Jul 1st, 2006 12:00 am | By

The Archive

The Interrogations Archive

Richard Norman on Richard Swinburne

Jun 30th, 2006 8:48 pm | By

A reader alerted me to this article taking issue with Swinburne.

…serious arguments are what the religious believer needs to come up with, rather than evasive appeals to ‘faith’. If belief in God is a matter of ‘faith’ in contrast to reason, there’s nothing to distinguish it from mere wishful thinking.

Just so. And yet ‘faith’ is routinely used as a valor word, a virtue word, a self-righteous word, a self-flattering word. The nimbus around it almost always indicates ‘I have “faith” therefore I am better.’ That’s bad. Wishful thinking should not have an aura of superior virtue or depth. But it does. That’s bad.

Swinburne now offers two new versions of the argument from design, which shift the argument to another level. The first, which he calls the ‘argument from temporal order’, points to the fact that everything in the universe takes place with predictable regularity, in accordance with scientific laws…”To say that such laws govern matter is just to say that every bit of matter, every neutron and proton and electron throughout endless space and time behaves in exactly the same way…How extraordinary that is!”…What exactly is supposed to be ‘extraordinary’ about this regularity?

I’ll clear that up for you. Look, I’ll shuffle this pack of cards, then I’ll deal myself five cards, then I’ll point out how extraordinary it is that I got just those five cards and no others. It’s mind-boggling. God alone can explain it. See?

Our existence seems to call for some special explanation only if we assume that we human beings have a special importance and that a universe without us would be an impoverished universe which would have gone badly wrong. We may like to think that the purpose of the universe is to produce ourselves, but there’s no reason to suppose that that’s true. It’s just a reflection of our human perspective and our inflated ideas of our own importance.

Swinburne seems to have a really bad case of that, and of a surprising inability even to notice that he has it, or at least to acknowledge it. That’s part of what makes his arguments sound so…the way they sound.

Necessarily, if what we want to explain are the facts which science starts from, then science cannot itself explain them. But it doesn’t follow that, because there is no scientific explanation, there must be a personal explanation. The alternative is that there is no explanation at all (that is, we should reject the first premise). Swinburne thinks that this is unacceptable. He says: ‘To suppose these data to be just brute inexplicable facts seems…highly irrational.’ (p. 53) But all explanations have to come to an end somewhere. If you ask theists why there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent god, there is no further explanation they can give. If God is the explanation of everything else, then the existence of God has to be just a brute inexplicable fact. It seems to me to be a great deal more rational to accept, as our brute fact, the existence of a certain kind of universe. After all, we do have the best possible evidence that this universe, unlike God, actually exists!

Yeah but on the other hand if we’re going to stop with some brute fact or other, we might as well pick the one that loves us and makes us suffer pain so that other people can have sympathy for us – right? That being so much more consoling and all.

Hold Still, Let Me Alleviate You

Jun 30th, 2006 8:43 pm | By

Because the question is, what good is sympathy and alleviating suffering if there is no suffering? What is the point of them? There is no point. They’re not needed. They’re not even virtues. The notion is absurd. Suppose a friend bounces up to you, full of bliss and happiness, to tell you some good news. Is it a good thing to clutch her hand damply and say how sorry you are? Is it a good thing to push her down and force morphine down her throat? No. Your sympathy and alleviation aren’t needed or wanted. (Sympathy in the sense of fellow-feeling is probably welcome, but that’s not what Swinburne means here.) And if your friend is never suffering and in pain, they never will be. They’re not needed unless we are in fact suffering and in pain; so why would they be good in and of themselves? They wouldn’t. But Swinburne seems to be assuming they would. Why? Why does he assume that? Other than, of course, sheer desperation to come up with some reason that pain and illness are good things.

And why on earth would it be a good thing that suffering ‘provides society with the opportunity to choose whether or not to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for this or that particular kind of suffering’? Why is that opportunity good or desirable if suffering doesn’t exist? It isn’t. Society could go off and think about other things, ponder other choices, seize different opporunities to choose what to invest in. So why does Swinburne say it that way, as if it’s somehow inherently good for society to have an opportunity to choose whether or not to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for suffering? Why does he think so back to front? ‘It is good for society to choose whether or not to spend money on cures for suffering, therefore, it is good that people should suffer.’ If he thinks that’s right, does he think war is good because it gives military surgeons lots of practice? If he thinks that, does he then think that the more injuries there are, the better? If he thinks that, then is he depressed on days when the newspapers are slightly less full of injuries? Is he pleased when there are earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes? Surely the logic of his peculiar argument entails that he must be. If suffering is good so that people can be sympathetic and society can make budget decisions, then the more of it there is, the better, right? Because the more suffering there is, the more chances to be sympathetic there are, so it must be a case of the more the better. So we’re all being negligent and cruel if we fail to hurt each other at every opportunity? Is that right?

Make a List of Howard Stern

Jun 30th, 2006 6:29 pm | By

Rhetoric in play in this review of Breaking the Spell.

Thus we read: “If theists would be so kind as to make a short list of all the concepts of God they renounce as balderdash before proceeding further, we atheists would know just which topics were still on the table, but, out of a mixture of caution, loyalty, and unwillingness to offend anyone ‘on their side,’ theists typically decline to do this.” Perhaps so, but then is Dennett prepared to perform a comparable triage for the favorite topics of his fellow atheists? Where do “we atheists” stand, for example, with regard to fellow atheist Howard Stern? We theists would like to know, if Dennett would be so kind, though we fear that out of a mixture of caution, loyalty and unwillingness to offend, he may pass over America’s most influential single atheist in silence.

