Jokes and Conversations

May 30th, 2004 11:20 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gulf

May 29th, 2004 8:31 pm | By

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

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

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

I’m Knitting a Guillotine

May 28th, 2004 8:22 pm | By

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

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

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

But it gets livelier.

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

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

Gotta New Pair of Shoooooes

May 28th, 2004 1:22 am | By

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

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

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

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

All? Really, All?

May 26th, 2004 11:46 pm | By

Weird statement for the day:

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

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

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

Left Behind What?

May 25th, 2004 11:55 pm | By

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

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

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

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


May 25th, 2004 8:52 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

Yes but Why?

May 24th, 2004 10:14 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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


May 22nd, 2004 9:19 pm | By

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

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

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

A Basic Tension

May 21st, 2004 8:24 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign-up now, OB!

May 21st, 2004 6:20 pm | By

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


Become a legally ordained minister within 48 hours

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

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

Want to start your own church?

Click here to sign-up!


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

Time, Time, Time

May 20th, 2004 8:57 pm | By

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

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

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

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

Then he quotes Shermer on the matter:

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

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


May 20th, 2004 12:12 am | By

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

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

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

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

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

Shaun Williams – AKA STAMP

May 19th, 2004 5:46 pm | By

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

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

Cartoon 1

Cartoon 2

Cartoon 3

Cartoon 4

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

Thinking too much with my wrong head

May 19th, 2004 4:01 pm | By

As some of you will know, at The Philosophers’ Magazine we have a number of online interactive type things which are designed to flag up some of the possible difficulties with religious belief (problem of evil, that kind of thing).

And since it is always amusing to tease the religiously afflicted, I thought I’d post an email I received yesterday about one of the activities. It kind of teases itself, so I won’t say any more.


Your message is stupid as well as your test. There is a all loving, all caring, all knowing and all every where at one time God who truely exists. You think too much with your head and it is the wrong head. You should think about this…if there was not a God as you say there is not than why does He, not she, show you so much mercy every single day of your life. You must be one more miserable person to develope such an idiot of a test and pass it along out there into Internet space. You are not as smart as you want to think that you are and one day you will see just how dumb you really are when you ask such stupid stuff.

God is a God of mercy and total love but He is also a God of judgement. The reason there are famines and earth quakes is because people just simply refuse to serve and trust Him and it was also forewarned in the Holy Bible that such things would happen. If people obeyed the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind and strength than they would see in this world a whole lot less evil.

It was man who got us into all this mess, not God.

If you read the Word of God you will find that it states that Satan has power over the air. Which means that a whole lot of the problems with the weather has to do with his doing…a fallen angel from Heaven.

You people are duped!!!!! You are so deceived that you are the blind leading the blind with your ridduculous tests.

The reason you don’t want to believe in a Supreme being is because you want to be God and you think that you could do a much better job than what He does but if you really look over the last part of your life, you will see that you have a trail of messes that you have caused on yourself.

You are persumptious to think that there cannot be a God who can be everything to anyone who choses to live for Him. If you read the Bible, you will find that it predicts all this clamaity that is going on around us.

Oh foolishness that you, a human being will whip up to start conflict in a world already sufferring with more conflict than it truely needs.

I feel sorry for you, whoever you are on the day of God’s White Throne Judgement.

The problem with you is that you do not know how to have faith in someone you do not understand. It is painfully obvious to me as well as many others that you lack faith and are a very sad, sad person.


Well, thanks for that Katie.

I just love the “You think too much with your head and it is the wrong head” bit!


May 18th, 2004 11:56 pm | By

Some oddly-assorted items.

There was a terrifying item in the Village Voice today, about the cozy friendship between the Bush administration and something called the Apostolic Congress – a group of ‘rapture’ Christians – you know, those nice people who look forward to the day when Jesus comes back and boils the blood of unbelievers by the power of his gaze. Just the kind of folks you want influencing US policy toward Israel, yes indeed.

The e-mailed meeting summary reveals NSC Near East and North African Affairs director Elliott Abrams sitting down with the Apostolic Congress and massaging their theological concerns. Claiming to be “the Christian Voice in the Nation’s Capital,” the members vociferously oppose the idea of a Palestinian state. They fear an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza might enable just that, and they object on the grounds that all of Old Testament Israel belongs to the Jews. Until Israel is intact and David’s temple rebuilt, they believe, Christ won’t come back to earth.

Well that’s an understandable concern, so it’s good to know that dear old Elliott A. (how fondly one remembers him from the Reagan years) put in some time soothing them. PZ Myers has a few acid words on the subject at Pharyngula. He’s right, one does indeed think of General Jack D Ripper, with his mad, staring eyes.

