an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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what does curiosity actually mean?

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Robert Hooke, star of the early Royal Society

Robert Hooke, star of the early Royal Society

You might say that Philip Ball has performed a curious task with his book, Curiosity. He’s taken this term, which we moderns might take for granted, and examined what intellectuals and the public have made of it down through the ages – with a particular focus on that wobbly symbol of the seventeenth century British scientific enlightenment, the Royal Society. I’ve been spending a bit of time in the seventeenth century lately, what with Dava Sobel’s book on the struggle to measure longitude, Matthew Cobb’s book on the untangling of the problem of eggs and sperm and conception, not to mention Bill Bryson’s lively treatment of Hooke, Leeuwenhoek and cells and protozoa in A Short History of Nearly Everything.

That century, with some of its most interesting actors, including Francis Bacon, René Descartes, William Harvey, Jan Swammerdam, Nicolas Steno, Johann Komensky (aka Comenius), Samuel Butler, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Thomas Shadwell, Margaret Cavendish and Isaac Newton, represented a great testing period for science and its reception by the public. Curiosity has always had its enemies, and still does, as evidenced by some Papal pronouncements of recent years, but in earlier, more universally religious times, knowledge and its pursuit were treated with great wariness and suspicion, a suspicion sanctioned by the Biblical tale of the fall. The Catholic Church had risen to a position of great power in the west, though the revolting Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists and their ilk had spoiled the party somewhat, and England in particular, having grown in pride and prosperity during the Elizabethan period, was flexing its muscles and exercising its grey matter in exciting new ways. The sense of renovation was captured by  the versatile Bacon, with works like the Novum Organum (New Method), The New Atlantis and The Advancement of Learning.

In the past I’ve described curiosity and scepticism as the twin pillars of the scientific mindset, but they’re really more like a pair of essential forces that interact and modify each other. Scepticism without curiosity is just pure negativity and nihilism, curiosity without scepticism is directionless and naive.

But perhaps that’s overly glib. What, if any, are the limits of curiosity, and when is it a bad thing? It killed the cat, after all.

The word derives from the Latin ‘cura’, meaning care. Think of the word ‘curator’. However, if you think of one of the most curious works of the ancients, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, you’d have to say, from a modern perspective, that little care was taken to separate truth from fiction in his massive and sometimes bizarre collection of curios. This sort of unfiltered inclusivity in collecting ‘facts’ and stories goes back at least to Herodotus, the ‘father of lies’ as well as of history, and it goes forward to medieval bestiaries and herbaria. These collections of the weird and wonderful were, of course, not intended to be scientific in the modern sense. The term ‘science’ wasn’t in currency and no clear scientific methodologies had been elaborated. As to curiosity, it certainly wasn’t a fixed term, and after the political establishment of Christianity, it was more often than not seen in a negative light. ‘We want no curious disputation after possessing [i.e. accepting the truth of] Jesus Christ’, wrote Tertullian in the early Christian days. Another early Christian, Lactantius [c240-c320], explained that the reason Adam and Eve were created last was so that they’d remain forever ignorant of how their god created everything else. That was how it was intended to be. Modern creationists follow this tradition – God did it, we don’t know how and we don’t really care.

Fast forward to Francis Bacon, who still, in the early 17th century, had to contend with the view of curiosity as a sinful extravagance, a view that had dominated Europe for almost a millennium and a half. Bacon had quite a pragmatic, almost business-like view of curiosity as a tool to benefit humanity. The ‘cabinet of curiosities’ was becoming well established in his time, and Bacon advised all monarchs, indeed all rich and powerful men, to maintain one, well sorted and labelled, as if to do so would be magically empowering. The problem with these cabinets, though, was that there was little understanding about the relations between entities and articles. That’s to say, there was little that was modernly scientific about them. Their objects were largely unrelated rarities and oddities, having only one thing in common, that they were ‘curious’. Bacon recognised that this wouldn’t quite do, and tried to point a way forward. He didn’t entirely succeed, but – small steps.

Ball’s book is at pains to correct, or at least provide nuance to, the standard view of Bacon as initiator of and father-figure to the British scientific enlightenment. In fact, Bacon may have been a Rosicrucian, and his utopian New Atlantis describes a more or less priestly caste of technical experts, living and working in Solomon’s House, and keeping their arts and knowledge largely under wraps, like the alchemists and mages of earlier generations. Bacon, with his government connections and his obvious ambition to be benefited by as well as benefiting the state, was concerned to harness knowledge to productivity and profit, and those who see science largely as a coercion of nature have cursed him for it ever since. Mining and metallurgy, engineering and manufacturing were his first subjects, but he also imagined great changes in agriculture – the breeding of plants, fruits and flowers, as well as animals, to create ‘super-organisms’, in and out of season, for our benefit and delight. The art and science of the kitchens of Solomon’s House produces superior dishes, as well as wines and other beverages, and printing and textiles have advanced greatly, with new fabrics, papers, dyes and machinery. Even the weather is subject to manipulation, with rain, snow and sunshine under the control of the savants. The details of all these advancements are kept vague of course, (and here’s where Bacon’s insistence on ‘secret knowledge’ plays to his advantage, a point not sufficiently noted by Ball in his need to connect Bacon with the the alchemist-magicians of the past) but what is represented here is promise, a faith in human ingenuity to improve on the products of the natural world.