But that’s a bad analogy, because atheists don’t posit anything qua atheists. There is no atheist equivalent of a concept of God. We can’t make a list of our concepts of non-belief in God (much less of our concepts of noGod, because we don’t believe in noGod, we just don’t believe in God, which is quite different) because there’s nothing to list. I don’t play squash; I can’t round up a lot of (or all?) non-squashplayers and compile a list of the ways we don’t play squash, can I. It would take too long, and wouldn’t tell us anything. Furthermore, Miles has done a very brazen slide there, from theists’ views of concepts of God to atheists’ opinions of – Howard Stern? In what way is that a ‘comparable triage’? It isn’t, obviously; it’s ludicrous. That ridiculous suggestion would be ‘comparable triage’ to asking theists where they stand, for example, with regard to James Dobson or Pat Robertson. That, as I am sure you will appreciate, is a quite different thing from asking theists to make a short list of all the concepts of God they renounce as balderdash. There ought to be a journalistic law against sloppy non-analogous analogies. There ought to be a strict rule, enforceable by a trip to northern Manitoba, against using the word ‘comparable’ to refer to something very different. Journalists ought to be accurate and careful; they have a responsibility and a duty to be those things; that includes book reviewers.

[T]hough Dennett pays lip service to the need for Darwinian theorists of religion to acquaint themselves with actual religion as patiently as Darwin acquainted himself with actual animal breeding, in practice he rarely does so. He defines religion, for example, in a parochially Western way as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” A religion without gods, he adds, is “like a vertebrate without a backbone.” But this is a definition that does not begin to cope with Buddhism…

That’s a mistake (or piece of rhetoric) we see a lot, and it’s pretty irritating. A ‘parochially Western way’? That definition (obviously) includes Islam, which is hardly exclusively ‘Western’, in fact is often used (mistakenly) as an antonym of ‘Western’. That’s stupid, for a lot of reasons (mixing of kinds; ‘Western’ influence on Islam; presence of Islam in the West; etc), but pretending Dennett’s definition is purely ‘Western’ is equally stupid, especially since it includes Hinduism and other ‘Eastern’ religions as well as Islam, so the fact that it doesn’t deal with Buddhism is hardly enough to make it ‘parochially Western’.

Miles may have valid points, but those two items are enough to make me suspect everything he says.

Swinburne Again

Jun 29th, 2006 8:42 pm | By

Richard Swinburne is interesting. I’ve said so before. So has Mark Fournier at Tachyphrenia. And now it’s time to say it some more. Because the things Swinburne says here are truly revolting, and yet they are, of course, what you get if you try to reconcile the omnipotent omnibenevolent God with the existence and abundance of suffering in the world – just what Darwin couldn’t manage to reconcile himself to. There’s an irony of sorts in the fact that it’s Swinburne’s view that is considered by many – by surprisingly many – to be the ‘devout’ and ‘holy’ and therefore (why? why therefore?) ‘good’ one, and Darwin’s that is considered the impious and wicked one. The approval of the deliberate causing and continuance of pain and suffering to billions of sentient beings is considered good, and the disapproval and rejection of that is considered wicked. That’s interesting, and it is, if you ask me, a sign of something badly corrupt at the heart of the whole swindle.

Theodicy provides good explanations of why God sometimes — for some or all of the short period of our earthly lives — allows us to suffer pain and disability.

Good? Good explanations? Good in what sense?

Although intrinsically bad states, these difficult times often serve good purposes for the sufferers and for others. My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience. It provides you with the opportunity to show sympathy and to help alleviate my suffering. And it provides society with the opportunity to choose whether or not to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for this or that particular kind of suffering.

Well why stop there? It also provides pharmaceutical companies with the opportunity to develop pain medications, and nurses with the opportunity to apologize for the fact that the pain can’t be alleviated, and vicars and priests with the opportunity to pray that it will be alleviated, and God with the opportunity to refuse to alleviate it, and the funeral people with the opportunity to dispose of the corpse after the victim has committed suicide. Lots and lots of opportunities. Good. So – we should all act accordingly? We should all rush outside with our carving knives and soldering irons and distribute injuries generously around the neighborhood so that there will be further abundance of such opportunities? Suffering is a good thing because it creates these good opportunities so there should be lots more of it so we should all bend every nerve to create more of it?

No. We don’t actually think that’s the case. So why does Swinburne get to claim that it is the case, and that that’s a ‘good’ explanation? Why doesn’t everybody for miles around just tell him ‘That’s disgusting’ until he’s so embarrassed he stops saying it?

That’s a real question. I find it baffling.

Although a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely that each of us shall show patience, sympathy and generosity and, thereby, form a holy character. Some people badly need to be ill for their own sake, and some people badly need to be ill to provide important choices for others. Only in that way can some people be encouraged to make serious choices about the sort of person they are to be. For other people, illness is not so valuable.

Oh, godalmighty. That is such crap, and such transparent crap – so carefully arranged to get the conclusion he wants (God is okay really even though it seems to be an awful shit) with that last little escape hatch – for other people, illness not so useful. Give me a break. Swinburne looks at the world: sees that some people get ill and suffer, others don’t; needs to make this harmonize with ‘a good God’; explains that suffering is good for some people and not for others; job done.

