Where this ends and that begins

Nov 29th, 2006 2:04 am | By

From Geoffrey Nunberg’s new book Talking Right page 134.

In the 1920s, the [Wall Street] Journal warned against the threats to freedom that were implicit in minimum wage laws [and] the child-labor amendment to the Constitution (“an assault upon the economic independence of the family…”)

I’ll get to my point, but first I’ll clear up a detail. I frowned in puzzlement when I read that, thinking ‘The – ? I didn’t know there was a child-labor amendment to the Constitution. Ignorant me.’ So I looked it up, and there isn’t; Nunberg apparently meant attempts to pass a child-labor amendment, which (no doubt with the help of the WSJ) failed.

But my point is that that is another example of the kind of thing I was talking about in that comment on Michael Bérubé’s book (What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts). It’s another example of tensions among the freedoms, entitlements, rights, wants, and needs of different people; another example of the fact that a protective law for one person may be an interference with the freedom of action of another person; and that this situation isn’t even all that rare or hard to find. We don’t think about the child labor example much in the US now, because even reactionaries mostly don’t want to defend child labor any more; like slavery, that idea is pretty dead. But there was a time when the WSJ framed child labor laws as an assault upon the economic independence of the family, which of course it is. And a good thing too, but not everyone thinks so and not everyone has always thought so.

Michael replied to my comment last week, at the end of a longer reply to a review by Jodi Dean. He found my point (cough) reasonable (that’s his cough, but I’ll cough too, because I might as well). We agree that it is a problem, indeed the problem.

Both sides

Nov 28th, 2006 11:51 pm | By

Alan Boyle posted Allen Esterson’s reply to Troemel-Ploetz on ‘Cosmic Log’ today. I meant to say something else about the November 20 post (the one with Troemel-Ploetz’s reply) yesterday but I forgot. (I know, I know. But I can only hold one thought in my head at a time. Be patient with me.) But it’s interesting, and it’s always coming up. It’s something Boyle said this time:

We’ve gone back and forth over the role that Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, may have played in the development of the special theory of relativity…and now I’ve gotten the other side of the story from Senta Troemel-Ploetz…

The other side. Of the story. But it isn’t a story, and there isn’t another side.

Or, of course, it is and there is, in a sense, but in another and more important sense, it isn’t and there isn’t. It is a story in the sense that journalists mean a story: it can be shaped into a story, it has some interest. There is another side in the sense that journalists mean another side: there is someone who said something. But that is not a very weighty sense. There is no story in the sense of a genuine, valid, difficult controversy with merit on each side of the question. There is no other side in the sense of a claim backed up by a lot of (or even a moderate amount of) genuine evidence or by compelling questions about missing evidence or shaky inferences. There is simply a claim, based on almost no real evidence (I say ‘almost’ simply because ‘our work’ could perhaps in conjunction with a lot more, real evidence be considered one piece) and a lot of wild surmise and ‘for all we know’ hand-waving. That’s not an ‘other side’ in the normal meaning of the term. But that’s how journalism does these things, which is one reason there’s so much nonsense flying up and down the corridors. Somebody claims something; with a little luck and hard work, the something makes it into a newspaper or a movie or a book or tv; the something gets passed around and discussed and chatted about, and in a few short months it has become common knowledge. And then we’re stuck with it. And then people with better sense become aware that this claimed something has become common knowledge and they point out that it is based on little or nothing and is, if one looks into the matter carefully and impartially and with an attention to evidence, wrong. But what happens then is not necessarily that everyone looks at the evidence on both sides and promptly grasps that side one has no evidence to speak of but just said something one day while the other side has abundant evidence that things were otherwise; no; what happens then is often that people simply say ‘Ah, two sides here, let us have balance and attend to both sides.’

Often of course that is just the right thing to do. Often there are, even, more than two sides. But not always. Not always. If the original claim is just…more or less pulled out of someone’s (cough) ear, then giving equal time and attention to both sides may well be just a waste of time and attention, and in addition to that it may be misleading to the unwary, who think that if there are two sides there must be two sides with a good case and sound evidence. Alas for the innocent and pure of heart.

A reader who commented at Cosmic Log sees things that way. It would be right if it were right, but in fact…it isn’t.

It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference of opinion here which can never be resolved until someone invents a time machine, and goes back to find out. Each point of view is an opinion which cannot be verified by objective fact. The fragmentary evidence which exists does not support either side of the argument except when taken out of context, because the larger context no longer exists, both parties under examination having been dead for some time.

Well, in this particular example, that just isn’t the case: the evidence does support Allen’s side of the argument – more especially since in fact Troemel-Ploetz offered literally no evidence at all. Sometimes the ‘both sides of the story’ thing can just confuse the audience.

Sad but true

Nov 27th, 2006 7:25 pm | By

Democracy isn’t always and necessarily aligned with justice, progress, equality, women’s rights, freedom – it’s not always and necessarily aligned with anything except majority will. Majority will can be even more tyrannical than a military dictator.

Pervez Hoodbhoy’s critique of General Pervez Musharraf as a leader and as an author, in last month’s Prospect, is depressingly familiar. Of course we wish that Pakistan was a more liberal and democratic society…But simply repeating the same liberal pieties about instituting democracy and strengthening civil society won’t change the situation…There are certainly massive problems for women in Pakistan. Human rights activists suggest that a woman is raped in Pakistan every two hours. As Hoodbhoy points out, Musharraf’s government recently failed to enact a revision of the rape laws, which would make the burden of proof placed on the prosecution more realistic (a successful rape prosecution currently requires four male witnesses to the act). However, that climbdown came in the face of intense political opposition—the uncomfortable reality is that it was democracy that prevented the reform, not the dictator.