In focusing on all these benefits, Bacon manages largely to sidestep the religious aversion to curiosity as a form of intellectual avarice. However, Bacon and his more curious compatriots were never too far from the magical dark arts. Few intellectuals of this period, for example, would have dismissed alchemy out of hand, in spite of Chaucer’s delicious mockery of it over 200 years before, or Ben Jonson’s more contemporaneous take in The Alchemist. What differentiated Bacon was an interest in system, however vaguely adumbrated, and a harnessing of this system to the interests of the state.

Bacon tried to interest James I in a state sponsored proto-scientific institution, but this got nowhere, largely because he couldn’t devise anything like a practical program for such an entity, but a generation or two after his death, after a civil war, a brief republic and a restoration, the Royal Society was formed under the more or less indifferent patronage of Charles II. Bacon was seen as its guiding spirit, and there was an expectation, or hope, that its members would be virtuosi, a term then in currency. As Ball explains:

The virtuoso was ‘a rational artist in all things’… meaning the arts as well as the sciences, pursued methodically with a scientist’s understanding of perspective, anatomy and so forth. (It is after all in the arts that the epithet ‘virtuoso’ survives today.) The virtuoso was permitted, indeed expected, to indulge pure curiosity: to pry into any aspect of nature or art, no matter how trivial, for the sake of knowing. There was no sense that this impulse need be harnessed and disciplined by anything resembling a systematic program, or by an attempt to generalise from particulars to overarching theories.

Charles II, in spite of having some scientific pretensions, paid scant attention to his own Society, and neglected to fund it. What was perhaps worse for the Society was his amused approval of a hit play of the time, Thomas Shadwell’s The Virtuoso, which satirized the Society through its central character, Sir Nicholas Gimcrack. The play, as well as many criticisms of the Society’s practices by the likes of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the aristocratic Margaret Cavendish (Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne), presented another kind of negativity vis-a-vis unbridled curiosity, more modern, if not more pointed than the old religious objections.

The play-goer first encounters Sir Nicholas Gimcrack lying on a table making swimming motions. He tells his visitors that he’s learning to swim, but they are dubious about his method. His response:

I content myself with the speculative part of swimming; I care not for the practick. I seldom bring anything to use; tis not my way. Knowledge is my ultimate end.

This was the updated criticism. Pointless observations and experiments, leading nowhere and of no practical use. Gimcrack appears to have been based on Robert Hooke, one of the Royal Society’s most brilliant members, who was suitably enraged on viewing the play. Shadwell mocked Hooke’s prized invention, the air pump, intended to create a vacuum for the purpose of observing objects inserted into it, and he presented a jaundiced view of Gimcrack, through the dialogue of his niece, as ‘a sot that has spent two thousand pounds in microscopes to find out the nature of eels in vinegar, mites in a cheese, and the blue of plums.’ These were all examined in Hooke’s ground-breaking and breath-taking work Micrographia.

Most of Shadwell’s mockery hasn’t stood the test of time, but he was far from the only one who targeted the practices and the approach of the Society and of ‘virtuosi’, sometimes with humour, sometimes with indignation. Their criticisms are worth examining, both for what they reveal of the era, and for their occasional relevance today. Many of them seem totally misplaced – mocking the ‘weighing of air’, which they naturally saw as the weighing of nothing, or the examining, through the newish tool the microscope, of a gnat’s leg. It should be recalled that Hooke, through his microscopic investigations, was the first to highlight and to name the individual cell. Yet it was a common criticism of the era, due largely to the ignorance of the interconnectedness of all things that the scientifically literate now take for granted, that these explorations were simply time-wasting dilettantism. The philosophical curmudgeon Thomas Hobbes, for example, firmly believed that experiments couldn’t produce significant truths about the world. It seems that the general public, who didn’t have access to such things, saw microscopes and telescopes as magical devices which didn’t so much reveal new worlds as to create them. If they couldn’t be verified with one’s own eyes, how could these visions be trusted? And there was the old religious argument that we weren’t meant to see them, that we should keep to our god-given limitations.

Generally speaking, as Ball describes it, though the criticisms and misgivings weren’t so clearly religious as they had been, they centred on a suspicion about unrestrained curiosity and questioning, which might lead to an undermining of the social order (a big issue after the recent upheavals in England), and to atheism (they were on the money with that one). They had a big impact on the Royal Society, which struggled to survive in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It’s worth noting too, that the later eighteenth century Enlightenment on the continent was much more political and social than scientific.

But rather than try to analyse these criticisms, I’ll provide a rich sample of them, without comment. None of them are ‘representative’, but together they give a flavour of the times, or of the more conservative feeling of the time.

[Is there] anything more Absurd and Impertinent than a Man who has so great a concern upon his Hands as the Preparing for Eternity, all busy and taken up with Quadrants, and Telescopes, Furnaces, Syphons and Air-pumps?

John Norris, Reflections on the conduct of human life, 1690

Through worlds unnumber’d though the God be known,

‘Tis ours to trace him only in our own….

The bliss of man (could pride that blessing find)

Is not to act or think beyond mankind;

No powers of body or of soul to share,

But what his nature and his state can bear.

Why has not a man a microscopic eye?

For this plain reason, man is not a fly.

Say what the use, were finer optics giv’n,

T’inspect a mite, not comprehend the heav’n? …

Then say not man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;

Say rather, man’s as perfect as he ought:

His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,

His time a moment, and a point his space.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

There are some men whose heads are so oddly turned this way, that though they are utter strangers to the common occurrences of life, they are able to discover the sex of a cockle, or describe the generation of a mite, in all its circumstances. They are so little versed in the world, that they scarce know a horse from an ox; but at the same time will tell you, with a great deal of gravity, that a flea is a rhinoceros, and a snail an hermaphrodite.