Chris at Crooked Timber posted a comment on Julian’s latest Bad Moves yesterday. He tells an amusing story, Jo Wolff tells another (to do with Stuart Hampshire and hypothetical questions), and old (possibly Warner Brothers) cartoons are mentioned. Plus there is an interesting little discussion of the uses of hypothetical questions and whether they strip things down too much. I tend to think, in a mushy way, that they can, but on the other hand stripping down can be useful, so…

There’s the Guardian item about a book by an astronomer, Percy Seymour: The Scientific Proof of Astrology. Proof? Proof? Proof?? Why does he call it proof? Was that a publisher’s decision? The article makes clear enough why even what Seymour considers evidence is not very convincing (to put it mildly), but as for proof – ! Must be a marketing decision, I suppose.

Normblog has a comment from a friend on verbiage and where it comes from.

I am wading through finals assignments at the moment, and so many kids write – if they can at all – in this sort of media studies verbiage dotted with ‘discourse’ this, ‘dominant ideology’ that, and phrases like ‘our ontological enrichment’

Yers. Well, I can say this – if the Fashionable Dictionary is a runaway bestseller (and why should it not be? wipe that smirk off your face) and people actually read it as opposed to merely buying it and then throwing it into the back of the closet – but they will read it of course, because they will at least open it, and once they open it, they are lost – then ‘discourse’ this and ‘dominant ideology’ that will go right out of fashion. Right out. People won’t dare say them any more for fear of the shouts of mocking laughter that will assail them if they do. What a feeling of accomplishment we will have.

And finally. This is sad. I’m proofreading the next edition of The Philosophers’ Magazine this week, and in doing so today I saw that there was an item ‘Remembering STAMP’. I didn’t know, so I thought you probably wouldn’t know either, and might like to, so I thought I would tell you. STAMP did brilliant cartoons for TPM, and he’s died of leukemia. My colleague tells me of an especially good cartoon I hadn’t seen:

It had David Hume being confronted by a pregnant woman (we were supposed to assume it was his mistress). She was saying to him: “Don’t you give me that constant conjunction doesn’t necessitate causality nonsense.”

So shed a tear and raise a glass to STAMP, and to wit and good cartoons and cartoonists, and to the wish that all such people should live to be 105.


May 16th, 2004 9:46 pm | By

Religious believers can be weird. Very, very weird. I know it’s not considered polite to say that – and that’s why I tend to avoid them rather than engage them in dialogue. Precisely because there is so much that it is not considered polite to say about religious believers, that yet becomes so glaringly obvious when one does try to engage them in dialogue. It’s kind of a You can’t win situation. You simply can’t say certain things, and yet the things you can’t say are at the center of the whole discussion – so the discussion is lamed and hobbled and disabled before it ever starts. It’s a stalemate. So the familiar and much-repeated idea that discussion on this subject is possible and desirable (and even useful and productive) seems to me to be absurd. And every time the subject comes up, fresh confirmation is offered. Religious believers like to say ‘You can say anything you like! Of course you can! Do you think we’ve never heard anyone say “There is no God” before? How naive! Go on, say whatever you like!’ So you do (if you’re very stupid and credulous, at least) – and you are immediately greeted with yells of rage, with blatant misinterpretations of what you say, and with aspersions on your capacity for moral reflection. Oh. So when you say ‘You can say anything you like!’ you mean I can say anything I like provided I don’t mind having what I say translated into something else and being called immoral. Oh, okay, that sounds good.

I suppose ‘You can say’ in that context means ‘You are physically able to say’ as opposed to ‘You can without risk of having to deal with frothing intemperate dishonest reactions say.’ Okay. But that’s not what I mean by ‘You can say.’ However, I have learned through years of irritating experience that that is often what other people mean by it, so I don’t always take it at face value. Thus I choose to avoid discussions of religion with religious believers – when I can. It’s not always possible, because sometimes they pursue me back to my secular lair, and insist on having their productive dialogue anyway. This can be a trifle dispiriting. One wants to ask them to go away, but one doesn’t like to be quite that rude – so one sighs heavily and attempts to answer – and is immediately greeted with yells of rage and blatant misinterpretations of what one says. One really can’t win. One can make firm resolutions not to get drawn into such discussions to begin with, of course, but that doesn’t always work either – because one doesn’t always know in advance that they are going to happen. It’s not as if every time an invitation arrives in the mail, there is a notice at the bottom – ‘Warning: There will be one or more religious believers present who will insist on talking about God and prayer and higher authority, whether you like it or not.’ If invitations were always so equipped, one would know what to do, but they’re not.