It’s important to keep in mind that democracy and majority will are not automatically on the side of human rights.

Yes but do you have any actual evidence?

Nov 27th, 2006 6:45 pm | By

So maybe women really do think logic is ‘a pestiferous male invention’ (The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense). It would seem so by this, anyway – Senta Troemel-Ploetz replying on Alan Boyle’s blog to Allen Esterson’s article on Troemel-Ploetz’s paper claiming that Mileva Marić ‘did Einstein’s mathematics.’ It’s a cringe-making performance, frankly. She offers no real evidence, she simply cites ‘a tradition that always attributes achievement to men even if the men themselves claim their wives were the authors’ and then gives three quotations from Einstein to Mileva Marić:

“How happy I am to have found an equal in you (eine ebenbuertige Kreatur) who is as strong and independent as I am.” “Until you are my dear little wife, we want to eagerly work together scientifically so that we won’t become philistines….” “When I look at other people, I realize what I have in you / what mettle you are made of.”

Later, Boyle says, she wrote an addendum:

Sophia Yancopoulos, an American physicist, speaks of the ‘subtler issues of collaboration,’ and we are far from knowing much about them. What we do know is that again and again the work of creative women was appropriated by men in the arts and the sciences, and men who fairly give credit to their female collaborators are the exception. Einstein was a very normal man, as I said in New Orleans anno 1990.

And that’s it. That’s really embarrassing – embarrassing the way watching ‘The Office’ is embarrassing. Offering three affectionate comments and a couple of broad generalizations to back up a claim that Einstein’s wife did his mathematics for him – and being willing to go public with that. Ow, ow, cringe.

Esterson replies – with admirable temperance – here.

In historical investigations such as this one must be guided by the hard evidence, not (as Troemel-Ploetz writes) by what is “plausible”, or “for all we know”. Nor should we take (as Troemel-Ploetz does in her 1990 article) as serious evidence the mostly third-hand statements obtained many decades after the event from interested parties taking nationalist pride in what they fondly believe to be a Serbian achievement. In his book Don’t Believe Everything You Think (2006), Thomas Kida reports the research of two psychologists who secretly recorded a meeting held in Cambridge, England. Two weeks later, the participants were asked to write down everything they could remember. Among other gross inaccuracies in their memories, many participants ‘remembered’ hearing comments that were never actually made. That puts into perspective the utter unreliability of third-hand reports provided decades later…

It looks as if Senta Troemel-Ploetz urgently needs to read that book.

Doubting Giles

Nov 26th, 2006 8:07 pm | By

Giles Fraser is getting bored.

Perhaps it’s time for a new sort of conversation about religion. The old one is getting really very tired, as in some overblown boxing match between two bruisers who just won’t topple. They slug it out. Land huge blows. Declare victory. Only for the opponent to rise again (no resurrection reference intended) and for the whole sorry circus to wind itself up for a rematch.

Well could that be because one side refuses to admit that it’s making it up as it goes along? It does tend to keep futile brawls going when people refuse to admit that. I know it’s what I always do when I don’t have any evidence or argument – I just keep talking. I don’t mind; I don’t have to be anywhere else just at the moment.

For a more interesting discourse about religion would also have to involve the reclamation of agnosticism, of the ability simply to admit that one doesn’t know.

Well, that would be an idea, but surely Giles Fraser knows that many believers don’t do that, but on the contrary insist that they do know, because they have ‘faith’ (or because they read it in the [translated] Bible or the Koran). But those people (suprise surprise) aren’t Giles Fraser’s main prey.

For the Bible constantly refuses to give God a definite shape and size. That’s what the Hebrew Scriptures call idolatry and what Marxists, following on, came to call reification. It’s turning God into a golden calf. Kant was right when he argued in the Critique of Judgement that it is the second commandment, the refusal to allow human beings a fixed view of God, which offers the most significant protection against religious fanaticism.

All right, but then if that’s true, human beings who believe in this unfixed God have no basis on which to tell everyone else what to do – except the same human secular earthy basis that everyone else has.

And those who work out their faith in a certain doubt and confusion are, in fact, the true believers. Walking by faith and not by sight, as St Paul puts it.

Fine, but then you don’t get to tell us what to do. You have no special authority, or even special insight (except whatever insight comes from the sources that are naturally available to all humans – a habit of thinking about moral questions, for instance). You’re on the same footing as everyone else. So that spells an end to clerics appearing on panels as clerics, as if that gave them some sort of expertise or inside dope. You don’t get to do both. You don’t get to insist that ‘faith’ is all doubt and uncertainty, and still pretend you have special knowledge.

Some atheists are threatened by non-fundamentalist faith. They reckon it a liberal alibi for fundamentalism, offering a more superficially plausible account of God which serves only to shelter fanatics from the sort of criticism that would put them out of business…A contrasting approach would be to work on the assumption that the most effective way to attack bad religion is with an alliance that includes good religion.

Yes – I can see that, up to a point. (Up to a point because I wouldn’t want to join such an alliance on all issues; I would always want to reserve the right to ignore god and all its works on the grounds of extreme improbability and lack of corroborating evidence.) But there seems to be so little ‘good religion’ of the kind you describe around the place – religion that is genuinely doubting and uncertain. The endless valorization of ‘faith’ may be one reason for that dearth. At any rate the god-botherers who keep haranguing us incoherently about the virtues of faith don’t motivate me to make an alliance with them. Thanks for the invitation though.

Respect me or I’ll say the devil wears a condom

Nov 24th, 2006 9:34 pm | By

Careful when talking to the Vatican. Don’t forget those 2.1 billion people who call themselves Christian – they expect respect you know.

