in the town were thinking of building a memorial to the murdered civil-rights workers. This prospect sent Killen into a rage. At first, he didn’t even understand. “A memorial?” he asked. “To who? The dead guys?” I nodded. “Never!” he shouted. “It’ll never happen.” After a moment, he asked me to leave. He said, “I’m not a man of violence, but if you don’t get off my property right now, I’m going to shoot you dead.”

And that’s Preacher Killen.

Disorder and Early Sorrow

Jun 27th, 2005 10:16 pm | By

This review of Simon Blackburn’s Truth brings up Munchausen’s by proxy:

For a more serious example of the misuse of “objective facts” by people in power, he blasts the proponents of “Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy,” which Blackburn calls “a description invented by a British pediatrician for a ‘condition’ in which mothers harm or kill their babies in order to gain attention for themselves. By insinuating the quite false idea that science had ‘discovered’ this ‘condition,’ and therefore in some sense was on the way to understanding it, and then by ceding power to ‘expert witnesses’ who could pronounce upon its presence, the medical profession assisted in the conviction of many innocent mothers whose babies had died of natural causes.”

The subject is in the news as we speak, as a professor of forensic statistics explains what he takes to be a mistake in Roy Meadow’s analysis of the odds that two children in the same family could have SIDS, to the General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practice panel.

These ‘conditions’ that are ‘discovered’ are interesting. Apparently there is – or is said to be – a ‘condition’ ‘called’ (by whom?) Body Integrity Identity Disorder. People who have this rare ‘condition’ apparently (as far as I can make out) are convinced they have an arm or leg too many and pine their lives away longing to have the superfluous limb chopped off. Now…I don’t know, but where I come from, that kind of thing isn’t considered a ‘condition’ so much as just being stark staring stupid. Could that be the problem here? Could the people (who are they?) who named this ‘condition’ Body Integrity Identity Disorder, simply have been confused? Could they just have mistaken a peculiar belief with a ‘condition’? People have lots of peculiar beliefs, you know; that doesn’t mean they’re sick, it just means they’re not firing on all cylinders. A certain amount of cautious skepticism would seem to be in order.

Two Australian philosophers believe surgeons should be allowed to cut off the healthy limbs of some “amputee wannabes”. Neil Levy and Tim Bayne argue that patients obsessed with having a limb amputated should be able to have it safely removed by a surgeon, as long as they are deemed sane…Dr Levy, of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, said some patients suffered so severely from the rare condition – known as Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) – they tried to remove the limb themselves…Only a few thousand people worldwide are believed to have the disorder.

By whom? Who are all these people? All these shadowy people who named the ‘Disorder’ and have beliefs about how many people in the world have it – who are they, and how do they know?

But more to the point, this seems like a glaring example of exactly what Blackburn is talking about – of ‘insinuating the quite false idea that science had ‘discovered’ this ‘condition,’ and therefore in some sense was on the way to understanding it, and then by ceding power to ‘expert witnesses’ who could pronounce upon its presence’ – and then give surgeons the okay to cut off legs and arms that don’t need cutting off. It’s like
‘Reactive Attachment Disorder’
, the made-up ‘disorder’ that got Candace Newmaker killed by ‘therapists’ in a rebirthing exercise. It’s also like ‘recovered memory’ and ‘multiple personality disorder’ and no doubt a good few other disorders and syndromes. If it just prompts some therapeutic hand-holding and hanky-clutching, it’s not so terrible (unless the afflicted want to tell us about their affliction, in which case it’s time to discover an urgent appointment elsewhere), but when it starts getting people squashed in mattresses or mutilated or thrown in prison or permanently estranged from parents or children – it’s a bit dodgy.

The Griffin Can Be Umpire

Jun 27th, 2005 2:08 am | By

Hey remember last winter when I used to tell you all about Wicca and Celtic pathworkings and Sylvia Browne on angels? (I’m getting all tearily nostalgic just thinking about it. Those were the days – turning over page after page, staring at the words in disbelief, laughing incredulously, drawing moustaches on the angels and druids.) Well now other people are talking about her, to wit, PZ at Pharyngula and James Randi. It all sounds so familiar.

All God’s creatures exist on the Other Side with only one exception. The only living things I have never seen at Home are insects. I am not sure exactly why that is, but I have never seen a spider, fly, or any other type of insect…

That bashful ‘I am not sure exactly why that is’ is especially typical – she’s always saying things like that. ‘I’m not sure exactly why it is, but there’s nothing there that I don’t happen to like. Dirt, splinters, skeptics, insects – isn’t that strange – I have no idea why that is. And at the same time – I’m not sure exactly why – there is everything I do like. Golly, isn’t that just coincidental?’

Like this bit I quoted last winter (because I don’t have any of her books, that’s why – you think I actually want to have them on my shelves?) from The Other Side and Back

We on earth are stuck with our dimension’s annoying laws of time and space, laws that contribute concepts like ‘late’ and ‘crowded’ and ‘traffic jam’ and ‘stressed out’ to our vocabulary. The residents of The Other Side joyfully function without those restrictions and instead enjoy the freedom of such universal laws as infinity and eternity.

Yay! No ‘late,’ eternity instead! No traffic jams or crowds, because with infinity to play with, everybody can be miles apart – it’s brilliant! Of course, then the question arises, what could you be not late for? What could you travel through no traffic jams to get to? I mean, are you meeting people for lunch, or what? Because if you are, at some point you’re going to have to get closer to them – or else call it something other than lunch. ‘Waving hello across a vast space’ perhaps, but not lunch. That’s where this infinity business nabs you, you see – it seems like a good idea, it seems like pure luxury and enjoyment – ‘all the space I want! I can do a 20 mile run in my living room!’ – but then when the moment arrives that you want to pick up a piece of foccaccia because you’re hungry, and you can’t because it’s several miles away – well you see the problem. And it’s like that with everything. Pretty soon claustrophobia starts to look pretty good – but it’s too late, because you’ve let Sylvia Browne talk you into the infinity-and-eternity version. You’re not allowed to change your order. Messes up the gears in the infinity drive. And as for eternity – that means that on the rare occasions when people do manage to get within shouting distance and you all settle down for a chat – they never leave. Why would they? What’s their hurry? They’ve got nowhere they have to be (and they can’t get there anyway, because of infinity), and if they did they’d have more than enough time to get there – so they’ll just stay and pass the time with you.

And how is this for something to look forward to: All spirits on The Other Side are thirty years old…Spirits can assume their earthly appearance when they come to visit us, to help us recognize them, but in their day-to-day lives on The Other Side, not only are they thirty but they can choose their own physical attributes, from height to weight to hair color.