… the mind of man… is capable of much higher contemplations [and] should not be altogether fixed upon such mean and disproportionate objects.

Joseph Addison, The Tatler, 1710

But could Experimental Philosophers find out more beneficial Arts then our Fore-fathers have done, either for the better increase of Vegetables and brute Animals to nourish our bodies, or better and commodious contrivances in the Art of Architecture to build us houses… it would not onely be worth their labour, but of as much praise as could be given to them: But as Boys that play with watry Bubbles, or fling Dust into each others Eyes, or make a Hobby-horse of Snow, are worthy of reproof rather then praise, for wasting their time with useless sports; so those that addict themselves to unprofitable Arts, spend more time then they reap benefit thereby… they will never be able to spin Silk, Thred, or Wool, &c. from loose Atomes; neither will Weavers weave a Web of Light from the Sun’s Rays, nor an Architect build an House of the bubbles of Water and Air…  and if a Painter should draw a Lowse as big as a Crab, and of that shape as the Microscope presents, can any body imagine that a Beggar would believe it to be true? but if he did, what advantage would it be to the Beggar? for it doth neither instruct him how to avoid breeding them, or how to catch them, or to hinder them from biting.

[Inventors of telescopes etc] have done the world more injury than benefit; for this art has intoxicated so many men’s brains, and wholly employed their thoughts and bodily actions about phenomena, or the exterior figures of objects, as all better arts and studies are laid aside.

Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, 1666

[A virtuoso is one who] has abandoned the society of men for that of Insects, Worms, Grubbs, Maggots, Flies, Moths, Locusts, Beetles, Spiders, Grasshoppers, Snails, Lizards and Tortoises….

To what purpose is it, that these Gentlemen ransack all Parts both of Earth and Sea to procure these Triffles?… I know that the desire of knowledge, and the discovery of things yet unknown is the pretence; but what Knowledge is it? What Discoveries do we owe to their Labours? It is only the discovery of some few unheeded Varieties of Plants, Shells, or Insects, unheeded only because useless; and the knowledge, they boast so much of, is no more than a Register of their Names and Marks of Distinction only.

Mary Astell, The character of a virtuoso, 1696

There are many other such comments, very various, some attempting to be witty, others indignant or contemptuous, and some quite astute – the Royal Society did have more than its share of dabblers and dilettantes, and was far from being simply ‘open to talents’ – but for the most parts the criticisms haven’t dated well. You won’t see The Virtuoso in your local playhouse in the near future. Wide-ranging curiosity, mixed with a big dose of scepticism and critical analysis of what the contemporary knowledge provides, has proved itself many times over in the development of scientific theory and an ever-expanding world view, taking us very far from the supposedly ‘better arts and studies’ the seventeenth century pundits thought we should be occupied by, but also making us realize that the science that has flowed from curiosity has mightily informed those ‘better arts and studies’, which can be perhaps best summarized by the four Kantian questions, Who are we? What do we know? What should we do? and What can we hope for?

Iraq, ten years on

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I protested against the Iraq war ten years ago, but as always with my sceptical tendencies and my need to have a worked-out, informed position, I had qualms about simply joining the anti-war crowd. Getting rid of Saddam would surely be a good thing, but that wasn’t the motive of the US administration. They were talking about WMD and trying to make a connection – quite ludicrously – between Iraq and September 11. And they were clearly bullying the UN reps who were reporting no hint of WMD, and the UN Security Council nations who opposed war. What’s more, the US push had little to do with humanitarianism, and much to do with the restoration of national pride after a fall, an absolutely appalling reason for a militarily mighty nation to declare war on a much smaller one. The outcome was a foregone conclusion and the cost to the Iraqi people would surely be enormous.

But that was my dilemma. Saddam’s dictatorship was obviously hurting the Iraqi people, though some more than others (and I didn’t really know too much about the ethnic, regional, economic and religious differences within the country and how they aligned with Saddam). Could an intervention manage to topple Saddam as bloodlessly as possible, and replace him with something more generally liberating for the Iraqi people? I thought not, even with the most meticulous international planning. And of course, there’s no such thing as meticulous international planning, and I hold little hope that there ever will be.

So, though, I believe in the, probably hopelessly idealistic, humanistic notion of humanitarian intervention to rid any nation or region of oppressive government, and though I have little respect for the notion of the inviolability of national sovereignty, being humanistically anti-nationalist, I recognised pretty clearly that the planned invasion of Iraq would do more harm than good. Of course I didn’t recognise at the time just how much harm it would do.

So just how much harm has it done? Just last week, in my adult English class, I talked to my students, apropos of the coming Australian election, about the politics of their own countries. One of those students was from Iraq. Her words were – ‘before, Saddam in power, bad person, but country not so bad. Now, after war, everything bad. No safe, all fighting, economy, all bad. All destroyed. Terrible.’

It was an assessment that confirmed my suspicions, but of course somewhat lacking in detail, and for all I know quite incorrect. So let’s have a bit more of a look-see. I’ll base much of what I write here on the three-hour BBC documentary aired recently.

That documentary starts with Bush’s simple-minded post-September 11 us-and-them pronouncement, ‘you’re either with us or with the terrorists’, and then takes us to communications between the US and Iraqi governments. The US was demanding a complete falling-in-line with their position, it appears. They were asking, ‘are you going to fully co-operate with us against al-Qa’ida?’ Saddam’s response, according to an Iraqi intelligence agent, was ‘America isn’t the only country to suffer terrorism. The sanctions on Iraq are also terrorism.’ He also said that these sanctions had killed far more people in Iraq than died in the US on September 11. He may well have been right, but he conveniently omitted his own role in bringing those sanctions about, and I’ve no doubt that he would’ve manipulated the sanctions and their impact for his own propaganda purposes.