The World Health Organisation’s head of HIV/Aids called on the Vatican yesterday to speed up a decision on the limited use of condoms in pandemic-hit countries. Kevin De Cock welcomed the news that condoms could be sanctioned for married Catholic couples where one partner has HIV. “We’re very pleased to hear this,” he said. “But our concern is that these deep theological decisions take account of the biological consequences of infection. Could we please have this debate in a hurry. Lives are at risk and time is short.”

Maybe he was being sarcastic instead of respectful. One can hope so. ‘Deep theological decisions’ indeed – what’s so deep about them, and for that matter, what’s even theological about them? Nothing. They’re just nasty human prejudices dressed up as what god wants, in the usual manner. Deep shmeep.

Faith-based organisations play a huge role in forming opinion and fighting the pandemic. In Africa, they deliver 40%-50% of care. “I think the involvement of the faith-based community in Aids is extremely important,” he said. “As with any other group that has its own special beliefs and ideas and philosophies, we have to accept that that is so and remember that there is far more that unites us than divides us in the struggle against Aids.”

No, he probably wasn’t being sarcastic then, not when he slipped the ‘faith-based community’ in there to replace the more neutral and comprehensible ‘religious people.’ Sarky people don’t do that – they refuse, and if people try to make them they lash out and swear dreadful oaths. They also don’t usually talk anodyne fluffy burble about own special beliefs and ideas and philosophies, because they know too well what a lot of ground that covers, including the stark staring mad, so they don’t invoke it in that sentimental way.

It’s not the WHO guy with the unhappy name’s fault though, it’s the horrible situation we’re all stuck in where people who believe wrong things demand fulsome honeyed respect from people who don’t, on pain of making millions more people die of AIDS because the condom is excommunicated. We have to grovel and suck up to them or they’ll carry right on killing lots of us. There’s a deep theological decision for you.

Keep it buttoned, please

Nov 24th, 2006 9:05 pm | By

Yes, respect for religion is mandatory, why do you ask?

For the better part of 30 years, British Airways has operated a uniform policy without incident. The rules allow check-in staff and cabin crew to wear jewellery, but only underneath their shirts. There are many reasons for this, one of them being that people working at check-in have to lean over and tag bags. A necklace could easily get in the way…British Airways is at fault. For it is mishandling for a religious issue, betraying both its multicultural principles and a huge potential market. For, Ms Eweida not only has a strong argument of freedom of religious expression on her side, but also hundreds of millions of potential passengers. The 2001 census showed that 71.1 per cent of Britons identify themselves as Christians. According to Aquarius, a marketing consultancy focused on religious affairs, there are 2.1 billion people who call themselves Christian, by comparison with 1.1 billion who describe themselves as secular, non-religious, agnostic or atheist. The devout represent a powerful market: The Passion of the Christ has grossed $613 million at box offices worldwide…There are a growing number of Christians who feel threatened by secularism…By sticking to its guidelines on uniforms, BA is insensitively, perhaps unintentionally, appearing to use its professional code to make a secular case. People of faith expect not just tolerance, but respect. BA needs to show it.

Uh? BA has a longstanding and reasonable rule about external jewelry, which all in an instant turns out to be a violation of freedom of religious expression as well as a foolish flouting of the, um, hunger for a sight of external jewelry on the part of Christians, who are more numerous than atheists and who made Mel Gibson’s horrible sadism-porn flick a lot of money, therefore, BA is inthenthitive, and thus we see that ‘people of faith’ expect not just tolerance but ‘respect’ and therefore BA is obliged to show it. There’s a good knockdown argument for you!

No but seriously. What is this idea that people ‘expect’ ‘respect’ and that therefore everyone else ‘needs’ to give it to them? Why hasn’t that imbecilic and tiresome idea been nipped in the bud yet? People can expect anything and everything they like; that doesn’t oblige the rest of us to give it to them. I can sashay around the place announcing that I ‘expect’ everyone to fall down and knock their foreheads against the ground when I pass, but that doesn’t oblige them to oblige, does it. Expect away, ‘people of faith’, I don’t have to respect you unless you do something I consider respect-worthy. So get busy.


Nov 23rd, 2006 7:11 pm | By

Steve Pinker has a couple of reservations about a new Report of the Committee on General Education at Harvard, especially given the fact that it ‘will attract wide attention in academia and in the press, where it will be read not for its specific recommendations, but as a once-in-a-generation statement on the nature of higher education.’

As such, we should be mindful of the way the report frames the goals of general education, and not just its suggested menu of courses. This means affirming the goal of the university as the institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and reason. (There is certainly no shortage of forces in the world pushing toward ignorance and irrationality.)

No, true, no shortage; more of a superabundance. More than enough, thank you.

My first reservation pertains to the framing of the “Science and Technology” requirement…The report introduces scientific knowledge as follows: “Science and technology directly affect our students in many ways, both positive and negative: they have led to life-saving medicines, the internet, more efficient energy storage, and digital entertainment; they also have shepherded nuclear weapons, biological warfare agents, electronic eavesdropping, and damage to the environment.” Well, yes, and I suppose one could say that architecture has produced both museums and gas chambers, that opera has both uplifted audiences and inspired the Nazis, and so on. It makes it sound as if the choice between science and technology on the one hand, and superstition and ignorance on the other, is a moral toss-up! Of course students should know about both the bad and good effects of technology. But this hardly seems like the best way for a great university to justify the teaching of science.