An analogy will show that what I have written is not an ad hoc hypothesis postulated to save theism from disconfirmation.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Oh, that’s a good one. He’s not only interesting, he’s also a comedian. A sadistic comedian, but a comedian.

Darwin Writes to Asa Gray

Jun 28th, 2006 1:23 am | By

Darwin wrote to Asa Gray in 1860: “With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.–I am bewildered.–I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me …. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.”

In a letter to Gray later in 1860 he added: “One word more on “designed laws” & “undesigned results.” I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun & kill it, I do this designedly.–An innocent & good man stands under tree & is killed by flash of lightning. Do you believe (& I really shd like to hear) that God designedly killed this man? Many or most person do believe this; I can’t & don’t.–If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow shd snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man & the gnat are in same predicament.–If the death of neither man or gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production shd be necessarily designed. Yet, as I said before, I cannot persuade myself that electricity acts, that the tree grows, that man aspires to loftiest conceptions all from blind, brute force.”

I’ve just discovered, in looking for that first letter, that Cambridge makes what looks like all of Darwin’s letters through 1859 available online. That’s very nice of them. The project’s homepage is here.

Rights and Freedom

Jun 27th, 2006 11:47 pm | By

Janet Radcliffe Richards has an excellent chapter on moral relativism in Human Nature After Darwin, including this on pages 198-9:

Any set of moral standards must include, as part of those standards, criteria for the appropriate treatment of other people…This means there are necessarily conflicts, when some people think they should do what other people think they should not be allowed to do. And, indeed, the essence of what it is for people to have different moral principles is disagreement: if there were no disagreement, there would be no difference. And since there is disagreement, it follows that not everyone can be given the freedom to follow their own principles.

This is what I was talking about the other day in ‘Gain and Loss’. There are different moral principles; there is disagreement; there are different people with competing interests, wants, needs; they are inevitably going to be in competition with other people’s interests, wants, needs. My desire for quiet competes with your desire to mow the lawn (and loses, every time); I’m not free to make off with your lawn mower in order to prevent your making a noise with it. But, on the plus side of the ledger, you’re not free to sell me into slavery.

That’s the whole point of rights: to limit certain freedoms. Rights entail limitations on the freedom to mistreat people or to interfere with certain of their freedoms (but not others). They have to do that in order to be effective rights. That’s why the whole subject is difficult and why bills of rights are a new idea and not (to put it mildly) universal yet; that’s why they have to be codified rather than implicit, and that’s why they’re needed. The freedom to mistreat people, to exploit them and use their labour, to dominate and confine and impregnate them, to subordinate and segregate and revile them, is a highly prized one. Naturally rights aren’t something that just get granted with no problem. Rights amount to a recognition that, left alone, the strong will bully the weak (see the discussions in Plato’s ‘Republic’ and ‘Gorgias’), and after millions of years we’ve decided we don’t want that. The price is a limitation on the freedom of the strong. There’s no free lunch.

What Euthyphro Said

Jun 27th, 2006 12:24 am | By

Simon Blackburn, not surprisingly, talks about this matter of metaethics in his short introduction to ethics Being Good. He starts right off with the question of god as the backer or guarantor or prop for ethics.

For many people, ethics is not only tied up with religion, but is completely settled by it. Such people do not need to think too much about ethics, because there is an authoritative code of instructions, a handbook of how to live.

But the trouble with that, of course, is that the code is only as good as it is. If the code in question is a bad code, then this business of not thinking too much is not good.

Blackburn goes on the mention some of the not so good parts of the Bible, then adds,

Obviously there have been, and will be, apologists who want to defend or explain away the embarrassing elements…What is interesting, however, is that when we weigh up these attempts we are ourselves in the process of assessing moral standards. We are able to stand back from any text, however entrenched, far enough to ask whether it represents an admirable or acceptable morality, or whether we ought to accept some bits, but reject others. So again the question arises: where do these standards come from, if they have the authority to judge even our best religious traditions?

Then he cites the Euthyphro, and quotes from it, which, since it is available online, I will do too.

Euth. Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.

Soc. Very good, Euthyphro; you have now given me the sort of answer which I wanted. But whether what you say is true or not I cannot as yet tell, although I make no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words…But I will amend the definition so far as to say that what all the gods hate is impious, and what they love pious or holy; and what some of them love and others hate is both or neither. Shall this be our definition of piety and impiety?…

Euth. Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious…

Soc. We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods…And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

Euth. Yes.

Soc. Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?

Euth. No, that is the reason.

Soc. It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?

Euth. Yes.

People keep on getting that back to front. Approving something, thinking of it as holy or good, and thinking also (because they think god is good) that god agrees with them, but then getting the whole arrangement turned around so that they think god started the whole process. But no. Suppose god said you and some friends should go round up a few random people and torture them for fun. Would you conclude that would be a good thing to do? I can only say I hope not. It’s not god saying what’s good and you agreeing with god, it’s you thinking what’s good and also thinking god agrees with you – only without realizing you’re doing it.


Jun 26th, 2006 12:14 am | By

Here, for instance. A moral issue (an issue because some people have made it an issue, though that wasn’t inevitable): a moral issue being discussed with arguments and reasons rather than with invocation of a deity or of Christian/Muslim/Hindu morality.