The point is that his response to the US administration wasn’t grovelling enough, and the Bush team used this as an excuse to target him. Ten years later, some 170,000 Iraqis are dead (the figures are of course notoriously rubbery) and their families devastated, Baghdad remains a hell-hole, and the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, has assumed quasi-dictatorial powers and has been acting against the Sunni minority, within his own government and within the country, in order to suppress sectarian violence. This hasn’t been hugely successful, and I think it’s fair to say that the Iraq of today is neither peaceful nor particularly democratic, though earlier this year Maliki’s opponents managed to get a law passed banning him from seeking a third term in office. Maliki has been PM since 2006, having been re-elected in 2010.

So what was it all for? The war brought al-Qa’ida into Iraq, where it hadn’t been before. It unleashed terrible sectarian forces within the country, as well as creating huge anti-US and anti-western resentment. You could say it has led to an uncertain Iraqi future, but that would be unfair, since that was also the situation under Saddam. The war would have cost the US a fortune, though I’m sure that many Americans ripped their own fortunes out of the Iraqi economy during that time. About 4,500 US soldiers were killed during the invasion and occupation, and none of their objectives have been met. The world is not safer because of it, quite obviously, and Iraqis are certainly not safer for it. The main lesson to be learned from it is a lesson that never does get learned – don’t intervene in a nation’s affairs (or a region’s affairs) unless you’re sure that the outcome won’t be worse than the situation that caused you to intervene.

As I wrote that last sentence I realized that this is something you can never know for sure, and could therefore be used as an excuse for never intervening anywhere, but generally you can have a good idea, and you can plan for an outcome. In fact, it’s highly irresponsible not to, especially when human lives are at stake. The Bush administration seems to have had very little interest in the outcome of its intervention. Was it interested in establishing a democracy in Iraq? Seriously? Could it possibly be so utterly devoid of realism? It seems to me obvious that it had never given the outcome that much thought. The intervention in Iraq was, as I’ve said, about restoring US prestige after September 11. Invading Afghanistan and ousting the Taliban (or half-ousting them) wasn’t enough of a muscle-flexer, something had to be done on a bigger stage. The Iraqi people, if they were ever considered at all, were treated as if they would be just like Americans. They’d all hate living under a dictatorship, they’d all embrace democracy whenever they got the chance – maybe they’d even become a new Christian outpost in the Middle East. As for the Sunni-Shia problem, the Kurdish problem and all the other sectarian issues, the lack of secular political institutions, the absence of any real history of democracy and so forth, all of these were barely considered.

It was irresponsibility on a massive scale, but the question is – was it criminal? Listening to Tony Blair talking in the documentary about – and this is a direct quote – having ‘taken the view that we needed to remake the Middle East’, as if it was a piece of plasticine, shows breathtaking naivete, hubris and insensitivity (think of who the ‘we’ is here), but on the face of it, it hardly sounds criminal. After all, Blair is a ‘good guy’, unlike the bad guys of al-Qa’ida. He’s not out to kill as many infidels as possible so as to be a hero to his people. He genuinely wanted to help the Iraqi people, I’m sure, but in doing so he chose to minimise their nature, or to recast them, essentially, as western liberal democrats. I’m sure that he would argue that he wasn’t under-estimating the task, but the fact is, that’s exactly what he was doing. Underestimating the task and the cost to the – completely unconsulted – inhabitants of the region.

Heads of state, especially of powerful states, have an enormous responsibility, which carries with it extra accountability. History is an account of heads of state, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Adolph Hitler, using their power to conquer or reshape massive, and massively populated regions of the world, with little regard for the local inhabitants. In earlier times, this was just the way of the world – if you and your family were in the way of the Viking or Mongol or Nazi invaders, bad luck. But times have changed, and we now have terms like genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, to consider, and we have – admittedly fledgling – institutions such as the International Criminal Court, to render justice to those ‘inconvenienced’ by the mayhem involved in the remaking or reshaping of particular regions of the globe.

Iraq has been pretty well wrecked by the needless intervention of western powers in the last ten years. I would say that 200,000 avoidable deaths would be a conservative estimate, and that’s just the pointy end of the mess. Possibly as many as 2 million have been displaced. Nobody has been held accountable and western leaders are still telling bare-faced lies about the impact of the invasion. Just last month the death toll from fighting in Iraq was 1,057 – the biggest monthly death toll in 5 years. The descent into civil war looks inevitable.

The most powerful countries don’t want a bar of the ICC, they prefer to have a free hand for their reshaping and remaking, but if the behaviour of the decision-makers who created this bloody debacle isn’t criminal, I can only scratch my head and wonder what the word ‘criminal’ actually means.