But it’s one that has been made to seem necessary or even obligatory by years of ill-informed hand-wringing tomfoolery. One of those forces in the world pushing toward ignorance and irrationality, in fact. Possibly also by equally mistaken ideas about ‘balance’ and the truth being whatever is between two arbitrary invented ‘extremes’ that infect and debilitate the news media. Perhaps the people who wrote the report simply felt obliged, since they mentioned some useful items of technology, to mention an equal number of harmful items, without actually considering the net impact of either. It’s a dopy, mindless, misleading way to think, but it’s pervasive. Bad, bad, very bad.

Missing from the report is a sensitivity to the ennobling nature of knowledge: to the inherent value, with consequences too far-reaching to enumerate, of understanding how the world works. For one thing, it is a remarkable fact that we have come to understand as much as we do about the natural world: the history of the universe and our planet, the forces that make it tick, the stuff we’re made of, the origin of living things, and the machinery of life, including our own mental life. I believe we have a responsibility to nurture and perpetuate this knowledge for the same reason that we have a responsibility to perpetuate an appreciation of great accomplishments in the arts. A failure to do so would be a display of disrespect for our ancestors and heirs, and a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements that the human mind is capable of.

Ah. Now I really like that. That’s exactly what I was attempting to say in Why Truth Matters – I used the Bamiyan Buddhas as an example: it’s a responsibility to preserve such things, and a gross presumption to destroy them. One recent review of the book nailed that claim, saying it wasn’t an argument. I think it’s not an argument, it’s a reason. (Jeremy disputes that.) Whatever it is, it’s what I think, so I like what Steve said.

My second major reservation concerns the “Reason and Faith” requirement. First, the word “faith” in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for “religion.” An egregious example is the current administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” so-named because it is more palatable than “religion-based initiatives.” A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words. Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these…Again, we have to keep in mind that the requirement will attract attention from far and wide, and for a long time. For us to magnify the significance of religion as a topic equivalent in scope to all of science, all of culture, or all of world history and current affairs, is to give it far too much prominence. It is an American anachronism, I think, in an era in which the rest of the West is moving beyond it.

Yeah. Steve rocks.

The word is out

Nov 22nd, 2006 8:35 pm | By

Excellent. Word is out at last. Via Hari Kunzru.

Somehow the idea of culture has got very confused in the UK. Multicultural politics once provided a light in the post-imperial gloom…However, as biological racism has faded away, a form of cultural racism is taking its place, often propagated by left-liberals who consider themelves, um, whiter than white on issues of diversity. Underlying much of the current hot air about “respect” and “offence” we find implicit the idea that as BME’s…we’re somehow more determined by our culture than our flexible white co-Britons…Our more serious conversation has to be with the communitarian politicians who feel happiest when dealing with us in groups. Instead of asking us as individual British citizens what we think or feel about contentious issues, our views are too often inferred from a dialogue conducted with so-called “community leaders”, who are frequently self-appointed, and almost always cultural conservatives, with every incentive to take offence on our behalf in order to preserve their own access to funding and influence. This odd coupling of white liberals and brown conservatives has produced a form of multiculturalism in which culture appears as fixed and fragile as a dried flower…This ossified form of multiculturalism creates casualties within the ethnic minority communities its proponents believe they are protecting. Women, homosexuals, religious, social or political dissidents and artists must all contend with a political environment in which their freedoms are considered less important than the “representative” power of community leaders, who will zealously wield the weapon of offence when their authority is challenged.

Via Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

Too many wretched years have been wasted under communal political management which skilfully divided and relabelled black and Asian Britons to disable progressive politics…I can’t remember when unelected religious and community leaders, politicians and institutions decided the religious identity was primary and that the broad black political movement was dead as was any claim to multiple identities and complicated allegiances. But they did and it was without our consent. Once human rights and equality activists mobilised to stand up for all victims of racism and the internal oppressions within groups, particularly violence against women and children. Our compassion and action were not rationed, colour-coded or preserved for our own kind…We believed in universal standards and rights which are enshrined in the UN Human Rights charter. Citizens were autonomous individuals with not creatures owned and controlled by rigid traditions…Today the enemy of equality, freedom and justice is as likely to be within. Broken up into simple tribes which compete for attention and resources (who is the most oppressed of us all?), commonalities are negated, differences fetishised. Religionists – Muslim, Catholic, Hindu, Protestant- want not parity but special and exceptional treatment and unacceptable influence over policies. The responses of Salma Yaqoob and the Muslim Council of Britain to our manifesto make those demands without a blush.

And of course via the New Generation Manifesto and via Sunny Hundal.

During the past decade, a group of self-appointed representatives has sprung up, including the Hindu Council UK and Hindu Forum of Britain; the Network of Sikh Organisations, the Sikh Federation and Sikh Human Rights Group; and the Muslim Council of Britain and Muslim Association of Britain, all claiming to speak on behalf of all Hindu, Sikh and Muslim citizens…For a start, there are problems specific to the structure of these organisations. They tend to reflect a narrow range of predominantly conservative opinion. They generally ignore non-religious, liberal or progressive opinions and yet claim to represent everyone of their particular faith. Any criticism, from the outside or within, is portrayed as an attack on the religion itself, making it more difficult to hold the groups to account. Worse, they largely consist of first-generation, middle-aged men who are out of touch with second- and third-generation Britons.

And women. Well – excellent that the word is out. Good voyage to you.

God is both p and not-p, okay?

Nov 21st, 2006 11:26 pm | By

So I’m not the only one who found Terry Eagleton’s review of Dawkins’s book more than slightly incoherent, especially the ‘God is not a person God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO but then again God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it God is the condition of possibility’ stuff. Others have had the same reaction. Good. A C Grayling for instance.

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises…Eagleton’s touching foray into theology shows, if proof were needed, that he is no philosopher: God does not have to exist, he informs us, to be the ‘condition of possibility’ for anything else to exist. There follow several paragraphs in the same fanciful and increasingly emetic vein, which indirectly explain why he once thought Derrida should have been awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge.