Ooooooh, I do look forward to that, don’t you? Ooh I’m so excited – maybe I’ll go there now. I can choose my own physical attributes! Okay, I’ll be ten feet tall, weigh enough to crush stuff, and have hair the colour of turpentine. No, wait, scratch that – I’ll look exactly like Billy Bob Thornton. No, wait, I’ll look exactly like Marie Dressler (oh, wait, I already do). No, Natalie Portman. No, Sponge Bob Squarepants – oh, no, wait, he’s a poofter, I want to look butch – the Archbishop of Canterbury – that’s it, I’ll look like that guy. And I’ll be thirty, and everyone will be thirty. There we’ll all be, ten feet tall looking like Sponge Bob, racing the unicorn up and down our infinitely long living rooms and hoping nobody drops by and stays for eternity. Um – it doesn’t sound all that much fun, actually.

Page Missing

Jun 26th, 2005 11:26 pm | By

Elliott sent me a link to another review of Michael Ruse’s new book. It’s no more convincing than any of the other articles, interviews, or reviews have been. No doubt the book is much much more so – or at least no doubt it makes clear what he means – but I wonder why all the secondary accounts are so unconvincing.

This one just feels as if something vital has been left out.

The crux of Ruse’s argument, however, is that this “religiosity” of zealous Darwinians is not just apparent, but real. Evolutionism (which I define more closely below) is a religion: a secular and godless religion, but a religion nevertheless…Evolutionism includes associated ideas of materialism and naturalism. Like the French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), evolutionists have no need of the hypothesis of God. Evolutionism is also closely associated with the idea of human progress, for all that some evolutionists, notably Stephen Jay Gould, have argued that evolution itself does not imply progress from lower to higher life forms.

And that’s it. That’s all Alan Batten says by way of explaining why ‘evolutionism’ is a religion. Well, I don’t get it – that’s why I wonder if something has been left out. Why on earth does any of that make ‘evolutionism’ a religion? Because it includes associated ideas of materialism and naturalism, has no need of the ‘hypothesis of God,’ and is ‘closely associated with the idea of human progress’ – which isn’t true anyway? Why do those three items make it a religion? And why doesn’t Alan Batten explain why they do? It’s not self-evident, after all! It’s also, frankly, far from self-evident how a religion can be a secular godless religion. That’s kind of a special meaning of the word, surely. Buddhism is godless, yes, but is it secular? Anyway Buddhism is something of a special case. Religion as it is normally used in the Anglophone world (as I’ve stipulated some 900 times now) does mean at least theistic or supernatural or both – if it doesn’t, if we’re talking about something else, then it needs some kind of qualifying adjective to make that clear. Otherwise there’s some kind of cheating or fancy footwork going on.

Such as announcing that ‘evolutionism’ is a religion – without saying what is meant by ‘religion’ – and without properly explaining what qualifies an ism to be a religion. Just – what? – a set of ideas or beliefs or assumptions that are strongly held? Or does it mean rather a set of ideas or beliefs or assumptions that are strongly held in the absence of proper evidence – which is another matter.

Whence do these religions spring? Ruse traces them back to the Enlightenment, when the “Sea of Faith”…began to recede from our Western world. In reaction, many turned to millenarian speculation…Ruse argues that creationism is a form of pre-millenarianism and evolutionism is secularized post-millenarianism.

Because it includes associated ideas of materialism and naturalism, has no need of the ‘hypothesis of God,’ and is ‘closely associated with the idea of human progress’? That makes it secularized post-millenarianism? Why doesn’t that just make it, you know, common or garden science? We’re not told. Maybe the dog ate that page.

Return to Patrick Henry

Jun 25th, 2005 10:35 pm | By

I googled Billy Graham, out of curiosity, to see how keen on hellfire he is. It seems to me I read an article recently that said he was more of a fan than I had (vaguely) thought – but I’m not at all sure. This site certainly doesn’t think so – it thinks Billy is a dang backslidin’ heretic, and it’s pretty pissed about it.

Scripture is not unclear about the fact that Hell is a place of fiery torment (Isaiah 66:24; Mark 9:43-48; Matthew 3:12; 5:22; 13:40-42, 49-50; 18:8-9; 25:41; Luke 16: 19-31; John 15:6; Revelation 14:10; 19:20; 20:10, 14-15; 21:8). Yet, Mr. Graham denies this truth. In an interview with Time Magazine (November 15, 1993), Mr. Graham said this about hell:

“The only thing I could say for sure is that hell means separation from God. We are separated from his light, from his fellowship. That is going to be hell. When it comes to a literal fire, I don’t preach it because I’m not sure about it. When the Scripture uses fire concerning hell, that is possibly an illustration of how terrible it’s going to be – not fire but something worse, a thirst for God that cannot be quenched.”

First of all, Scripture never depicts or describes hell as “a thirst for God”…Secondly, Graham denies hell fire by saying it is “not fire.” Yet, Scripture is very clear about the fire of hell. In fact, the rich man in “Hades” in Luke 16:24 said, “I am tormented in this flame.”

Good. Lovely. Super. I do like scholarship and accuracy, don’t you? (Although the rich man thing is a bit of a poser, isn’t it. Since those nice people at Patrick Henry College pretty much worship George W, and he’s not famous for being hard on rich men. Oh well, I’d better leave these doctrinal niceties to the scholarly people at PHC and the Washington Times.) It’s good to have it firmly nailed down that the Bible says Hell is a place of fiery torment.

PHC is interesting in a lot of ways. Reading some of the ways, one is tempted to fall to one’s knees and pray that they all become harmless real estate agents rather than going into the government in any capacity whatsoever.

God is a self-existent and transcendent spirit, who is incomprehensibly holy, righteous, good, just, omnipotent, omniscient, wise, omnipresent, loving, gracious and faithful…God created the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them for His own good pleasure. He has absolute sovereign authority and control over all His creation, and sustains it by His gracious providence.

Okay. Fine. If God is good and just and loving and gracious, and ‘he’ created the earth and everything in it (for his own good pleasure?? what is he, a child?) – then why is there so much pain and fear and loss in it? Okay, Pat Henry – did you see that picture from Zimbabwe the other day? Of the two little orphan boys sitting in the rubble of the market hanging onto each other, the older one cuddling the younger? What’s that for? Is that God’s own good pleasure? If so he’s a miserable shit, isn’t he. Now multiply that picture by, say, 100 billion for recent human miseries, and say 1000 billion for the miseries of other sentient beings. No, don’t give me that ‘incomprehensible’ nonsense – with that you can just argue anything and everything and nothing. What the hell make you think this ‘God’ isn’t incomprehensibly evil, bad, unjust, omnipotent, stupid, omnipresent, hating, sadistic and treacherous? The Bible – well that’s another circular answer, isn’t it – what if the evil hating treacherous sadist wrote it? How do you know that’s not the case? Because the Bible says so. Well it would, wouldn’t it!