Written by stewart henderson

August 17, 2013 at 11:41 am

some thoughts on the Edward Snowden affair

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Like many people, my imagination has been exercised by the Edward Snowden case, though I haven’t followed ii particularly closely. When I do think of it, it’s in terms of what the USA’s National Security Agency has been up to. As a humanist, I’m obviously not so concerned about the security of particular nations as I am about the human consequences of surveillance, spying, secretiveness and the like. So it was with some interest that I read in yesterday’s Adelaide Advertiser a letter to the editor which argued that Snowden had not committed a “real crime”. I thought the argument, prima facie, a good one. Snowden released secret data collected by the NSA about individuals – or released data to the effect that the NSA was spying on individuals, I’m not sure of the details – but not before making sure he was in a foreign country, out of the reach of the US government. Since then, there has been much shrieking about treason, not only from US officials, but from US allies. This is as you would expect. Imagine, though, a North Korean citizen releasing data to the effect that North Korea’s National Security Agency was collecting data, not only on North Korean citizens, but on citizens of many other nations. But this North Korean citizen waited until she was out of the country (let’s say in the USA) before releasing the data. North Korea’s government shrieks treason and demands that the individual is returned to North Korea to face the consequences of her actions. I would be very surprised if the US government acceded to such a request. I imagine that the western newspapers would place much more emphasis on the information leaked by this ‘traitor’ than on her behaviour, and that she would be treated more as a hero than a villain. And we can look at many other scenarios of this kind, with many different responses, depending on national allegiances. It follows that this kind of behaviour is not a ‘real crime’ in the way that murder, rape, theft, assault and many other crimes obviously are.

I can imagine counter-arguments. For example, that this just takes a libertarian line, saying that ‘real crimes’ are only those against individual liberty, while ignoring what we owe to our nation, the abuse of which is like an abuse to ourselves, and has the potential to make each of us more insecure. My response to that would be that, while I do find nationalism a rather shallow allegiance, that doesn’t make me a libertarian, as I believe very strongly in the ‘social glue’ that enriches our humanity and is in fact essential to it. So the behaviour would have to be measured in a more complex way, against the background of how it affects the non-national, human social glue as opposed to how it affects nationalistic concerns, which themselves have their shifting impacts, pro and con, on the human social glue.

Taking that argument, and considering what seems to have been leaked – but I admit I haven’t looked at the detail of that – the criminality of Snowden’s actions seems at the very least questionable. And besides, I would take the USA’s complaints more seriously if they made a more serious attempt to subscribe to international law and international criminal jurisdiction, which of course successive US governments treat with scarcely veiled contempt.

Written by stewart henderson

July 13, 2013 at 8:34 am

meanderings – weight loss, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a befuddled reverend gentleman, and a plethora of choices

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our reverend gentleman in a less befuddled moment

our reverend gentleman in a less befuddled moment

Listening to various podcasts and interviews and debates and documentaries, absorbing, absorbing, as well as reading texts about complex ideas which don’t easily mesh with each other, which spin me off in different directions and which of course I only discuss with my undemanding self, all this befuddles my brain a bit, making it hard to know what to start writing about, I’ve forced myself to sit down here, as I must do on a daily basis, and see if I can pin down an idea or two.

Montaigne-like I always feel its safest to start with myself and last night I caught the last few minutes of another Michael Mosley documentary on diet, lifestyle and health, in which he ended up being sceptical of the effort required to give yourself the best shot at living to 200, which I felt was fair enough, but I was alerted to my situation weight-wise by the observation that, as you lose weight, your metabolism slows down, which is one of the main reasons it’s so hard to keep the weight off, and a good example of that is that yesterday was my birthday so I indulged myself a little, culinarily speaking, but not really a lot, but I paid for it with my weight going up by one whole kilogram on the day before, and experience tells me that it’ll take about three days of food deprivation to get that kilo off again, so is there a way to get the metabolism to speed up, if in fact that’s the problem? We’re in the depths of winter here, though winters here are mild, but I still use it as an excuse not to go out in the cold for exercise, and poverty has prevented me from buying an exercise bike and getting my metabolism up through the HIT program, which would surely be my best option. Excuses excuses in short.

I’ve just started reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, having read The Caged Virgin a few years back, and I’m still pissed off by the silly remark about her by Reza Aslan, a supposedly liberal Moslem. The use of a pared-down, low-key style when dealing with horrors is always effective. And even when not dealing with horrors. Also, the courage of this woman – even with the in-your-Moslem-face title of the book – is inspiring. She’s a proud catch-me-if-you-can infidel, whose affront to a particular religion is a challenge to our liberal secular values, a challenge we surely must meet. Also, she’s a human being who sees clearly the damage to human values, and particularly the value of the female species, wrought by many religious and cultural practices.

Interestingly I just happened to watch a debate video yesterday, filmed in 2007 between Christopher Hitchens and one Al Sharpton, a reverend gentleman of some note in the US, apparently. Hitchens was quite genial, for Hitchens, and Sharpton seemed far from sharp, so it was all a bit ho-hum. But I was delighted to find that Hirsi Ali was in the audience, and she asked the last question of the video, addressing it to Sharpton. It was a good question too, just what I would’ve asked him. Throughout the debate, Sharpton complained that Hitchens was avoiding the key point of the debate, whether ‘God is great’ or not, as per Hitchens’ book. But Sharpton was nowhere consistent, claiming in his first speaking opportunity (after Hitchens had kicked off the debate) to be annoyed that Hitchens was focusing on the putative criminal behaviour of the Christian god, and the questionable morality of the gospels, etc, but wasn’t focusing on the existence of this god, and then suddenly switching from the ontological issue to the ethical issue, by claiming that because people used the god in this or that way, or described or interpreted him thus and so, that made no difference to the god himself – as if the Bible wasn’t a written history of that god, and the proper way for that god to be known according to most theologians. In fact Sharpton’s various harpings on this issue amounted to a complete rejection of the Bible, it seemed to me, in favour of a personal relationship with this god in which believers can make of him (or her) what they will. An extraordinarily flexible theology which would seem to render a common morality, derived somehow from this being, completely impossible.

Of course Sharpton tried to make other points, including a variant of the watch/watchmaker shibboleth, all of them equally specious. The only thing going for him was that he seemed a genuinely likeable, kindly gentleman. And to be fair, Hitchens makes some specious arguments too, not about gods but about Iraq.