James Wood for another instance.

One doesn’t need to have Richard Dawkins’s level of certainty to find Terry Eagleton’s Catholic sermon utterly incoherent. On the one hand, according to Eagleton, God is transcendent, invisible, not a principle nor an entity, not even ‘existent’: indeed, ‘in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist.’ This God is neither inside nor outside the universe, but is mysteriously ‘the condition of possibility’. On the other hand, Eagleton just happens to know that this God chose to reveal himself in Jesus Christ, that he created the world ‘out of love rather than need’, and because this act was gratuitous God is ‘an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it’.

Well exactly. What I said. How does he know all this? Divine insertion, or what?

Eagleton mocks Dawkins’s mockery of ‘a personal God’ (‘some kind of chap’), but how is this gratuitously loving and unneurotic but possibly rather cross and murderously neurotic modernist artist who speaks to us via Jesus not a personal God? It would not be obnoxious of Richard Dawkins to ask how Eagleton knows these things. The reply, I think, would be threefold: Eagleton was brought up a Catholic and is reverting to his roots; God or Christ has somehow ‘spoken’ to Eagleton at some point in his life; and Eagleton just has ‘faith’ that his assertions are true. These are all forms of irrationality, however understandable or even magnificent we find them, and it is not overweening for rational atheism to expose this irrationality, as it always has done.

I don’t find them magnificent, especially not in the sneering-dogmatic form Eagelton presented them in, and I don’t really even find them all that understandable, coming from someone with Eagleton’s pretensions to insight and general all-round cleverness.

Fifth Column

Nov 21st, 2006 12:01 am | By

Another interesting discussion here and later here. It starts from the idea that I contradict myself by “saying that disgust is worthless as a moral compass” and yet using the word “disgusting” to express strong disapprobation quite often and consistently. I argue that it’s not inconsistent because my claim is only that disgust is worthless as a guide to morals on its own, not that disgust itself is morally worthless. On the contrary – I think it’s often called for, and that’s why I resort to the word. (I had noticed that I use it fairly often, when I’m feeling particularly…outraged, vehement…disgusted.) Brandon doesn’t agree, so the discussion has continued. I think he’s underestimating the degree to which judgment and reasons influence both the triggering of disgust and the decisions and actions that flow from it; but if the discussion goes on maybe he’ll convince me otherwise.

And then there’s another discussion of Theo Hobson. It quotes from comments here – it’s fun when our comments are interesting enough to get quoted!

“”But atheism is perfectly compatible with agnosticism, may indeed be the same thing. I (still) don’t see why not being a theist necessarily proceeds from any beliefs about the cosmos. Not being a socialist or a Friedmanite doesn’t necessarily proceed from any beliefs about economics; and so on. Are you claiming that theist belief is so natural that its absence requires prior beliefs?” I would call it an epiphany were I that way inclined, but this is exactly the point – to a theist, theism is that natural that there is some horror that others cannot see their truth…Every time I see Grayling or Dawkins poke their heads above the parapets, I sit and hope that it is to people like Hobson that the papers turn to for a refutation.

And so often it is. Maybe there’s an atheist spy handing out assignments at Comment is Free. It seems oddly plausible, now that it’s been suggested…

Ritual and art

Nov 20th, 2006 11:45 pm | By

So now we’re talking about ritual, partly via what Julian said in that interview (‘And also you have rituals of gratitude. A religious person can say grace, they can pray. Now, you can try to create these little rituals in atheist settings if you like, but I tend to think they wouldn’t work.’) and partly via what JS said in that other interview (‘You have the thought that the rituals that go along with religious practice are desirable, and so on. However, there’s a lot of research that suggests that people get seduced by ritual…’). This is connected, it seems to me, with a post of Nigel Warburton’s the other day, which is also about something I ponder sometimes.

Many of the great works of visual art are religious. But when an atheist like me looks at, say Duccio’s painting in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery of the ‘miracle’ of Jesus healing a blindman, I do not believe in the literal truth of what is depicted (David Hume, for example gave excellent reasons for being sceptical about believing reports that such miracles have occurred).Nor do I believe that Jesus was the son of God (nor that there is such an entity as God). Does this mean that I can’t adequately appreciate this picture?

I think no, it doesn’t, although it may mean that you (and I) can’t appreciate it in exactly the same way that a thoroughgoing believer can. I brought up Rembrandt’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’ as another example. It seems to me it’s not necessary to believe Jesus came back from the dead to find that painting moving. One can think one’s way into it; one can imagine believing it; one can imagine being the disciples in the painting; one can imagine being a 17th century Dutch viewer of the painting; one can imagine that it is true, and what that would feel like; one can imagine half-believing and half-hoping, or all hoping. I don’t think we’re (always, necessarily) reduced to mere aestheticism in response to religious art.

Instrumentalist theology

Nov 20th, 2006 7:38 pm | By

So yesterday I asked, with reference to Theo Hobson’s argument, ‘how do you go about seeing god as the source of all goodness, all life if you don’t believe god exists? How can god’s existence be a non-question if you’re going to have gratitude to that god for being the source of all goodness, all life?’ and Jerry S answered ‘A lot of people in the non-realist tradition think something like this. I think Robin LaPoidevin makes this kind of argument, for example (check out my interview with him in New British Philosophy)’ – so I did. He asked an interesting question in that interview.

Robin Le Poidevin had said this about instrumentalist theology as opposed to the realist variety:

Presumably an atheist could see theological discourse as being fictional, but it would be a fiction that we can do without. Theological instrumentalists, on the other hand, would say that the fiction has a crucial point…[T]heological discourse and practices enable us to lead better lives, even though they are fictional.