Human life begins at conception; it is a gift from the Creator, sustained by His grace and to be taken only upon His authority. Abortion and euthanasia are sins and violations of the public good.

And that’s the end of that subject. Notice anything missing?

The Lord is the author of the union of marriage, made evident when he provided a companion for the first man, Adam…Husbands are the head of their wives just as Christ is the head of the church…

So – all girls who attend PHC have signed on to official, explicit inferiority and subordination.

Any biology, Bible or other courses at PHC dealing with creation will teach creation from the understanding of Scripture that God’s creative work, as described in Genesis 1:1-31, was completed in six twenty-four hour days. All faculty for such courses will be chosen on the basis of their personal adherence to this view. PHC expects its faculty in these courses, as in all courses, to expose students to alternate theories and the data, if any, which support those theories. In this context, PHC in particular expects its biology faculty to provide a full exposition of the claims of the theory of Darwinian evolution, intelligent design and other major theories while, in the end, teach creation as both biblically true and as the best fit to observed data.

Wheee! Talk about the inmates running the asylum…

Private Property. As God’s image-bearers with dominion, and stewardship responsibilities, over the remainder of creation, men and women have the inalienable right to own and manage their own property, subject to government regulation only in the unusual situation where the rights of others are endangered. Government systems such as communism and socialism, which give the government primary control over property, are a violation of God’s creation order.

That’s right. So if some smelly bozo asks you for your shirt, here’s what you do – you don’t hand over your cloak as well, you whip out your cell phone and call the cops. Then you can while away the waiting time by telling smelly bozo what eternal torment is like. Have a nice day.

Conscious Torment

Jun 25th, 2005 2:52 am | By

So religion makes people good, does it. Christianity makes people more kind and compassionate does it. Well, maybe sometimes it does, but all too often it (at least the extreme, narrow version of it that is so popular in the US) makes people – not just not better, but horrifying. Disgusting. So appalling it’s hard to take it in.

Patrick Henry is a Christian university where the students all (shades of Oxbridge and the Thirty Nine Articles) sign a ten-part statement of faith –

agreeing that, among other things, Hell is a place where “all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity.”

Okay, I know we’re supposed to be all tolerant and respectful, we’re supposed to shut up about people’s pious ‘devout’ beliefs, we’re supposed to refrain from telling them that they’re lost in the fog. But – but there’s a limit. There’s a limit, and with the drooling sadism of the Rapture novels and with ‘statements of faith’ like the above, I reach my limit. That sentence is disgusting! It’s disgusting, disgusting, disgusting, and people who sign up to it and then go cheerily about their business, ironing their hair and not drinking alcohol and interning for Karl Rove – people like that are an abomination. I’m serious. If they sign up to that and seriously literally believe it’s true – what the fuck is the matter with them? Why aren’t they all curled up in little balls sobbing and screaming? Why doesn’t that thought blight their lives? Why doesn’t it give them nightmares? Why doesn’t it torture them so much that they look for a way out and realize it’s all a pack of lies? Why are they happy with the set-up? What is wrong with them? They seriously think that the vast majority of humans alive now and also formerly alive are now or will soon be ‘confined in conscious torment for eternity’? And they don’t mind? They in fact ‘love’ the ‘God’ that arranges this? The God that first creates us and then confines us in conscious torment for eternity?

They’re sick. I’m dead serious. They’re a population of sick bastards. And there they are trundling around thinking they’re good. It’s staggering. It’s also disgusting. It’s always disgusted me in Dante, but he had the excuse that he lived in the 13th century. There’s no excuse for it now. I can accept (up to a point) that the fact that religion is consoling is an excuse for believing it, even though there’s not much other reason. But believing that foul sentence is hardly the same kind of consolation as believing we will all be reunited and there will be no more parting then.

It’s the word ‘conscious’ that pushes me over the edge. There’s something so – oh, determined, refined, thorough about it. An anxious carefulness to nail everything down, to make absolutely sure that not only is there torment and not only is it for eternity, but the outside-of-Christers are awake for it. And along come tripping all these brighteyed fresh-faced home-schooled dimpled little darlings from Idaho and Nebraska, signing right up to that evil piece of shit. And thinking they’re virtuous for doing so – thinking they’re better than the secular crowd.

I don’t understand. I really don’t. It defeats me.

Chemise Ouvert

Jun 23rd, 2005 9:07 pm | By

People seem to be on a mission to entertain us with stories of absurd or preening or egomaniacal men. Yesterday we had Laurie Taylor mocking his younger trendier self, today (because today is when I saw it, not when it came out) we have Kevin Jackson teasing his teenage out of date existentialist self.

If you did happen to be a swot and/or would-be intellectual, Sartre was even harder to avoid—he was one of the few modern gurus who could rival Kafka and Beckett in the bookish adolescent’s pantheon of lugubrious heroes…I look back on all this adolescent Sartreanism with relatively slight embarrassment; everyone, after all, has to start the messy job of growing up with the fodder their culture is offering at the time, and at least I wasn’t gorging my half-formed brain on Tolkien.

Well said. If he had been, his brain would have remained half-formed.

Nevertheless, today, it very nearly goes without saying that my contemporaries and I were being hopelessly old-fashioned in what we mistook for our avant-gardism…To put it mildly, though, his name no longer seems to excite the intelligent young; mainstream British philosophers continue, as they did when he was alive, to contend that what Sartre wrote had little or nothing to do with philosophy, and for every one book published on Sartre and x, there are 60, 70, 100 on Foucault and y. A widely read crib entitled Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers (1994), by John Lechte, devotes whole chapters to fauna such as Le Doeuff and Pateman—Pateman?—but mentions Sartre only in asides.

But he may be making what Hollywood watchers call a ‘comeback.’

Bookshops are laden with his works, newspapers are publishing Sartre supplements, and when I switched on the television in my hotel room, the first thing I saw was Bernard-Henry Levy, the open-shirted media intellectual, recanting his youthful rejection of Sartre and claiming that everything valuable in the maîtres penseurs of the 1960s was already present in Sartre’s thought.

Le pauvre BHL, eh – he might as well make ‘open-shirted’ his middle name.