Last week British scientists announced a revolutionary screening process for inherited diseases in embryos. It will be quicker and more accurate than the existing method and it will detect thousands more genetic defects than previously possible…Those who don’t know about it can perhaps hardly imagine the drawn out suffering of Huntington’s disease or Duchenne muscular dystrophy or Prader-Willi syndrome or Fragile X, both for the people affected and for their families, until death puts an end to it…It will be easier and better in every way to get rid of a tiny collection of cells. This is indeed playing God, as all the usual campaigners were quick to point out last week. But…whatever we may think about playing God and defying nature, we are doing it already and even though we don’t necessarily recognise it, we approve of it…There will always be absolutists, who claim the right to life for even the most infinitesimal scrap of tissue. But there are others who oppose screening on what seem to me to be even more irrational grounds.

Which she proceeds to counter with arguments. Those arguments will fail to convince many – or perhaps all – of the people who oppose screening on irrational grounds. That’s how these things go.

Simone Aspis of the British Council of Disabled People said last week that she was opposed in principle to such screening on the grounds that it sent the signal that being born disabled was a bad thing…It sent a message, she said, particularly to young people with disabilities, that their lives were worth less than everyone else’s. This seems to me to confuse a disability with a person with a disability. (This is a confusion that people with disabilities normally resent, understandably.) To say that a disability is undesirable in itself is not to say that a person with that disability is undesirable in herself, or her life worth less than someone else’s. The disability is not the person. It is to say that her life would be better without that disability.

That seems right to me, but it seems a safe bet that it won’t alter the conviction of Simone Aspis. That’s unfortunate; if people who oppose the screening succeed in blocking it, that’s very unfortunate indeed, as it was (in my view) unfortunate that the assisted suicide bill got postponed again in the House of Lords a few weeks ago. But pointing to god wouldn’t help. All the theists would simply say that their god supported their view and not the other one. That’s how these things go.

Kinds of Atheist

Jun 26th, 2006 12:00 am | By

Norm quotes Freeman Dyson reviewing Dennett’s new book.

There are two kinds of atheists, ordinary atheists who do not believe in God and passionate atheists who consider God to be their personal enemy.

No, that doesn’t cover it. There’s more to it than that. There are atheists who, independent of what they consider god to be, are (probably, in terms of what Dyson is talking about) not ordinary atheists who do not believe in god and are not fussed about it: there are atheists who, whatever they think of god, feel a certain sense of outrage, or perhaps violation, at being urged or commanded to believe in something there is no good reason to believe. It’s not so much god that is their personal enemy (though that may also be the case) as the presumptuous demand that they accept a belief that there is a lot of good reason to think is false, that is their (our) enemy. Now, it’s true that the god of the Bible and the god of public belief and discourse (the one that punishes some people with hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis while saving a few, the one that answers some prayers and not others, the one that hates fags, the one that’s a man and has a low opinion of women, the one that didn’t lift a finger during the Holocaust or the Great War or King Leopold’s romps in the Congo or centuries of slavery in the US – that god) strikes me as being a repulsive guy; yes, he’s my personal enemy, but of course that’s really the doing of the people who dream him up and then try to force him on everyone; so he’s my personal enemy only in a rather peculiar sense. But the hostility to the demands for belief is much more straightforward. I don’t think people ought to chastise or rebuke or lecture or whine at people who refuse to accept truth claims about a giant powerful person who really exists in the world and really makes things happen, on the basis of no proper evidence. That is where the, shall we say, vehemence of my atheism comes from. I do not like being ordered to believe fairy tales. It pisses me off.

The first example Dyson gives actually seems much more like an example of the kind of atheism I’m talking about than what Dyson calls it. In short, his illustration doesn’t illustrate his own claim: the guy he’s talking about, he says, “had always disliked religion in general and Simpson’s piety in particular.” But disliking religion and piety is not the same thing as considering god one’s personal enemy. In other words, there are other reasons for disliking or indeed hating religion than considering god an enemy. Dyson’s formula conceals and belittles those other reasons. It’s an irritating little bit of rhetoric. I noticed it when I linked to that review in News on June 9th, and made unpleasant faces at it, but didn’t bother commenting. But that is just the kind of thing that makes atheists of my kind just that little bit more the kind of atheist we are – that rather sneering implication that we can’t have any good or rational or understandable reason for disliking religion and its attempts at imposition. So we get that bit more hostile, and the Dysons get more sneering, and round we go.

Norm points out that there is another issue:

But for both believers and unbelievers there’s another issue that is probably more important in determining their belief and unbelief, respectively. It’s the issue of the truth or otherwise of religious belief. Here Dyson opts for a standpoint that puts the issue beyond the reach of any rational adjudication. These are just two incommensurable types of knowledge…

It is indeed the issue of the truth or otherwise. I think it would have been more civil if Dyson had taken that aspect into account. But it’s the fashion to talk as if atheists are more or less loony.

People Reading Why Truth Matters

Jun 25th, 2006 2:52 am | By

A brief review of WTM in the Guardian today. A favourable review mostly – calls it lively. It takes issue with our putative slapping around of Derrida, which was actually far more of a slapping around of one of his fans, but that’s okay.

People have also alerted me to some nice blog posts on the book. This one for instance by an ex-Mormon. His self-description in the margin makes him sound like a B&W kind of guy:

I’m a full-time academic trying to make my way in the world and recover my own independence of thought and feeling…I was raised Mormon and was quite believing until college, when I gradually began to make an intellectual and spiritual split. The gay thing was always lurking in the background, but I didn’t have the courage to deal with it until I was nearly 30. I am pretty far to the left politically, but try to be as critical as possible of my values and work to envision pragmatic solutions to real problems instead of being driven by ideology. This often leaves me out of step with other thinkers and activists on the left, the queer left in particular.