JS asks if there isn’t a danger for non-realist theism that despite the claims of its advocates that it’s a fictional discourse, it is in fact almost invariably taken as comprising truth-claims? (Just what I’m always saying.) Then he adds that ‘this is worrying both if you have a commitment to the value of truth* and also because a lot of awful things are done in the name of religious belief.’ Le Poidevin answers the awful things part rather than the first part, then there’s the interesting question.

But if you’re an instrumentalist, you’re doing more than simply articulating a philosophical position. You have the thought that the rituals that go along with religious practice are desirable, and so on. However, there’s a lot of research that suggests that people get seduced by ritual, so whatever might be claimed about the status of religious language, people won’t be able to avoid believing and acting as if the fictions they espouse are actually statements about matters of fact. And religious discourses are frequently predicated on exclusionary relations – they often divide up the world into the righteous and the unrighteous. Surely, whatever the status ascribed to religious language by non-realist theorists, this is a worry?

Le Poidevin says that’s a very interesting argument, but gives what I think is a rather unconvincing answer: he agrees that people get caught up in and even lost in fictions, but then concludes with:

But it would be surprising if someone, without actually losing contact with the thought that this is just a fiction, became intolerant of people who didn’t want to join in.

Well, I don’t think it would be at all surprising. We hear the instrumentalist case all the time. We don’t usually hear it from people who say at the outset that ‘this is just a fiction,’ but we do hear the instrumentalist argument all on its own, with the question of the truth of the central proposition left entirely unaddressed, as if it were either irrelevant or somehow settled precisely by the instrumentalist case – you know: belief in god makes you good therefore god exists. So I don’t think it would be surprising.

JS tactfully changed the subject at that point.

*Little did he imagine when he asked that question that in a few short years he would be writing a book on that very commitment to that very value in collaboration with some Yank woman he’d never so much as heard of at the time, any more than she’d ever heard of him at the time. Little did she imagine either, but then she wasn’t the one asking Robin Le Poidevin a lot of questions, was she. Well exactly.


Nov 19th, 2006 8:58 pm | By

Tom Freeman at Fisking Central also disputed with Theo Hobson and his rather idiosyncratic account of what atheism is. He points out that Hobson isn’t altogether consistent.

This atheist, believing that religious claims are factually untrue, is naturally likely to prefer others to reject these untruths. It is also possible, though, for an atheist to believe that (some) religion can (in some circumstances) have (some) social or cultural benefits. And Hobson knows this: less than a week ago, he wrote about the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, who “agrees that dogmatic atheism is unattractive: ‘to think there is nothing to be learned from religion is extremely arrogant,’ he says. And he acknowledges the appeal of religion, even to a hardened atheist.” If Hobson still accepts – as he did a few days ago – that Baggini is an atheist, then this rather undermines his current argument that atheism is a matter of intolerant zealotry.

He wrote about the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini? thought I. He did? I was unaware. I was also amused. ‘The atheist philosopher Julian Baggini’ – mmph – that’s no the atheist philosopher, that’s just Julian. No no, no no, I don’t mean it (Julian doesn’t read this, fortunately, so I can tease a little); I know he is the atheist philosopher really; it just sounds funny. It’s the ‘the,’ I suppose.*

So I was inspired to read Hobson’s post. Here’s the bit he quotes from an interview of Julian in a Christian magazine:

For example, there are certain things that I think are quite valuable which the religious mindset finds easier to accommodate. I’d call them ‘religious attitudes’. Thankfulness is one example. I think it’s very good to have a sense of gratitude – for being alive, for being well. I think that the lack of it lies at the root of a lot of modern dissatisfaction. People no longer feel a sense of gratitude, they feel a sense of entitlement, and so they’re always unhappier about what they don’t have than they are thankful for what they do … I think [thankfulness] comes more naturally in a religious mindset. For a start, you have an object of gratitude. There’s nothing for me to feel thankful to. And also you have rituals of gratitude. A religious person can say grace, they can pray. Now, you can try to create these little rituals in atheist settings if you like, but I tend to think they wouldn’t work.

I agree with most of that, and I’ve been thinking about it lately. I have this idea about a possible connection between irrational or arational belief or faith, and certain qualities like generosity and compassion. I think there may be a sense in which irrationality can be a kind of virtue – because it may be better at selflessness, at not being calculating and cautious, at just going all out for other people. That could be considered a religious attitude. I want to jaw about that some time; meanwhile, I completely agree with the part about ritual, and I’m pretty sure I’ve said that here. I think the ritual problem is really regrettable.

But once we get off Julian and back onto Hobson, things don’t go so well.

Baggini is right to move the discussion away from the tired philosophical argument over the existence of God, and to think about the attitudes that define faith. For faith in God is not a matter of believing certain unlikely propositions about the universe. The question of whether or not he exists is a massive category error. It is the supreme non-question. In practice, to have faith in him is to be involved in a certain way of speaking and feeling. And gratitude is a key aspect of this rhetorical tradition. The believer learns to feel indebted, grateful, dependent. He or she learns to see God as the source of all goodness, all life, and to see him or herself as infinitely lucky.

Uh…how do you go about seeing god as the source of all goodness, all life if you don’t believe god exists? How can god’s existence be a non-question if you’re going to have gratitude to that god for being the source of all goodness, all life? Sorry, but I don’t quite follow.