I interviewed Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, on Sartre the philosopher. To my surprise, since Blackburn works in a tradition that is alien or even hostile to Sartre’s, he expressed sympathy for the early work, citing Nausea as a rare example of a philosophical novel which achieves a convincing union of fiction and ideas, and commended the moments in Being and Nothingness—the famous passage about the over-attentive waiter, which Sartre uses as a parable of bad faith, is a case in point—where Sartre’s novelistic powers animate his train of thought and take imaginative flight. As a philosophical stylist, Blackburn suggested, Sartre might be compared to Kant: in both writers, pages of dry exposition suddenly give way to a flash of dazzling lyricism, wit or incongruity.

Which is interesting – the whole philosophy as a kind of writing thing, and how important style and wit are or are not. Style, wit, and open shirts.

Frye Boots

Jun 23rd, 2005 12:56 am | By

And on a lighter note – also a different note, which is good, since I’ve been stuck in this poke-at-religion groove for days and days now, but I can’t help it, it’s not my fault, so don’t blame me: articles keep turning up, and then comments raise good questions, and the groove just keeps getting dug deeper. I was just about ready to put the back seat under the rear wheels for traction. On a lighter and different note, as I was saying, this piece by Laurie Taylor is very amusing. It caused me to laugh quite noisily more than once.

Yes, I’ve said, with the casual blend of matiness and erudition that distinguishes media sociologists, the Sixties revolution brought about a profound change in our sexual attitudes…As a sociologist I was also in touch with many of the theoretical currents feeding into the sexual revolution. What’s more, I looked the part. I had a casual green velvet suit that put my colleagues’ leather-patched sports jackets to shame, enough uncombed hair to stuff a small sofa, and rarely appeared in public without a cigarette or a cheroot dangling from my lips. You only had to take one look at me to know that I was “into the scene”.

Cool, dude. (I have to say, I like Laurie Taylor. I like ‘Thinking Allowed,’ for one thing – love its casual blend of matiness and erudition, and the topics are quite good too. And then he’s one of the small select band of discerning people who reviewed the Dictionary (available in all good Tescos and Morrisons) – in his case in the THES. He said some unfavourable things about it, but he also quoted some entries and said they were funny, so that’s enough to make me his slave.)

I went to the back bedroom, took down the box file labelled “old photographs” and began for the first time in years to search for pictures of myself that would provide documentary evidence of my status as a fully paid up member of the Sixties revolution…How on earth had I ever come to dress in that manner? What did I think I looked like with hair that long? Why was that unlit cigarette dangling from my lips? Had I been so busy bringing about the collapse of capitalism that I couldn’t find the time to light the damn thing? And who was it who had turned me into this peculiar vainglorious being?

It was Linda.

It was Linda who forced me into absurdly tight jeans and T-shirt, who made me listen to Pink Floyd (“lie back and let it wash over you”), and rolled me my very first joint (“suck, don’t blow”)…From my new reading I learnt about the extraordinary power of the true orgasm. This was apparently nothing at all like the consummations that I had previously encountered in my dark marital bedroom. This was a spontaneous coming together of such power and energy that nobody who experienced it could ever again allow themselves to become subservient to the life-sapping routines of capitalism.

Yup – that’s what it was all right. You betcha. That’s why capitalism went away in 1968 and never came back.

She simply stopped seeing me and started hanging out with an old hippie with bad teeth and so much hair dripping off his face that he looked as if he was peering out of a yak’s arse…I’d not only dressed bizarrely but I’d also entertained some crazy ideas: the notion that sex could ever be natural and spontaneous rather than culturally constructed; the belief that good sex could tell us something about ourselves that was not revealed by such other pursuits as playing poker and eating out.

Especially if it involves humping a guy who looks like the occupant of a yak’s arse. Not worth it.


Jun 22nd, 2005 8:48 pm | By

Stewart notes that a phrase in that Boston Globe article stands out.

Provocatively, Ruse argues that evolutionism has often constituted a ”religion” itself by offering ”a world picture, a story of origins, and a special place for humans,” while its proponents have been ”trying deliberately to do better than Christianity.”

Okay – and why not? Why not try to do better than Christianity? What does Christianity do well? What does it do better than anything else can? Is it even possible to decide or know that? On what grounds?

The one possibility I can think of is consolation. Religion – or Christianity, if you prefer – can do that better of its nature (as opposed to contingently, sociologically, because people already think it can, assume it can, have been told it can) because it is based on consoling fictions. That is the point – it is the fiction that is consoling. Without the fiction, there is no consolation, or it is much less effective. Personal immortality, heaven and reunion, a god who takes care of us. Other kinds of fictions on the whole don’t work that way because they’re not believed in the same way – they are recognized as fictions (except in the case of e.g. New Age, Wicca and the like, but in that case they are functioning as religions). There are two essential ingredients: belief (so novels don’t do it) and fictions (so philosophy and reflection don’t console in this particular way). Religion can console for those who believe it.

But what else? Motivation and commitment are often mentioned – and religion can work that way – but it has no monopoly there. Ideals, political hopes, loyalties, aspirations, dreams – many things can provide and strengthen motivation and commitment.

And there is nothing else. This gets to that overlapping magisteria nonsense that Steve Gould (in Ruseian vein) talked about – that ‘all is well if each sticks to its own territory’ idea. But religion doesn’t have a territory. It has no expertise – no expertise that is unique to religion rather than being held in common with other fields, as when bishops talk about ethics in ways that are obviously thoroughly influenced by contemporary, changing, secular ideas. There is no ‘special’ religious morality that’s different from secular morality. There are some ‘special’ religious rules and taboos, but they either find secular justification, or get widely and rightly ignored.

Some people like to claim that religion has a monopoly on ‘meaning.’ Well…there are two choices. Either that meaning relies on the same fictions that consolation relies on (the loving god, the afterlife), in which case religion does have a monopoly on that, but, again, on condition of believing fictions; or it doesn’t, it just relies on what we all rely on by way of meaning, in which case there is no monopoly.

We ought to draw up a little map of religious monopoly. There would be a blue patch for consolation and a purple patch for fiction-derived ‘meaning’ – and all the rest is open country.

In short the only territory religion gets to fence off and declare its own and off-limits is the fiction-illusion-supernatural-metaphysical area. If that aspect is not in play, then it has no special ‘religious’ expertise or authority or right to say hands off go away get out, at all.

Muddy Waters

Jun 21st, 2005 8:36 pm | By

G in comments brings up the question of how (and if) Michael Ruse defines ‘religion,’ so I’ve gone looking to see if I can find him doing that in articles and interviews (I don’t have his book, so looking there will have to wait). Here are a few relevant remarks.