He went to Brigham Young, so he was interested in the excerpt from WTM on the implications of BYU’s religious policy for freedom of academic inquiry.

My concern, however, is more global. What happens to the quality of education when this kind of policy is enacted on its faculty? Furthermore, what is the quality of the education on a campus where 95% of the faculty are believing, temple-recommend holding members who agree with the policy and therefore do or say nothing that may be challenging to the world views of their students? Isn’t that the very nature of a university education? To have our foundations laid bare and examined?

Yup; what indeed. Good to meet you, Todd.

This one is very pleasing, because it starts with the author’s “reasons for taking readers on this ongoing tour of modern genetics. The words truth and mystery pretty much summarise most of Pundit’s reasons. A lot of discussions about modern genetics tend to lack truth, or all too sadly, miss out on the mystery.” then goes on to quote the last page or so of the book. I gather he liked it, I gather he liked the little aria to truth and mystery we finished off with (with help from Dawkins and Ridley). I’m glad he did.

All We Have

Jun 25th, 2006 2:51 am | By

So the upshot of all that is (since the implied question was, if I understand it correctly, how do atheists manage to believe in objective moral standards?) that I do think there are objective moral standards, if ‘objective’ means generally applicable, and generally applicable for sound, articulable, sharable reasons; but I don’t think they’re guaranteed by anything external to humans; I think we have to give reasons for them; and I think they are human artifacts, not something in nature or part of the fabric of the cosmos. That’s sad, in a way. It would be nice if animals had a moral sense, but they don’t. (They have affections, or something like affections, which prompts them to treat some conspecifics well within certain limits, but that’s about it, and that’s a pretty rudimentary version of morality.)

But thinking moral standards are human artifacts doesn’t weaken them. On the contrary. Theists have the option of thinking that god will make things come out all right eventually (or after we die), that wickedness doesn’t, finally, flourish like the green bay tree; atheists don’t have that option, so we know damn well that we have to keep the old moral standards in good repair, because they’re all we have.

The External Guarantor

Jun 24th, 2006 8:16 pm | By

A Christian reader wondered in a comment on That Special Glow how atheists believe in “objective absolute moral standards/truths” and asked if I could elucidate. Being short of time, I noted that it’s a large subject and gave a sort of place-holder answer. He expanded on his own view: “The point about objective truths and religious belief is not that we only believe these things because we are believers and thus taught to believe them, whether or not they are right, but that this is an assurance that these standards/truths/rights are, indeed universal and always apply.” Now it’s my turn to wonder. I wonder how that works. Because in fact it seems to me that it doesn’t. It seems to me there is no assurance that moral standards (the commenter actually said ‘objective truths’ in the second comment, but he started off with moral standards/truths, which is a confused way of putting it, since it’s not clear if he’s talking about moral standards and moral truths, or moral standards, and, separately, truths; at any rate, I take him to be talking primarily about moral standards [or moral truths], so I’m addressing that) are universal and always apply. If there were such a thing, I don’t think religious belief would provide it, but I don’t think there is such a thing in any case.

The truth is (and this is a general point about the [widely-held] view, not a specific one about my interlocutor), I think the invocation of an external guarantor of this kind is just lazy, in the same sort of way that Barthes’s cited views are lazy: it’s an evasion of argument. If you want to make a case for a moral view, if you want to try to convince someone else to agree to a moral view, it’s a lot easier and simpler to say ‘god said so’ than it is to offer reasons; but the ease is precisely what’s wrong with it. It’s easy because it’s empty, and because it’s empty, it doesn’t do the work it is thought to do. It amounts to a hollowing-out of content, leaving just a shell of words behind, and using the shell of words to compel assent. But what we need is the content. Why should I persecute or refrain from persecuting homosexuals? Why should people have or not have certain rights? Why is assisted suicide acceptable or unacceptable? Why is torture acceptable or unacceptable? You have to offer reasons, and furthermore, once you have offered them, there is no guarantee that anyone will accept them. They’re necessary but not sufficient. Saying ‘because god’ is an escape from both of these irksome conditions – the effort of giving reasons, and the frustration when people don’t accept them. ‘Because god’ is, therefore, frankly just a cheat, and it ought to be more widely recognized as such, because to the extent that it’s accepted as valid, that just undermines rational discourse ever more.

The idea seems to be that the ‘assurance’ that moral standards are universal and always apply is added on to other reasons for adhering to them. But what is it that is added? What is it that provides the assurance? I don’t see it, myself, for one reason among several because the moral standards have conspicuously changed over time, and are still highly contested to this day. If god were a provider of assurance, then why would there be change over time, and why would there be disagreement? Why does it all seem to be so fallible? And if it is fallible, in what way is it assurance?

The Story of S

Jun 24th, 2006 2:29 am | By

I mostly admire Martha Nussbaum, except when she’s talking about religion or about the need for a Rawlsian tender regard for the religious sensibilities of our fellow citizens – I mostly admire her, but there are times when she gets kind of coy, or cozy, or personal, or ingratiating, or something that gets on my nerves. The opening paragraphs of this review of Harvey Mansfield’s book about manliness is not her finest hour. It might be one of her most skin-crawling. She tells us to suppose a scholar, then proceeds to give an admiring description of herself. Um…why did she do that?