It’s unfortunate that they’re not, though, because one result is that once such a discussion does start, and the skeptics remember an urgent appointment elsewhere and try to sidle away – what do you suppose happens? They are accused of censorship, that’s what. They are accused of not knowing how to tolerate freedom of speech and thought, of wanting to ban religion. That’s quite a leap – a leap of faith, one might say. A similar leap, and one even more popular with religious believers, is to equate non-adherence to their belief in a deity with absolute, unequivocal, irrevocable, undiluted, without doubt certitude, and then to marvel at such a degree of certitude. One religious believer I’ve encountered here and there accused me of exactly that just today. But of course that’s stark nonsense – I don’t have that kind of certitude about anything – I don’t even have one of those adjective’s worth of certitude. It doesn’t require certitude simply to decline to believe in something. And, of course, believers often display a fair amount of certitude themselves, which is exactly what makes discussions with them so unproductive – the secularists and atheists tend to hedge their assertions while the believers say what they know. As with this remark, which came from the very same believer who attributed all that certitude to me – ‘It’s about understanding that divine authority stands in judgment on all human agency.’

So. That’s what I said – religious believers can be very weird.

What is Truth, Said Jesting Pilate

May 15th, 2004 9:29 pm | By

So perhaps it does matter after all, what the truth is, who is telling the truth and who is lying, who has it right and who is deceived, what pictures are authentic and what are fake. Is that possible? It looks that way. It looks as if in fact we do care whether on the one hand soldiers of a certain regiment did abuse Iraqi prisoners, or whether on the other hand someone faked up some pictures that purported to show that but in fact (being faked) did not, and gave said pictures to a large newspaper. You can see where it would make a difference. We can all think of other pictures that matter – pictures that we would be shocked, outraged, disoriented to discover had been faked. Pictures of famine victims, massacres, mass graves, rivers full of bodies; pictures from wars, genocides, prisons, crime scenes, riots. Pictures of perpetrators and victims, just as in the Daily Mirror pictures. We don’t want to be deceived about such pictures. We don’t want to get outraged and demand that something be done about a war crime or a violation of the Geneva Convention or an act of stupid brutality, if it didn’t happen. Do we. No. Nor do we want to fail to get outraged and demand something be done if war crimes or acts of brutality did happen and we are deceived about that. We don’t want a tour of Theresienstadt or a Potemkin village, thank you. We don’t want either one of those. We want the truth.

We don’t want a situated truth or a perspectival truth. We don’t want a community’s truth. We don’t want US truth and UK truth and Iraqi truth. We don’t want my truth and your truth and their truth. We want the truth, period. We don’t want the truth the army is happy with, and the one the government is happy with, and the one the newspapers are happy with, and the one the prisoners of war are happy with, and the one the voters are happy with. Do we? I don’t think so. I think we want just the one. The single, general, universal, global, true-for-everyone truth about what did happen and what did not. That truth may or may not be available; that’s a separate issue. But we don’t look placidly at faked pictures and say ‘Well that was true for the people who made the pictures, no doubt, so that’s good enough.’ We don’t conclude that the pictures made something to talk about for a few days and that’s good enough. Sometimes playful irony about the truth just doesn’t butter any parsnips.

Testing, Testing

May 13th, 2004 7:45 pm | By

A reader raises some interesting objections, in Letters and then at my suggestion in a comment, on our Freud-skepticism.

For example, there may be an alternative explanation for Jedlika’s finding that children of mixed race couples are more likely to marry someone of the same race as the opposite sex parent, but it is prima facie evidence for oedipal feelings that cannot be ignored.

I haven’t read the study in question – but just to deal with what is said in that sentence, I have to say I am not convinced. I am in fact quite skeptical. It seems to me that it is not at all obvious that oedipal feelings are the only possible explanation for why children of mixed race couples would tend to marry someone of the same race as the opposite sex parent. Other explanations leap to mind – for instance the idea that marriageable people in general are of the same race as the opposite sex parent. Of course one can by fiat simply equate notions of what makes people ‘marriageable’ with oedipal feelings, but again, that’s not the only possible conclusion. And in any case, the basic disagreement with Freud’s Oedipus complex is not mostly to do with sexual feelings for the opposite sex parent, but with such feelings in infancy. It’s the infancy part that Freud was adamant about, and that many colleagues disagreed with him about. Freud wasn’t just saying that everyone has sex on the brain, he was saying that everyone has sex on the brain starting with infancy. Would Jedlika’s findings as described above seem to corroborate the Oedipus complex in infancy? I don’t see why they would.

I googled Fisher and Greenberg, and found a review by Richard Webster. Not a fan of Freud’s, of course – but let’s see what he says all the same.

Once again, they have failed to recognise that Freud was at least right about one thing: that psychoanalytic theories, being based on the psychoanalyst’s unique access to the hidden realm of the unconscious, are not susceptible to empirical investigation.

And they are both clinical psychologists themselves, so the same problem arises in their own line of work. Clinical psychologists have an as it were vocational skepticism about the value of empirical investigation.