From a recent interview – he doesn’t define it, but he does say a little about what he means by it in this context, answering the interviewer’s request to explain what he means by saying ‘the Darwin vs. Creation argument is often a battle of two religions’:

I am not saying that Darwinian theory is always religious – it is not. I am saying that often evolutionists use their science to do more than science and to give a world picture – origins, special place for humans at the top, moral directives – that we associate with religion. Creationism I argue flatly is a religion – the religion of biblical literalist, American protestant evangelicals of a right wing persuasion. Creationists deny that their position is purely religious, but I think that they do this to avoid the separation of church and state embedded in the US constitution. I suspect that many Darwinians will take issue with my claim that any part of their theorizing is religious – but I have made my case and rest it.

So what he means by it for the purposes of this discussion (in his book) is ‘to do more than science and to give a world picture – origins, special place for humans at the top, moral directives – that we associate with religion.’ Okay – that helps. Questions and objections immediately suggest themselves. ‘Origins’ is more than science? I would have thought it was science – origin of species kind of thing. And then, tending to associate things with religion – well that’s a whole big set of problems. Just for one thing, it’s often a mistake to do that. Moral directives for example can and should and do have secular justifications; ‘tending’ to associate them with religion tends to be just a bad and stupid and often harmful habit – so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say people are doing religion when they talk about morality simply because some people still ‘tend’ to associate moral directives with religion. Does it. And finally – evolutionists give a world picture with humans at the top? They do? That’s news to me. But, it’s a little unfair to argue with the short version when I haven’t read the book. But then again – more people will see the journalistic simplifications than will read the book; journalism is influential; so in another sense it’s not unfair, or at least it needs to be done, unfair or not.

From an article in the Boston Globe:

Evolution is controversial in large part, he theorizes, because its supporters have often presented it as the basis for self-sufficient philosophies of progress and materialism, which invariably wind up in competition with religion.

Well, yes – but then anything of that kind inevitably winds up in competition with religion, doesn’t it. That’s not the fault of evolution, it’s because religion and religious people often think religion has or should have a monopoly on that kind of thing. Well that’s just too damn bad. They don’t get to have a monopoly; they used to, and they don’t any more.

Provocatively, Ruse argues that evolutionism has often constituted a ”religion” itself by offering ”a world picture, a story of origins, and a special place for humans,” while its proponents have been ”trying deliberately to do better than Christianity.”

Okay – so it appears that at least some of the time he is (implicitly or explicitly? we’ll have to read the book to find out) defining religion as something that offers a world picture, a story of origins, and a special place for humans. Well, that’s a pretty woolly definition of religion, frankly. Yes those things overlap with religion – but on the edges, not at the center; and overlapping is not the same as defining. Creationists and IDers are theists, not just people with a world picture and a story of origins and a place for humans. It just muddies the waters, as Stewart says, to pretend otherwise and then use that pretense to blame the people who don’t make truth-claims about supernatural entities for the hostility between religion and science.

‘Faith’ Not Compatible With Law School

Jun 21st, 2005 1:40 am | By

Good – now by way of relief from the water-muddying of Ruse, let us turn to David Rudenstine, Dean of Cardozo Law School. At last, someone says it!

In a provocative address last week…the dean of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law warned of a “collision course with democratic order and social unity” as politically outspoken religious leaders wield increasing influence over the nation’s public policy. Dean David Rudenstine…further suggested that U.S. jurisprudence and legal education were “very much on the defensive,” in part because strict secularism as a legal paradigm is seen by the faithful — including some at Christian law schools — as an insufficient context for policy issues such as abortion rights, homosexual marriage, stem-cell research and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Mr. Rudenstine said that America’s law schools have a social responsibility, especially at a time of religious fundamentalism, to foster reasoned debate over the facts and science of such controversial matters.

Thank you. Reasoned debate over the facts and science. Precisely.

“Faith challenges the underpinnings of legal education,” Mr. Rudenstine declared. “Faith is a willingness to accept belief in things for which we have no evidence, or which runs counter to evidence we have.” He added, “Faith does not tolerate opposing views, does not acknowledge inconvenient facts. Law schools stand in fundamental opposition to this.”

Bingo! That’s exactly it – and that’s what you’re not allowed to say. ‘Faith’ is not a virtue, ‘faith’ is not the right basis for discussion of public issues, in fact it’s exactly the wrong basis for discussion of public issues, for exactly that reason – because it’s a willingness to accept belief in things for which we have no evidence, or which runs counter to evidence we have. And it doesn’t tolerate opposing views and it doesn’t acknowledge inconvenient facts. But how often do people come right out and say that? In public, I mean. Not damn well often enough.

Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was quick to associate himself with Mr. Rudenstine’s thesis…”No one expects politicians and policy-makers to divorce themselves entirely from the roots of their belief system, but in the United States, our laws have to be based on secular justifications.”

Just so. You can derive your moral views from any belief system you like, but when it comes to making actual laws, you have to give secular justifications, not religious ones. You have to come up with something more (and better) than ‘God said so.’ For one thing, ‘God’ said a lot of things, and some of them are quite disgusting.

Regent Law Dean Jeffrey A. Brauch countered, “I don’t think you can understand the historic development of law in this country if you don’t understand the role that religion has played, the role that faith and the church has played.” Much of the U.S. legal system, he said, comes from British common law, which “has a theological basis. Why is it we believe a king or a government ruler is obliged to some higher authority? It’s because there was a belief that there was a God and a higher law,” he said.

We don’t. We don’t, we don’t, we don’t.

Mr. Brauch said he believes in a “reasonable faith” as opposed to a “blind faith,” and that Regent and other religious law schools simply add spiritual dimension to academic pursuit. “Let’s say we’re talking about family law,” said Mr. Brauch. “Somebody in the class has a strong belief that a family with both a mother and father in a heterosexual marriage is better for children. I would hope that our students wouldn’t merely say, ‘That’s what I believe because it’s what I’ve always been taught,’ but that they’d look at a tremendous amount of empirical research that would show that, and then ask what that could mean for public policy.”

Well exactly, you fool! That’s what we’re saying! [takes deep breath] Look, if you look at empirical research and then ask what it could mean for public policy – that’s all we’re talking about. You’ll notice you forgot to mention your pal God there. This is our point. You don’t need it. It doesn’t add anything. You need the research and the analysis of the research and what it will mean, you don’t need God.

But of course he thinks he does. It’s sad, isn’t it – he sees the basic point, and yet he can’t take it in. Too stuck in that ‘spiritual dimension.’