Suppose a philosophical scholar–let us call this scholar S–with high standards, trained in and fond of the works of Plato and Aristotle, wished to investigate, for a contemporary American audience, the concept of “manliness,”…following the lead of Aristotle, S would probably begin by laying out the various widespread beliefs about the topic, especially those held by reputable people. S would also consider the opinions of well-known philosophers. In setting down all these opinions, S would be careful to get people’s views right and to read their writings carefully, looking not just for assertions but also for the arguments that support them.

Good. Good S. Well done, S. Good job.

S’s inquiry would uncover much fuzziness and equivocation…(“Don’t use your feminine logic on me,” I can already hear my partner saying teasingly in the background, as he typically does when words such as “necessary condition” are wheeled onto the stage.)

Oh, gosh – did you have to tell us that? Did you have to use the word ‘teasingly’? Does he have a boyish grin when he says things teasingly in the background? Do you both chuckle? Oh dear – I so don’t want to know.

Finally S would try to produce an account that seemed to be the best one, preserving the deepest and most basic of the opinions, and discarding those that contradict them. S would then hold this definition out publicly, inviting all comers to try things out with their own reasoning, and then accept the proposed definition or improve upon it. Being a friend of the Greeks, S would naturally have curiosity about the cross-cultural aspects of this particular topic.

Naturally. Of course. Because S is a good scholar, not like those other scholars who don’t do things the right way and don’t have curiosity about the cross-cultural aspects of this particular topic, because they’re not like S, which is shocking of them, and kind of pitiful.

So S would investigate these differences, and these would naturally lead S to the copious cross-cultural literature on manliness that by now exists: to the work of, say, Daniel Boyarin, on how Jewish males refashioned Roman norms of manliness, making the astonishing claim that the true man sits still all day with a book, and has the bodily shape of someone who does just that; or to work on Indian conceptions of manliness, contrasting the sensuous Krishna, playing his flute, with the tougher norms of manliness recommended by the Raj. A scholar with S’s curiosity and love of truth would find in this material rich food for reflection.

Of course! Of course S would! Because S is good, and cross-cultural, and thorough, and has read exactly the same books that Nussbaum has.

Harvey Mansfield’s credentials suggest to the reader that he will behave like S. He is a prominent political philosopher, recently retired from a chair at Harvard University, who has written widely about philosophical texts. He regularly taught a well-known class in the classics of Greek political thought…It quickly becomes evident, however, that Manliness is not the book that our imagined S would have written. To begin with, it is slipshod about facts–even the facts that lie at the heart of his argument.

Because Harvey Mansfield isn’t S, do you see? So he doesn’t do what S would have done, and he does do what S wouldn’t have done, and that is very wrong of him, because S is a shining example to us all.

I’m sure Nussbaum is right, the book sounds sloppy and silly, but the story of S is toe-curling stuff.

I Know, Let’s Ask the MCB

Jun 24th, 2006 2:15 am | By

Old news, but why do they keep doing it? Why do the BBC keep rushing to ask Bunglawala what he thinks about the latest survey of Muslim opinion? Especially when they don’t ask anyone else? Why do they keep on treating the MCB as the go-to outfit for questions of this kind? Why do they keep on pretending the MCB is 1) representative 2) elected or chosen in some way 3) sensible?

Look at the article. Nine paragraphs devoted to Bunglawala. And no one else. Why? Why not talk to some scholars, or even one scholar? Why not talk to a (gasp) woman? Why not talk to a secular woman, or a woman scholar, or a secular scholar? Or several of each? Why instead talk yet again to fokking Bunglawala? Why talk to the MCB, which was founded, don’t forget, to organize opposition to The Satanic Verses?

And while we’re at it, as long as I’m in complaining and loudly-saying-why mode, why do they talk about a study of ‘Muslims’ on the one hand and ‘the West’ on the other? That’s stupid. They might as well talk about a study of Chicagoans on the one hand and sky divers on the other. They might as well talk about a study of Fijians on the one hand and short order cooks on the other. They might as well talk about a study of short people and liberals, or red-heads and anarchists, or Hungarians and violinists. Muddle muddle muddle. They should have asked what O would have done – but they never do.

Idle Chat

Jun 23rd, 2006 1:58 am | By

Let’s talk. Then again, let’s not. Because with certain kinds of talkers, there’s no point. The kind who systematically talk nonsense, and stipulate ahead of time that nonsense is what they will be talking, remove the point and replace it with – ‘play.’

What’s critical to recognize, from a humanist viewpoint, is that [the laws of thought] comprise more than a particular methodological option, for they are invoked whenever a predicate is attached to a subject; the consequences of their rejection, in humanist terms, would be absolute cognitive silence–since the decision to reject the laws could not itself sensibly be uttered except by invoking them.

This is what I was noticing about Violet a couple of weeks ago – there she was flinging scare-quotes around with wild abandon, problematizing truth, evidence, right, wrong, true, false – and yet she went right on arguing, or pretending to argue, or playing at arguing. Well you can’t do both at once. You can’t announce your suspicion of the very idea of true and false and still go on arguing a position.

In Dissémination Derrida states: “It is thus not simply false to say that Mallarmé is a Platonist or a Hegelian. But it is above all not true. And vice versa”…The postmodernist critic Barbara Johnson illustrates the danger of attempting to paraphrase Derrida’s meaning in coherent humanist terms: “Instead of a simple either/or structure, deconstruction attempts to elaborate a discourse that says neither ‘either/or,’ nor ‘both/and’ nor even ‘neither/nor,’ while at the same time not totally abandoning these logics either.”