But to return to Hirsi Ali, her question was multi-faceted, concerning, inter alia, Sharpton’s god’s existence, and how she/he/it came into being, but the last facet was ‘Isn’t it odd that you carry a Christian title and that you refuse, even for once tonight, to defend the church, and the content of the Bible?’  My admiration for her and devotion to her shone in that moment, and of course Sharpton responded by presenting again this relativistic notion of an ahistorical, unparticularised god who is ‘the same’, but of course quite different, whether you’re a Christian, a Moslem or a follower of no organised religion. This conception, which conveniently leaves out the central figure of Jesus, seems a complete denial of the particularity of Christianity, and simply highlights the questioning of Sharpton’s Christian title. However, I really do believe that the poor befuddled gentleman just didn’t get it.

Speaking of befuddlement, while absorbing and forgetting all these ideas and positions and facts I’m reading or hearing about, I get torn about what I should focus and write on – for example if there’s anything to this system 1 and system 2 thinking and the idea that religious thinking is ‘more natural’ than scientific thinking (words must be chosen carefully here), or if it’s true that there’s an asymmetry between liberals and conservatives in their cognitive biases and motivated reasoning, or should I launch into a critique of the marketing scam that is ‘organic’ food, or should I try to elaborate in my own words the reason why the Copernican theory wasn’t considered heretical until Galileo came along quite a bit later? Or should I just give up and watch the Tour de France to its seemingly inevitable conclusion? Help me, oh goddess.

Written by stewart henderson

July 9, 2013 at 10:50 pm

on the natural conservativism of comedy

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Watching an American coming of age movie, a ‘comedy-drama’ (you know the type, with a preachy thread holding it together), superior to the average in some ways but still riddled with clichés: the teenage girl complains to her mum about somehow getting an unwarranted reputation as a slut. The mother says to her daughter, ‘oh yeah, I used to get that all the time.’

‘Yeah but they didn’t call you a slut, did they?’

‘Well yes, they did actually. But that’s cause I was a slut. I slept around all the time. You know, I had a lot of self esteem issues back then…’

Hohoho, and so modern. Well not really. She might’ve said, ‘I slept around all the time. You know I was very self-confident and exploratory back then, and I was popular and curious about other people, and I really loved sex..’

Maybe not so funny but with a bit of tweaking… And to be fair, some of the more recent comedies are inching in this direction.

Written by stewart henderson

June 26, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Posted in morality, sex

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discipline and punish

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There’s a tendency in certain countries to treat a juvenile as an adult when she or he commits a crime considered ‘heinous’, as if the nature of the act somehow constitutes evidence of maturity, though we know that this is not necessarily so. A child can easily kill another child, or an adult, or adults, if the requisite weaponry is to hand. We know that a sixteen-year-old isn’t sufficiently mentally developed to be treated as an adult – otherwise she’d be permitted to vote, to drive a car (without P plates), to drink alcohol, to watch R rated films, to travel overseas without parental permission and so on. Yet when such a person commits a crime that seems to us particularly unpalatable, with significant victim impact, we appear to let that impact affect our judgment as to the responsibility of the perpetrator. This, I think, is a serious problem.

It’s particularly a problem in overly punitive states, such as the USA, with its frightening prison statistics, and its vast swathes of the population living in a kind of anarchic, dysfunctional, hopeless poverty. Some of these people experience almost their first taste of discipline in a courtroom, where they find themselves the playthings of a system impossible to comprehend, speaking an opaque language, operating with such an indifferent forcefulness as to render its subjects inert and fatalistic.

I don’t have a solution to the problem, I simply observe and feel the unfairness deep under the skin, but as I’ve said before in other contexts, don’t get angry, get educated, and that means informing yourself, where possible, of the causes of this perversion of what most reasonable people would see as the proper treatment of juveniles as individuals with diminished responsibility.

First, there are claims of a rise in juvenile offences in the USA from the nineties, but this is not substantiated, and even if it was true, incarceration would seem more an evasion of the problem than a solution. Second, there is a general rise, again in the USA, in punitive approaches to criminal behaviour, moving away from long-term, more humane trends which first emerged back in the seventeenth century and which were bolstered by the eighteenth century Enlightenment. We can see this in the restoration of capital punishment but also in increased length of sentences. The USA is the only country on the planet that permits life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders.

But this, of course, is exactly the question I’m asking. Why has the US criminal justice system turned its back on humane approaches to crime and punishment? Is it merely reacting to public pressure, and if so, why is there this public pressure? Is it a response to real increases in crime, or to a mere perception of such an increase? My limited research tells me that there is no great surge in the US crime stats, but those in favour of tough sentencing and treating juveniles as adults might well argue that it’s because of the tough sentencing that crime stats are being kept low. So rather than wading into the statistical morass engendered by such arguments, I’d prefer to look at a more obvious and clear-cut connection – that dysfunction and deprivation are profoundly associated with criminal activity as well as drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and the like.

I’m now going to make a seemingly bizarre leap from crime and drug-taking in dysfunctional and deprived areas of the USA to the choices made by laboratory rats. In The lab rat chronicles, Kelly Lambert describes experiments done with lab rats some decades ago, experiments that should have garnered far more attention than they did. Individually caged rats will increase their consumption of a drug when they can self-administer it by pressing a lever, and they’ll show clear signs of withdrawal when the drug is taken off the menu. In other experiments, rats were given the choice of water, sugar water and water laced with morphine or cocaine. They drank more of the drug-laced water than of the other choices. When injected with a drug in a particular environment, and with a saline solution in another environment, they consistently chose to be in the ‘drug’ environment, when subsequently asked to choose.