But let’s hope more people will start doing a Rudenstine, and pointing out the problem with ‘faith.’

Who’s Insisting?

Jun 20th, 2005 6:47 pm | By

More guilt-mongering of non-theism, more default assumptions that there is something wrong or wicked or suspect or in need of a damn good explanation about naturalism. Also more Michael Ruse.

Professor Ruse takes a long look at why opponents of evolution feel so threatened and why evolutionists are so surprised and perplexed at the opposition…Although Darwin’s own work was a model of professional science, a great deal of evolutionary thought before and after him, in Professor Ruse’s judgment, deserves to be termed evolutionism, a kind of secular religion built around an ideology of progress.

Okay, stop right there. A ‘kind of’ secular religion? That’s a weasel-term. Could be the reporter’s rather than Ruse’s – but either way it’s weasel-language. And then, what does ‘secular religion’ mean? And ideology is not the same thing as religion. Ideology can certainly do a lot to distort thinking, but it’s not the same thing as religion, and it just confuses things to talk about it as if it were. An ‘ideology of progress’ does not require any supernatural beliefs whatever; religion does; it’s the supernaturalism that’s at issue; so to conflate an ‘ideology of progress’ with religion in a context where supernaturalism versus naturalism is the subject, is cheating. People who defend or try to protect religion resort to cheating a lot. That’s annoying, and they ought to stop doing it.

From the beginning, evolutionary theory has been drenched in religion. The aggressors in the warfare between theology and science were not just religious believers insisting that their ancient Scriptures were the basis of scientific truths but scientific enthusiasts insisting that evolutionary theory was the basis for conclusions about religion.

More cheating, though of a milder kind. Tendentious language. For one thing, ‘drenched in religion’ turns out to mean pointing out that evolutionary theory doesn’t require religion, or makes religion superfluous. That’s an odd thing for ‘drenched in religion’ to turn out to mean. For another thing – aggressors? Why aggressors? Why is it aggressive to try to explain a naturalistic subject by naturalistic means? And then, more minor rhetoric: there’s ‘enthusiasts’ and ‘insisting’. It’s minor, but it all adds up: it adds up to the usual default assumption that no one has any business pointing out that there is no good evidence for the truth claims religions make, or that religious answers to naturalistic questions are not helpful and are not answers.

But as Professor Ruse notes, as genuine science no less than as pseudoscience, “Darwinian evolutionary theory does impinge on religious thinking.”…Other elements of Darwinism go right to the heart of any belief in a caring, almighty God. The power of strictly natural interactions of random events and reproductive advantage over huge spans of time to explain the emergence of diverse and complex life forms appears to render the guiding role of such a God superfluous. The grim picture of those life forms, including humanity, emerging through a ruthlessly cruel process of natural competition appears to render such a God implausible.

Yes, true. Although problems with the idea of a caring almighty God did not begin in 1859. (Actually it’s a rather depressing reflection on human history that so many people did manage to believe in a caring almighty God for so long. I mean – caring? Caring? How could they possibly have thought that?)

Then there is the debate about the “methodological naturalism” that for purposes of scientific investigation restricts explanations to findings about material nature. Does “methodological naturalism” lead inexorably to a “metaphysical naturalism” holding that material nature is in fact the whole of reality? Professor Ruse says no. But he acknowledges that the slippery slope is there.

There again – the slippery slope. That’s another pejorative. More cheating.

In the end, Professor Ruse’s new book suggests that the religious resistance to evolutionary theory is a lot more understandable and a lot less unreasonable than its opponents recognize.

Well of course it’s understandable: religious believers don’t like having their beliefs challenged. That’s not a secret. But less unreasonable? Well, only if you think it’s reasonable to let wishes determine beliefs about the world, and to let them control what other people write and teach, as well. It’s not self-evident that that is particularly reasonable, frankly.

Endemic Confusion

Jun 19th, 2005 10:29 pm | By

PZ Myers has an excellent post on – broadly speaking – the tension between religion and science. Narrowly speaking it’s on a non-excellent post by the widely over-rated Eugene Volokh (though I gather he’s less over-rated now, ever since that post on what a good thing it is to torture certain criminals to death in front of an enraged crowd). And he makes a point that I’ve made here more than once. It’s a very, very widespread mistake and confusion, even among people who – you would think – really ought to know the difference. It’s pretty ominous and disturbing that the confusion is so pervasive even among educated people like lawyers and journalists. Clearly everyone should be learning the difference in kindergarten and having it reinforced throughout their educations – possibly it ought to be the first thing anyone learns. It’s not really possible to think clearly without it.

Here’s the confusion:

What’s more, how exactly do scientists come to the conclusion that “God had no part in this process”? What’s their proof? That’s the sort of thing that can’t really be proved, it seems to me — which makes it sound as if scientists, despite their protestations of requiring proof rather than faith, make assertions about God that they can’t prove.

It seems to him – what, as if he’s the only one who thinks so? Of course it can’t be proved! And ‘scientists’ know that perfectly well, and they don’t make ‘protestations of requiring proof rather than faith’ – they ask for evidence. Not proof, evidence. There’s a difference – a big difference. It’s so basic, and yet so many people seem to have no clue. That’s alarming.

PZ commented on the confusion:

Scientists don’t talk about “proof”, period. We leave that to the mathematicians. This is something I yell at my freshman biology majors, by the way. I know it’s out of the purview of a scholar of constitutional law, but if he’s going to make claims about science, shouldn’t he know the bare basics of the discipline?

Yeah, he should, especially since the difference between evidence and proof is not just a basic of science, surely – it’s a pretty general basic of epistemology. It has to be – because it’s about the difference between certainty and non-certainty, doubt and no doubt, open questions and closed ones, how and when and if we know what we know. Susan Haack points out that scientific inquiry is continuous with other forms of inquiry, as opposed to being special in some way. Saying ‘there is evidence for X’ a very different thing from saying ‘it is proved that X’ in any empirical field you can think of.

It’s odd, and interesting, and somewhat exasperating, to realize that probably most woolly beliefs rest on exactly this stupid confusion. ‘You can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, or that there is no space ship behind the Hale-Bopp comet, or that extra-terrestrials haven’t been abducting and impregnating humans, or that I don’t have a parking angel or a laundry angel or any other kind of angel’ – therefore we might as well believe any of them we want to. That’s probably how the default position works (we’ve been talking about the default position lately – that belief is right and good and it’s non-belief that has to explain itself) – since you can’t prove the belief is nonsense, therefore there is no reason not to believe it. That ‘therefore’ is idiotic, but it’s everywhere.