And not only the danger but the pointlessness. What is the point of talking about anything as lazy as that? ‘It’s not this, it’s not that, but at the same time it’s not not. See?’ Yeah – excuse me, I have better things to do.

If Derrida attempts to dance around the law of non-contradiction, a number of his postmodernist cohorts seem determined to stomp it into the ground. Roland Barthes, for instance, opens his book The Pleasure of the Text with an invitation to imagine the ideal reader as someone “who abolishes within himself all barriers, all classes, all exclusions . . . by simple discard of that old specter: logical contradiction; who mixes every language, even those said to be incompatible; who silently accepts every charge of illogicality, of incongruity; who remains passive in the face of Socratic irony (leading the interlocutor to the supreme disgrace: self-contradiction) and legal terrorism (how much penal evidence is based on a psychology of consistency!)”

That’s the kind of thing that gives lit-crit a bad name (to put it mildly). Just drone on about everything and nothing, declaring everything possible and included by verbal fiat, without bothering to think about anything. Cognitive laziness.

That Barthes is untroubled by laws of thought is evident. When asked by an interviewer about inconsistencies in his writings, Barthes replies, “I explained in my preface why I didn’t wish to give a retrospective unity to texts written at different times: I do not feel the need to arrange the uncertainties or contradictions of the past”.

No, naturally not, because it’s so much easier not to.

For I believe that the postmodern rejection of the law of non-contradiction is strategic: Without the law of non-contradiction, no one can ever demonstrate that you’re wrong. In an argument on any topic between a postmodernist and a humanist, each party will attempt to discover a logical contradiction in his opponent’s case. For the humanist, the discovery of a actual contradiction is deadly; he must abandon, or at minimum clarify, his position. But for the postmodernist, a contradiction is only a contradiction – a sign, perhaps, of the depth of his thought. The postmodernist’s position, in other words, becomes unfalsifiable.

Depth of thought again. The idea that depth of thought is (at least sometimes) somehow the opposite of the more ‘pedestrian’ kind of rational, logical, testing, checking, inquiring, evidence-seeking kind of thought that scientists and rational people go in for. But when you throw logic and evidence and testing out the window and just rely on your own brilliant insight or profundity or intuitive certainty or inner wisdom – you don’t get depth of thought, you get arid, dead-end, pointless, self-regarding blather.

Indeed, the postmodern rejection of the law of non-contradiction constitutes, from a humanist standpoint, not merely a rejection of logic but of the rational element in human nature. The humanist does not view logic as a cultural construct, a pattern of thinking inculcated by years of repetition; rather, he views it as the way in which the rational mind has always worked. To operate rationally is, instinctively, to rely on logical reasoning. There is, for the humanist, no getting around the laws of thought. The claim, often advanced…that the project of postmodernism involves suspending logic in order to call it into question skims over this crucial point: Nothing can be called into question unless it can be affirmed or denied. But to affirm or deny, as we’ve seen, is to invoke logic, to invoke the laws of thought. Just as you cannot suspend the rules of arithmetic in order to do calculus, you cannot suspend the laws of thought in order to do analysis–for these laws precede every rational epistemology.

So unless you’re just in the mood for some dadaist noise-exchange, you’re stuck with the pesky old laws. Suck it up.

Valor Words

Jun 21st, 2006 5:18 pm | By

So here’s Matt Yglesias noting another valor-word issue. This time the word is ‘principle’. I’m good because I have principles. Well that’s nice, but what kind of principles? What principles? Which ones? Be specific. Give details. Include time place and brand.

Indeed, most Lieberman supporters seem to have abandoned making the case for their man on the merits. Instead, the keyword is principle. A DLC press release called Lieberman “a man of utmost integrity who speaks and governs by his values and principles.”

And there’s another one – integrity. Integrity, again, is only as good as it is. Lots of people can have integrity. The integrity of an axe-murderer isn’t all that desirable. The integrity of a selfish conceited bullying windbag isn’t much worth boasting of either. Both of these are much like Bush’s vaunted ‘resolve’ – which is, again, only as good as it is. Blind stupid determination to go on doing what you’ve once decided to do no matter what, without paying attention to dissenting opinions or nonsupporting evidence, is not entirely a virtue, or a particularly good principle. They’re all valor words, they all need careful examination of particulars.

That’s the trouble with principles – they’re only good if you’re principles are the right ones. If Lieberman’s allies want to help him stay in office, they’re going to have to start convincing people that his are – just pointing out that he has some isn’t good enough.


That Special Glow

Jun 20th, 2006 2:11 am | By

I need a word to describe a category of word that (when used for rhetorical purposes) presumes to declare its own value in advance of judgment. Pre-emptive, or pseudo-hurrah, are the two I’ve come up with.

The one I have in mind at the moment is ‘family’. This is by no means the first time I’ve had hard thoughts about that word (there was the 2000 presidential campaign, for instance, when the Democrats completely dropped the word ‘people’ from their vocabularies in favour of ‘families’, so that working people became working families, as if they were all hired and paid in a bunch instead of one at a time), but they’re always being refreshed; at the moment it’s Faisal Bodi’s sinister crap about keeping families intact at the expense of the girls and women they push around that inspired this particular set of hard thoughts.