These are fascinating experiments suggesting that rats, like us, are drawn very much to drug-induced states. Right? Well, actually it’s more complicated than that, and these are not the experiments Lambert wants to draw our attention to.

The experiments I’m referring to were carried out by Bruce Alexander and colleagues in the early eighties. Alexander was interested in exploring the difference between the responses of lab rats, who generally lived in deprived, unstimulating and most likely stressful conditions, much like the inmates of a prison, and their wild and free relatives. So he created a rich, colourful and varied rat environment with lots of opportunities for the rats to entertain themselves, and each other, because they inhabited the much expanded space (some 200 times that of a standard rat cage) in groups of sixteen or more. When the drug experiments were repeated with these more socially active and choice-enriched rats, the results were very different. These rats were considerably less interested in the drugs on offer. As Lambert points out, it’s noticeable that rates of  addiction to drugs in prison are far higher than outside, in spite of all the obvious difficulties in obtaining them.

The fact that these important experimental results have been largely ignored in favour of exploring, in rats and in humans, the neural processes implicated in drug addiction, perhaps provides a clue to the imprisonment problem in the USA. Finding the neural pathways for drug addiction, and finding ways to block those pathways, assuming that it would ever turn out to be a simple process, would make the problem ‘go away’. No drug addiction, or no drug effect which would encourage the user to keep returning to the drug, means no problem, right?  You just ‘innoculate’ the drug user with the ‘drug blocker’ and she’s no longer an addict, and you go and collect your Nobel. It’s a bit like incarcerating everyone who commits a major crime – you make them ‘go away’. Far easier than trying to transform them by creating a whole new environment for them, full of stimulating activities, community supports, and roles and functions to tap into.

So when you look at the incarceration rates in different parts of the USA, and among different sub-groups, note how they correspond to regions and populations of deprivation and dislocation and systemic poverty. It’s not rocket science, but the real solutions are costly, and they require the kind of collective action that the USA, of all nations, is least capable of. Meanwhile, the USA is the only nation on the planet where, having committed a major crime as a juvenile, you can be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. That’ll learn em.

Written by stewart henderson

June 8, 2013 at 10:56 pm

some thoughts on hypnotism

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hmm, are those waves or particles, or both, or neither?

hmm, are those waves or particles, or both, or neither?

Today I want to write about a subject I know bugger all about but which has always fascinated me – hypnotism. The first encounter with it that made an impression on me was as a schoolkid coming home for lunch, as we did every day – our parents were both at work – and catching some of the midday variety show, which regularly featured a bearded and mildly exotic hypnotist who, with nothing more, apparently, than snappings of fingers, intense gazes and a voice of calm command, got ordinary people to crawl on all fours and bark like dogs, or some other form of mild humiliation, to the incredibly complacent amusement of the studio audience – or so it seemed to me.

This was all very flummoxing to my nascent scepticality. Could this really be real? If so, the consequences, it seemed to me, were enormous for a person’s autonomy, or sense of self-ownership. More important, could this ever be done to me? My impulse would be to fight such an outrageous invasion of, indeed takeover of, what I held to be more dear to me than anything else – my independence of thought and action.

So I drew two conclusions from these observations. First, that it couldn’t be real – that there must be at least some fakery involved. Second, that if it was real, I, if not the entire human population, needed to be protected from such outrages, by law. If we could be made to bark like dogs, why couldn’t we be made, by an evil genius, to rip out each others’ throats, to murder our loved ones, to fly planes into buildings or to press nuclear buttons? In fact, if this power to control minds was real, no human law could prevent it from being abused. It followed, according to the Law of Wishful Thinking, that this power couldn’t be real.

But as life went on, the urgency of this issue receded, though the questions raised were never resolved. A lot of nasty things happened, people ripped each other apart, either physically or psychologically, and people murdered those they loved, and flew planes into buildings and declared wars that slaughtered thousands, but the motives seemed all too clear and basic and perennially human. No evil geniuses needed to be posited.  Manipulation might be suspected at times, but of the common and garden type. Hypnosis appeared surplus to requirements, so much that I never really considered it.

The old questions resurfaced on listening to Brian Dunning, of, presenting a podcast on hypnosis, which provided some interesting historical background, for example that the term ‘hypnosis’ was coined by an English surgeon, James Braid, in the 1840s. Braid became obsessed with the practice after seeing a stage performance, and worked on utilising it for medical purposes. He even wrote a book about hypnotism which, according to Dunning, still stands up well today.

Dunning also addresses an issue that has always vexed me – that of susceptibility to hypnosis. In the 50s, Stanford University developed a rough measure of susceptibility which they named the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales. Here’s Dunning’s description:

It’s a series of twelve short tests to gauge just how hypnotized you really are, scored on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 12 (completely). They are responses to simple suggestions like immobilization, simple hallucinations, and amnesia. Most people score somewhere in the middle, and nearly everyone passes at least one of the tests. There’s even a script you can follow to hypnotize anyone and put them through the scales, with a little bit of practice.

Not only do people score very differently, there’s been little progress made in predicting what types of people are most susceptible. Subjects’ suppositions about their own susceptibility don’t correlate at all with test scores. Supposed predictors like intelligence, creativity, desire to become hypnotized, and imaginativeness also have no correlation. Most likely, you yourself are a decent candidate who will score near the middle of the scale, regardless of whether you think you will or not.