In an effort to discover whether Freud’s penis=baby equation was correct, and whether it is indeed true that some women have babies to supply themselves with the penises that they lack, Fisher and Greenberg tell us that they ‘reasoned that if pregnancy is somehow a penis equivalent for women, they should have increased unconscious phallic sensations or feelings at that time’. Omitting to consider the equally plausible Freudian hypothesis that pregnancy, by supplying a ‘real’ phallic substitute, might lead to a decrease in phallic fantasising, our intrepid researchers go on to devise a ‘phallic scoring system’ based on a count of responses to the Holtzman Inkblot Test involving ‘projections, protrusions and elongations’ that Freud would have deemed phallic. Having administered this remarkable test to a group of presumably puzzled pregnant women, they concluded that (though no data are given) ‘the findings were nicely congruent with the hypothesis’. No doubt they were also nicely congruent with all manner of other hypotheses that Fisher and Greenberg, intent on looking at the world through Freudian spectacles, never paused to formulate.

Well…you see what I mean. If that’s Fisher and Greenberg’s idea of an empirical investigation, then – I remain unconvinced.

Whither the Arts

May 11th, 2004 9:40 pm | By

Art, shmart. Oh dear, I’ve gone all philistine – but people do talk such nonsense about ‘art’ sometimes. Here’s some nonsense on stilts – a lecture by Helen Vendler.

I want to propose that the humanities should take, as their central objects of study, not the texts of historians or philosophers, but the products of aesthetic endeavor: architecture, art, dance, music, literature, theater, and so on. After all, it is by their arts that cultures are principally remembered. For every person who has read a Platonic dialogue, there are probably ten who have seen a Greek marble in a museum, or if not a Greek marble, at least a Roman copy, or if not a Roman copy, at least a photograph.

And – ? Because ten people have seen a photograph of a Greek marble for every one who has read some Plato, therefore the humanities should center on art rather than philosophy or history? Er – why? The reductio is certainly all too obvious. By the same token, for every person who has read a Shakespeare sonnet, a thousand (ten thousand? a hundred thousand?) have watched ‘Survivor’. So what?

But it gets worse – it gets into territory that always sets my teeth on edge.

The arts bring into play historical and philosophical questions without implying the prevalence of a single system or of universal solutions. Artworks embody the individuality that fades into insignificance in the massive canvas of history and is suppressed in philosophy by the desire for impersonal assertion. The arts are true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived–as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms.

Oh, bollocks. That only makes even a little sense if you substitute the word ‘novel’ for ‘the arts’ in that passage, and even then it doesn’t make much sense. There are plenty of novels that don’t do any such thing, and most of the rest of ‘the arts’ don’t either. It’s all just sentimental bilge.

There’s a lot of sentimental bilge about ‘art’ and ‘the arts’ out there. I probably used to believe a little of it myself – at least about literature, if not about all the arts. I don’t any more. I gave it up. For one thing I’ve read or started too many vacuous pretentious ‘literary’ novels, and I’ve talked to too many people who think all ‘serious’ novelists, no matter how ignorant and unthinking, are ‘creative’ and somehow important and significant in a way that no writer of ‘non-fiction’ can possibly be. Oh I see – so one kind of writer knows a lot and writes about it well, and the other kind just writes well, and the second one is better? Hmm.

Brian Leiter quotes from an anonymous (to us) poet who puts it this way:

As to poets giving insight into life (or whatever the words are), I have been struck time and again at how plain dumb sentimental religious (‘spiritual’) so many well-regarded poets are. Do they understand life, humanity? Through a glass barely. People like Vendler live in a political vacuum and worship purity and refinement of sensibility which is fine if joined with social responsibility and authentic concern for the victims of injustice.

Just so. I’ve talked to a good many plain dumb novelists, too. I don’t think they suddenly become less dumb just because they write stories, and I don’t believe they have more insight or wisdom or ability to be ‘true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived’ than philosophers or historians, or psychologists or sociologists, either.

This is relevant to what we’ve been talking about lately because of the ‘Freud was a novelist’ line of defense. Of course the main problem with that is that he wasn’t, that he was in a completely different kind of work, and that calling him a novelist is basically just a face-saving ploy. But even apart from that, I think there is a further problem in the sentimentality about novels and novelists in that defense which is related to the sentimentality about Freud himself. There is some underlying idea about the power and insight of novelists-and-Freud – about profundity and depth and complexity that are considered unique to fiction-writers. I don’t buy it. I like and admire really brilliant novelists as much as anyone, but I don’t think they’re magic. I don’t think they necessarily do tell us more than really brilliant writers and thinkers in other fields do. And in fact I think it’s a form of anti-intellectualism to claim that they do. So I may be a philistine but I’m not an anti-intellectual.