The community is bothered, both by the effect forced marriage has on the victims, and its unique ability to tarnish our image. We are also desperate for answers – but not the sort that take the form of edicts by government and voluntary agencies which have little or no empathy with our faith. Take women’s refuges. Not without cause do we view them with suspicion and mistrust. Refuges tear apart our families. Once a girl has walked in through their door, they do their best to stop her ever returning home. That is at odds with the Islamic impulse to maintain the integrity of the family.

Interesting use of ‘we’ there, too – who’s ‘we’? We in the community (community of course is another pre-emptive pseudo-hurrah word), except not quite all of us in ‘the community’ since ‘we’ clearly can’t include the girls and women who need refuge. So Bodi inadvertently lets slip the fact that he doesn’t consider ‘the victims’ part of ‘the community’ – which makes his ‘bothered’ feelings about the effect forced marriage has on the victims seem a little dubious. But never mind that for the moment; for now let’s just consider his worry over ‘our families’ (which ‘our’?) and their tearing apart and the threat refuges pose to the maintenance of their integrity. Let’s ponder that, and then ask so the fuck what? If a family is willing to trash a girl’s life despite her resistance, refusal, and finally escape, who cares if it ends up being ‘torn apart’ by her departure? (In fact – if she’s being forcibly married off she’s departed anyway, hasn’t she? Why is it okay and non-family-apart-tearing to force her to marry and live with a man she doesn’t want to marry and live with, but not okay and family-apart-tearing for her to leave and live somewhere else and not go back? We can probably guess why. Because it means she has taken possession of her own life instead of leaving it in the possession of the precious ‘family’. Well the hell with that.)

And that’s where the word comes in. The holy word ‘family’. It simply assumes – the way Bodi uses it there – that family is always and necessarily benign and benevolent and loving, so that it is always and necessarily a tragedy when a member departs and refuses to return. Well, that’s crap. Families vary, and a good many of them are quite damaging for at least some members of them. I would say that one which includes forcing a girl to marry against her will would be one of that kind. So the word comes in handy to distract the attention of the credulous by the little holy glow around the ‘family’. That’s the kind of work that pre-emptive pseudo-hurrah words are meant to do. They’re meant to cause us to forget to examine particulars – never mind families in general, what about the particular families in question, what are they like, how did they treat the girls who fled? – because we’re too entranced by the general.

So that’s a trick to watch out for.

Please Sir Can I Teach Nonsense?

Jun 18th, 2006 7:31 pm | By

So ‘faith schools’ want ‘exemption from new equality laws in order to carry on teaching that homosexuality is a sin’ do they. That’s interesting.

At the moment, many faith schools make children aware of different sexual practices, but underline that anything other than heterosexuality is a sin. In a submission to the unit, the CofE said that it would not wish to discriminate against pupils or parents on grounds of sexual orientation in the context of admissions or in disciplinary procedures. But it insisted that schools should be free to teach that homosexuality is at odds with the Bible.

Thus we see why the realm of education, if it is to be real education, has to be secular. It’s like politics in that way. Because ‘education’ has to mean teaching things that there is good reason to believe are at least approximately true. That means public, sharable reasons have to be given for them, or capable of being given for them. (Yes, even in literature classes. That’s why our teachers always asked for more evidence – quotations – on our papers and exams, remember? They were teaching us to back up our claims.) ‘Teaching’ that homosexuality is a sin doesn’t fit that description. It’s meaningless except in religious terms, hence it’s not teachable except within a religion, hence it’s not education properly understood. Claims that are based purely on faith and nothing else aren’t really education. It’s deceptive advertising to call them education.

But what about morals and values, ‘faith’ fans will squeak. Yes but even morals and values require something more than ‘because god’ if you’re going to teach them to everyone. And if you’re not what is the point? What is the point of parochial group morality? Good morality should be universal and crap morality should be done away with. If ‘because god’ is all you have, you can’t call that education, because it isn’t. Even religious people admit this, often defensively – they often say ‘yes but we do give reasons, we don’t just say “because God said so” and leave it at that’ – but then ‘because God’ is superfluous. It’s one or the other, and either way it’s out of place in education. ‘Because god’ is either superfluous because there are other (public, valid, groundable) reasons, or wrong and bad because there aren’t. There is no moral truth-claim that can adduce no secular public reasons but is nevertheless valid and convincing. Demands for the right to teach false and discriminatory nonsense make a mockery of the word ‘teach.’

Gain and Loss

Jun 18th, 2006 7:00 pm | By

Jean Drèze notes an important fact that’s worth keeping in mind:

Sen is praised as a “feminist economist” but it is not very clear what “feminist” actually stands for (except for a general concern with gender issues) and why Sen qualifies. A notable exception is Martha Nussbaum’s bold assessment. Taking issue with the notion that freedom is always a desirable social goal, she points out that “gender justice cannot be successfully pursued without limiting male freedom”.

Fer sher. And that’s one reason there is so much Faisal Bodiesque blather about keeping families intact and dealing with problems within the community, cluttering up the place – because improvement of the lot of women (whether you call it justice, or freedom, or capabilities, or all those and more) brings with it some disimprovement of the lot of men. Men have less ability to demand services of their female relatives, and to tell them what to do, and to shut them up. They also have less ability to control how women who are not their relatives dress, behave, think, write, and travel. There’s also some (considerable) gain, for men who can value it: they get to live around women who are more worth living around as opposed to women who are like angry sheep. But not all men want that; lots of men prefer the angry sheep. Who cares what the sheep thinks, after all? We don’t talk to our mutton or our sweaters, do we.