*Oh honestly. I no sooner type that than I read a comment on my previous post on Hobson, which takes a jokey comment I made on Julian’s comment with deadly seriousness and tells me to hold off on the snark, so I guess I should spell out that that stuff is [loudly] jokey. No doubt it’s all very unbecoming of me to make jokes about atheist philosophers and everything, but dang, it’s just Notes and Comment, it’s not the front page of the Times. I make the odd joke now and then. I mean no disrespect. I deeply respect all philosophers without exception, I promise.

It depends

Nov 19th, 2006 7:17 pm | By

Canada’s talking about it too.

In recent weeks, the debate in Britain over the wearing of the niqab or face veil has crossed the north Atlantic to Canada. It came on the heels of claims that the leaders of the large Indo-Canadian population in British Columbia were turning a blind eye to widespread domestic violence. Last year saw an acrimonious dispute in Ontario over whether Muslims could use Islamic sharia courts to settle family disputes.

Notice what all three of those examples have in common.

In themselves, fights over cultural practices and symbols are nothing new in Canada…What is new about the latest arguments is an underlying tension between some cultural practices of recent immigrants and the mainstream values of Canadian liberal democracy, such as sex equality.

It’s too bad pols and journalists so often frame the issue that way. It seems to me the point isn’t that the values are mainstream or that they’re Canadian (or British, or Dutch, or German, or French, or Italian), but that they’re egalitarian, universalist, justice-based, and the like. ‘Mainstream’ is the wrong word to invoke, because sex inequality is mainstream in many other places, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing in those places. It’s funny how popular those coercive conformist majoritarian words tend to be – as if no one had ever heard or known of a case where the majority was simply wrong. Majorities can get the facts wrong, and they can be morally wrong; ‘majority’ isn’t an inherently moral term. I suppose it’s natural for everyone to get confused about this in democracies, because it is the case that we are all subject to majority will; but the fact remains that number of votes doesn’t equate to accuracy on the one hand or justice on the other.

Multiculturalism has since sunk deep roots in government, reflected in everything from broadcasting to education policy…Almost half believe that immigrants should be free to maintain their cultural and religious practices. But a poll published this week reflected the new disquiet: when asked whether those practices should be tolerated if they infringe women’s rights, a large majority said No.

Well, there you go. Exactly. Free to maintain cultural and religious practices, good, but if they infringe women’s rights, not so good. That’s why it’s so misleading for people to keep churning out bromides about tolerance and cultural yakyak – because it depends. It depends on which cultural and religious practices we’re talking about, obviously, so blanket ‘yes lovely all should be permitted Kumbaya’ is not helpful. That awareness is starting to sink in, which is good. Maybe somebody should write a really good book about religious and cultural practices and how they affect women.

No fundamentalist optimists here

Nov 18th, 2006 8:21 pm | By

An excellent look at the Theo Hobson-Mark Vernon school of argument from Obscene Desserts.

He then suddenly changes direction and – accompanied by the wrenching sounds of screeching, overloaded gears and, moreover, ignoring Grayling’s definition of atheism – alleges that atheism

>>entails a certain narrative about historical progress: we can move to a new and better age once we have dispensed with superstition. Atheism is more than the rejection of religion as false: it is the belief that religion is an evil that holds back human history. (Empahsis added)

Huh? Really? Atheism entails (‘to have, impose, or require as a necessary accompaniment or consequence’) a certain narrative about historical progress? All atheists have the same view of history without which atheism would be impossible? Gosh. I’m an atheist. I’m also a historian who – like most of my colleagues – holds to a quite different narrative of history than the ‘it’s getting better all the time’ version which Hobson imagines. Does this make me a logical impossibility? Or, perhaps not a ‘true’ atheist (on the ‘no true Scot’ model). Or perhaps I’m not a ‘true’ historian. Which would be worrying…if this whole argument weren’t so obviously ridiculous.

Indeed. Ridiculous and yet all too familiar – the ever-popular ‘define atheism as any old thing you feel like and then triumphantly explain why that atheism is all wrong and silly and besides it’s a “faith” itself so ha’ trick. It’s one of those things that is so drearily familiar, so endlessly recycled however often it is shown to be wrong and self-serving and tendentious, that it should have its own ‘foul’ flag that we could just wave whenever it turns up. ‘Foul!’ Ten years of silence while you contemplate your sins.

J Carter Wood then goes on to Hobson’s (also familiar) claim that ‘atheism itself is the product, not as you might expect of the Enlightenment or the development of science, but rather of….protestantism.’

Now, it’s true that no idea comes from nowhere and, thus, ‘derives from’ something else; however, there seem to be several major intellectual steps missing between Christianity and ‘the atheist narrative’ (what, only one?) which Hobson decries. The Reformation was certainly an important precursor to the Enlightenment (and even after that a lot of ostensibly secularist thinking has remain influenced by religious assumptions or frameworks), but Hobson’s relentless effort to detach atheism from science and link it with a blind, naive optimism about the human condition is bizarre…Hobson’s argument here relies rather heavily, and awkwardly, on the history of Positivism – which did certainly have a startlingly teleological and progressive view of history – which Gray presented in Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern. By casting all secularists into that bizarre mould (which is a mistake which Gray himself – for all his worth as a thinker – all too often makes…while all positivists might have been atheists, the equation doesn’t work equally well in the opposite direction), Hobson is confusing two very different things: the scientific, secular worldview and a very specific (though in its time influential) intellectual movement which did, at times, develop certain cult-like trappings…If anything, it is a skeptical, secular and scientific outlook which tends against most kinds of fundamentalist optimism.

Read the whole thing.

A counter-Leavisite snack

Nov 18th, 2006 7:35 pm | By

Some quotables in Hitchens’s review of Clive James’s memoir.