Brian Leiter makes a similar comment.

What interests me in particular here is what this display tells us about the limited understanding of science and scientific methods even among educated people and scholars. If professional scholars in fields like law have so little understanding of the nature and structure of scientific inquiry, is it any surprise that in the population at large nonsense like creationism and its offshoots, like Intelligent Design, have considerable traction?

Exactly. Discouraging, isn’t it.

Maybe There’s a Paragraph Missing

Jun 18th, 2005 8:25 pm | By

Had lovely fishing trip. Caught a shark, a couple of eels, a sting ray, and an otter that seems to have been dead for some time. All made a very nice bouillabaisse, served with aioli and a hearty pain de compagne and some Chef BoyArDee canned ravioli. That’s the best meal I’ve had in awhile!

But life is not all holiday. Back to the dear old religious hatred bill. Frank Dobson does a not very compelling job of arguing for it in the Guardian, it seems to me. Maybe I’m missing something.

Do you believe that anyone should be allowed to incite hatred against other people on the grounds of their religious belief? I don’t, even though I have no religious belief myself. That’s because I believe that nobody should suffer assaults, or live in fear, because of their religious beliefs.

So – Mr Dobson – do you believe that people should suffer assaults, or live in fear, because of something other than their religious beliefs? Do you believe that people should suffer assaults, or live in fear, because of their fashion sense, or taste in fish soup, or nail-biting? Probably not – am I right? Don’t you just kind of think people shouldn’t suffer assaults, or live in fear, at all? Don’t you generally tend to think that assault and threatening ought to be against the law? Don’t you think they in fact are against the law? If so, what is the force of your question? What is that ‘because’ doing there? You might as well say, ‘Do you believe that people should be robbed at gunpoint because of their opinions on Star Trek? I don’t, even though I have no opinions on Star Trek myself. That’s because I believe that nobody should suffer assaults.’ See – the thing about opinions on Star Trek is completely superfluous. It’s not necessary. You don’t need it. Assault is already illegal, and adding ‘because of their religious beliefs’ to the end of it doesn’t make it any more so.

I’m not saying there is no argument for laws against incitement to hatred. I tend to think there is, especially in view of what happened in for instance the Balkans and Rwanda lately. I’m saying Frank Dobson didn’t make that argument, and doesn’t seem to have noticed that he didn’t make it. He just jumped right over it. He does more jumping.

If the proposed new law were widely drawn, it could in effect extend the blasphemy law. But it isn’t. It is narrowly drawn, confining the offence to expressions or behaviour intended or likely to stir up hatred. It wouldn’t outlaw The Satanic Verses or Jerry Springer – the Opera, just as the existing protection for Sikhs did not cover the play Behzti in Birmingham.

And that’s that. On to the next item. That is – incredibly enough – all he says about that issue. You may notice a certain emaciation about it, a certain lack of corroborative material, a certain absence of elaboration or explanation. That surplus ‘because’ in the first paragraph would have come in handy in this one, but it isn’t there. The law wouldn’t outlaw The Satanic Verses because – why? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t say! He just says it is so, and leaves it at that. Well – since that’s the very point that’s at issue, that doesn’t really cut it!

Not to mention that blithe assumption that it is obvious what ‘confining the offence to expressions or behaviour intended or likely to stir up hatred’ means – which it decidedly isn’t. Again, that’s the whole point – so just saying ‘it’s not a problem’ and nothing further is not really adequate, is it. But that’s all he says. Is this really the best they can do?

And that brings us to the next objection – that comedians won’t be able to make religious jokes, and clerics will not be able to promote their beliefs or attack the beliefs, teachings and practices of other religions. This isn’t true either. To fall foul of the law, offenders must use threats, abuse or insults that are intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion, or are likely to do so. If threats, abuse and insults alone don’t break the law, jokes certainly shouldn’t. Surely no comedian needs the right to stir up religious hatred. Nor does any cleric.

Here we are again. Err – yes, we know offenders must use threats, abuse or insults that are intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion – we know that, because that’s what this whole thing is about. Just keeping on repeating it isn’t going to answer our objections. How do you know when threats, abuse or insults are intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion and when they’re not? How do you tell the difference? What are the criteria? And when are you planning to explain them to the people who will be subject to this new law? Ever?

Changes in the law bring about changes in behaviour, partly by acting as a deterrent and partly by declaring that something is wrong. We know the law against incitement to racial hatred has had that effect. Incitement to religious hatred is just as wrong, so the law should declare it wrong. If we fail to change the law, we are declaring that we are prepared to tolerate religious hatred. That can’t be right.

Again – yes, we know. Again, that’s the problem – we don’t want to change our behaviour, we don’t want a deterrent. You seem to be utterly convinced that you know religious hatred when you see it and that it’s not things like jokes or novels or plays, or articles or essays or tracts – but we’re not convinced, noisy disrespectful atheists that we are, and we’re even less convinced now you’ve shown us that you can’t even seem to see that there’s anything to be said on the subject. Nothing but ‘it won’t be a problem because it won’t be a problem.’ Not an encouraging sign, this level of obtusity.

Like an Anglican Clergyman From Central Casting

Jun 17th, 2005 7:40 pm | By

Well, that’s one way of looking at it.

The story of science and religion since the Middle Ages has been one of estrangement rather than conflict. When the Aristotelian synthesis shattered, science and theology drifted apart, becoming at last disconnected universes of discourse.

Quite a good way, if you want to avoid talking about some obvious inconvenient facts. Quite handy to pretend that science and religion are just two ‘universes of discourse’ as opposed to two fundamentally different enterprises. Shifty, though. For one thing, how did we get from science and religion in the first sentence to science and theology in the second? Shifty, shifty. But the crucial move of course is to call science a universe of discourse.

This bit is good too:

Polkinghorne also differs from the other scientist-theologians he discusses in his view of the proper relation between theology and science. Davies, Barbour, and Peacocke are all to some degree “assimilationists” who seek “to achieve a greater merging of the two disciplines.” Polkinghorne sees a danger in this: Christian theology has its own sources, insights, methods, and internal logic, so that it risks being denatured if “theological concerns become subordinated to the scientific.”

Well, yeah, there is a danger in that. Definitely. If ‘theological concerns become subordinated to the scientific’ then there is always the danger that it will become apparent that the ‘insights’ of theology rely on imagination as opposed to evidence. That is indeed quite dangerous if you’re trying to make theism (as Barr puts it) ‘persuasive.’ And Christian theology does indeed have its own sources, insights, methods, and internal logic (very internal indeed). That’s another useful trope. Disconnected universes, universes of discourse, its own insights and methods. They’re all the same kind of project, you see, each one with its own insights and methods and internal logic – so each one is true inside and just never mind outside. Language games – you know the drill.