James’s strenuous test of the De Vriesian proposition was to try to demonstrate that one could be simultaneously cerebral and on television…I can only say, as someone who doesn’t watch much television, that when Clive James invited me on to one of his shows…I did actually feel that I wasn’t under orders to be stupider than I really am.

It’s irksome, being under such orders. There’s always (or often) that lurking dread when writing books, that some faceless publisher or editor or agent will swear that no no a thousand times no, this book will never make it past your poxy little computer unless you make it readily understandable to the pearly-cheeked virginal four-year-old. (There is also of course the corresponding but rather different dread that one will be under orders to be cleverer than one in fact is. Happily those orders are impossible to fulfill, so there is no conflict; one simply falls on one’s sword. So I imagine, at any rate.)

Of a certain Friday lunchtime group, which now threatens to become a pseudo-legend on an almost Bloomsbury-like scale…, James makes the correct observation that it started out as a self-consciously counter-Leavisite snack, where little if any career-smoothing or back-scratching could even have been attempted. One of the “stars” of that snack, Martin Amis, once rebuked someone for being in want of a sense of humour, and added that by saying this he meant very deliberately to impugn the man’s seriousness.

There – if I’m not mistaken, there is the ‘no truly intelligent’ thing again. To ruin an epigram by explaining it, I would suggest that Amis meant something like what I’ve been claiming: that the want of a sense of humour constitutes such a serious and disabling blind spot that it really is incompatible with (proper, full, complete) intelligence.

Anyway, it’s a great line.

Women are tools

Nov 18th, 2006 6:26 pm | By

Misogyny wins another round.

Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos has signed into law a ban on all abortions, even in cases when a woman’s life is judged to be at risk. Previous legislation from a century ago allowed an abortion if three doctors certified that the woman was in danger…President-elect Daniel Ortega once favoured abortion rights but changed stance after re-embracing Catholicism. Mr Bolanos signed the law in the presence of Roman Catholic bishops and Protestant evangelist leaders.

All of them agreeing, apparently, that a foetus is more valuable than the woman who is carrying it.

Rosemary, Lavender, Coffee, Cedar

Nov 17th, 2006 8:26 pm | By

I liked this article on the sense of smell. It made me think, as the saying goes.

Mine is a mediocre specimen of a post-lapsarian nose. As a fallen daughter of Eve—or, more accurately, a fallen granddaughter of a sharp-nosed chimpanzee—I am conscious of smell only a few times each day…But for most of the day, it is unusual for me to notice any particular smells. I do eat food, of course, but with the illusory impression that I am tasting rather than smelling the myriad different flavours that make up even an ordinary meal.

Yes, same here, I suppose; but I do value smells, I thought to myself. Then later in the day when I was outside, I thought of the article and began sniffing, trying to see if I could exercise my sense of smell. It was interesting – interesting to find how little I could really smell.

It was a perfect day for it. It’s officially the wettest November on record in Seattle, and the month only half over; it rained heavily and non-stop all day Wednesday and it was also very windy, then it cleared overnight, so yesterday the air was as clean as it can possibly get, plus the ground is saturated, so you would think one would be able to smell it. But I couldn’t, really. I tried, but I couldn’t. Sniff sniff sniff – what am I smelling? Nothing, really – very clean damp air; it’s lovely, it’s a joy to sniff, but it doesn’t really have any specific content that I could name. That seemed odd. I looked around (I was walking) – there was, not surprisingly, wet fallen vegetation everywhere, gently decaying; wouldn’t you think we’d be able to smell that? But I couldn’t. Once or twice I thought I perhaps got a faint hint of wet earth and leaves, but I wasn’t at all sure. Maybe I could have in a forest; maybe the ratio of concrete to earth and grass and leaves in an urban neighborhood makes the organic segment more difficult to smell. I thought about farms, the ocean, eucalyptus groves, other smelly places. Gorillas – gorillas have a very strong, pungent smell; orang utans don’t. That’s interesting. Dogs smell bad; cats smell good; why is that?

The Two Stooges

Nov 17th, 2006 7:33 pm | By

That pope – he’s always walking into these things. He’s like one of those physical comedy types whose schtick is all tripping over the furniture and sitting on the cat.

Apparently there was this fuss in Italy the other day ‘when the daily newspaper of the Italian Roman Catholic church criticised a string of recent satirical acts’ about this same pope. The pope’s private secretary explained to a journalist what the papal crowd was thinking.

“I am aware of the controversy and I hope that broadcasts of this kind stop,” Father Genswein said. “Satire is fine. But these things do not have any intellectual quality and offend men of the church. They are not acceptable.”

That’s fun, isn’t it? Satire is fine – fine, I tell you, fine, we love the stuff, it’s meat and drink to us, we can’t get enough – but these particular ones right here that we’re talking about ain’t clever enough and besides they offend – well, you know, us. Therefore, it must follow as the night the day, They Are Not Acceptable.

That’s what’s so funny. Pure walking into a door. Sheer tripping and falling into the soup tureen. Here’s where you went wrong, papa Genswein; here’s where you made your fatal error; here’s what you don’t want to do: it really doesn’t work to say ‘Satire is fine unless it’s about me.’ See what I’m getting at here? It’s just no good saying ‘Satire is fine as long as it’s about other people, any other people, really, let a thousand flowers bloom, it’s liberty hall, anyone, except me.’ You see the problem? It looks like special pleading. It looks just a tiny bit self-interested. I’ll give you an example. Suppose you said ‘Hitting people with heavy wooden sporting implements is fine’ and then added ‘except when we’re the people being hit’ – you see, disinterested onlookers would think you were happy to see everyone else mocked or pummeled but wanted immunity for your own special self alone. Tragically, and riotously, the result is not persuasion but shouts of laughter. Sorry, Father G.