Simon Blackburn took on Polkinghorne in The New Republic a few years ago – I linked to it in News when B&W was young. One gathers he is not entirely enamoured of this reconciliation lark.

Sir John Polkinghorne—fellow of the Royal Society, doctor of divinity, sometime professor of particle physics at the University of Cambridge, recipient of this year’s $1 million Templeton Prize in religion—beams out like an Anglican clergyman from central casting, white-haired, wholesome, and radiant: a one-man Ode to Joy. And on reading these volumes, one can see why. It is pretty uplifting to be a scientist-theologian, happy with the universe, confident of the ways of the Lord. It is especially fizzy to be such a figure in Cambridge…

Unless other figures are also lurking there, ready to write articles.

And yet I did end Polkinghorne’s books, with their supreme contempt for philosophical reasoning and historical thinking, in despair about humanity’s desperate self-deceptions and vanities and illusions. Everything will be all right in the end, we are washed in the blood of the lamb, we are blessed, and above all God is on our side. Who could dissent? Fantasy beats reason every time. People believe what they want to believe. I do not know how it is at Princeton, but at Cambridge there are eight established chairs in the Faculty of Divinity, but only two in the Faculty of Philosophy. Hallelujah!

That’s an interesting little fact, isn’t it.

Mill and Russell Speak Up

Jun 16th, 2005 8:45 pm | By

And while we’re on the subject of ‘Intelligent Design’ and the people at the ‘Discovery Institute’ and so on – I just feel like aiming another kick at the design argument. I know I’ve done it before, I’m repeating myself, but – but I’m not sure they get shouted at enough about this.

Okay their big thing is ‘_____ is too complex to have come about without a designer. _____ is irreducibly complex, so a designer must have designed it, because otherwise it wouldn’t be there, being so complex and all.’ Complex things can’t just happen. A hurricane can’t whip through a junkyard and leave a 777 behind. An inebriated chimpanzee can’t shred a pile of old newspapers and end up with a first edition of Tobacco Road. A blizzard can’t produce a snowperson bearing an exact resemblance to Marie Dressler in ‘Dinner at Eight.’ What are the odds that there could be a universe so incredibly carefully calibrated that after some billions of years, what do we find? Us! How likely is that? The odds against it are – there are more numbers in that number than there are atoms in the universe. Therefore, there has to be a designer – that’s the only explanation. Anything else just can’t have happened the way it did.

Okay, so how did the designer get here? If ______ is too complex to have come about without a designer, then obviously whoever or whatever designed _____ has to be pretty complex too, right? So if the first item is inexplicable without a designer, why isn’t the second? Why is the cell too complex to explain without a designer, while the designer itself is not? Why is the designer, in fact, an explanation? Why is it an explanation at all? Why isn’t it more like a bad joke? (Well, it is, actually, it’s the tortoises all the way down joke. But do IDers get it?) It’s like saying ‘how did this chocolate cake get here?’ and being shown for answer – another chocolate cake.

No, the reality is, the argument from design is just a shop window thing. It’s just a pretense. IDers don’t want an explanation (that’s obvious, because if they did, by now they would have taken in the fact that ID isn’t an explanation at all) – they want their God, and they think ID is a respectable way to be able to have it. In fact it’s not respectable, because it’s so silly. An explanation that doesn’t explain anything is silly. But they do get people to listen to them. Maybe if the obvious problem with the designer were more widely noticed, they’d have more trouble.

Bertrand Russell had good blunt things to say about all this, as you might expect. In Why I Am Not a Christian, for instance.

you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”

Or in another version, ‘You can’t fool me, young person, it’s tortoises all the way down.’ (It’s a nice touch that it was Mill, because Mill was Russell’s secular ‘godfather.’ I find that a very pleasing small fact.)

Bad Astronomy Speaks Out

Jun 16th, 2005 7:02 pm | By

Okay – so apparently you’re not sick of the sound of my voice even if I am. (Well you wouldn’t be, would you – because if you were, you wouldn’t be here. Unless you’re all a pack of masochists who go out of your way to read stuff that you’re sick of. But that’s not likely either, because in fact if you’re masochistic and want to read stuff you’re sick of, you can find plenty of stuff you’re sicker of than you are of me. I’m quietly confident of that. Really. I happen to know [this is a little-known fact, but I’ll make you a present of it] that there is quite a lot of boring stuff on the Internet, ideal for people who want to read stuff they’re sick of. There is boring, pointless, fatuous, even loony stuff by the yard – whereas here if nothing else you can find interesting links. So this place [sadistically enough] is not the first stop for masochists, or even the second or third. So I think we can safely conclude that if you were sick of it you damn well wouldn’t be reading it.) And if you’re not, I’m not. I’m a sheep, you see, and take all my opinions and reactions and degrees of queasiness and malaise from other people. I don’t have any of my own – I’m a kind of weathervane, or pregnancy test strip – I just react.

So Bad Astronomy has a few words about Creationism and the ‘Discovery Institute.’ In particular he says one thing that made me sit up straight and stop slouching.

Many people like to say that science and religion are compatible. I find that to be a monumentally naive statement. Perhaps science and some religions can be reconciled, but if your religion says that Jupiter is really made of pixie dust, or that the Earth is flat, or that 1+1 =3, then your religion is wrong. It’s really just that simple. The Universe knows what it’s doing, and the reality of it is what science seeks. If your religion cannot be reconciled with that reality, then your religion is wrong…

Exactly. Funny how reluctant many people are to say that, even if it is what they in fact think. Funny how they prefer to hem and haw, or change the subject, or talk about different kinds of reality, instead. That’s why I wrote that In Focus on Science and Religion a couple of years ago: in order to make that point as bluntly as possible. I’ve had some emails about the bluntness, and there are places where I should add a footnote saying something like ‘yes I realize there are arguments that can be made about this’ – but I wanted to get as far away as possible from the ‘different kinds of reality’ line of talk. And the Bad Astronomer has the same kind of idea.

Over the course of time, you’ll be seeing more rebuttals — no, debunking — of creationist claims here. I’ve had enough, and this threat is real. They want to turn our classrooms in a theocratically-controlled anti-science breeding ground, and I’m not going to sit by and watch it happen.



Jun 15th, 2005 9:15 pm | By

I’m sick of the sound of my own voice.