These findings are not reassuring. Maybe it’s a male thing (and one of the reasons males are less willing to visit the doctor), but I’ve always wanted to be, and so felt myself to be, ‘in control’ of my physical and mental health. For example, I didn’t need a doctor to tell me I was creeping up in weight towards obesity, with all the attendant health issues. I realised it myself, took control, reduced my general food intake, introduced an exercise regime, and brought my weight back to normal. Similarly, with issues of getting older, such as the possibility of dementia, I reckon that keeping mentally active, learning new things, firing up new pathways, is the self-help solution, and with hypnotism, the defence is a strong mind and a profound unwillingness to be hoodwinked by any evil geniuses out there. But I’m not silly, and I’ve always known that I’m at least partially kidding myself, and that I can’t fully bullet-proof myself against cancer, dementia, or even mind control. So maybe I should subject myself to the above-mentioned susceptibility scales, and face the facts.

For the susceptible ones, there are certainly medical benefits in the application of hypnosis, in relieving stress, in pain management, and in preparing patients for, and managing them through, surgery. Attempts have made to use hypnotherapy, and to analyse its success, in weight loss programs and in treating addictive behaviour, with mixed results.

But what of that worst-case scenario, where the susceptible are manipulated into performing dastardly deeds? Dunning’s conclusions on this seemed reassuring. The susceptible clients certainly reported losing their memory of actions performed under hypnosis, and they certainly did perform those actions, or ‘see’ things they were commanded to see, but, according to Dunning ‘only so long as they were consciously willing to go along.’ He ends with a recommendation to try hypnotism, saying ‘you can’t lose control’ and that ‘you might just have a really wild ride’, two statements that might seem to contradict each other.

But these reassurances were all blown away by Derren Brown’s program on hypnotism, one of a series he presented on how the human mind can be made to believe things and do things that aren’t always in its best interest. Brown is a thorough-going sceptic and an atheist, and so on the side of the angels. I was primed for a dose of debunking, but, frankly, was left with far more questions than answers. I have to rely on my memory here, but the program began with some references to Sirhan Sirhan, the killer of Robert Kennedy in the sixties. Sirhan’s lack of remorse over the years has told against him at parole board hearings and the like, but since he bizarrely claims to have no recollection of the act, his lack of remorse would in that sense be consistent. Without going into too much detail about the assassination (conspiracy theories abound), Brown plants in our minds the germ of an idea that this could’ve been a mind-control event. The rest of the program involves an elaborate set-up in which Brown hypnotises a susceptible subject into ‘killing’ Stephen Fry, with a gun, while Fry is performing onstage, and the hypnotised subject is in the audience. Fry, who’s in on the act, plays dead, and the audience – well, here’s where my memory fails me. I seem to remember shock and confusion, but I don’t recall any heroes grappling with the gunman, or reacting as the gunman stood up and took aim at Fry. Maybe that’s just the behaviour of well-primed security guards. After all, shooting someone when they’re onstage, though theatrical, is hardly a real-life scenario. In fact I don’t recall it ever having happened.

More importantly – in fact far more importantly – the scenario, if we’re to believe it, completely disproves Dunning’s claim that you can’t be persuaded to do something entirely uncharacteristic when under hypnosis. The young man who ‘shoots’ Fry seems to be a pleasant, gentle soul. In an after-event interview with Brown, at which Fry is also present, he has no recollection of firing the gun, though he does remember attending the show (if my memory serves me correctly).

I was really shaken by all this. I tried to wriggle out of the conclusions. Obviously the shooter was using a toy gun – or maybe a real gun with blank bullets. Could it be that he wouldn’t have gone through with it had it been a real gun? That didn’t make sense, really – the gun was in its own case, and looked real enough to me, inexpert though I am (I truly loathe guns). It was no water-pistol or cap-gun. But maybe the whole set-up was a sham? In this and in other Brown shows I found it incredible that subjects could be so easily put into a hypnotised state. In fact ‘ludicrous’ is the word that springs to mind. There’s a part of me – quite a big part in fact – that just wants to dismiss the whole thing as arrant bullshit, a kind of sick joke. How can the human brain, the most complex 1300g entity on the planet, be so easily hijacked?

Well, apparently it can. One has to accept the evidence, however reluctantly. And of course it’s not accurate to say that the entire brain is hijacked. Or rather, just as you don’t have to have complete control of every aspect of a plane in order to hijack it, you just have to control the pilot, so hypnotism must involve control of some kind of consciousness-controller in the brain. Something like what we describe as ‘the self’, no less. A big problem, especially when some psychologists, neurologists and philosophers deny the very existence of the self.

But I’ll leave an exploration of how hypnotism works from a neurophysiological perspective for another post. I suspect, though, that not much progress has been made in that area. Meanwhile, I’m left with a much greater concern about hypnotism than ever before. As if there wasn’t enough to worry about!

Written by stewart henderson

April 20, 2013 at 9:32 am

how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part 9, concluding remarks

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Now I want to make some final remarks about the debate process and the way it can be manipulated, and some general remarks about the growth of atheism.

I’ve taken some time to respond to Dr Craig’s arguments, and I could’ve taken longer, but I didn’t consider all of them worthy of an elaborate response. In any case I’ve taken a lot longer than twenty minutes for my overall response, and that’s as it should be. To make a claim is generally easier and less time-consuming than to refute a claim, and it has always been thus, and Dr Craig knows that very well. This is probably why Dr Craig insists on setting the agenda and why he always claims that, if every one of his points isn’t refuted in 20 minutes, he wins.  This is essentially a modified version of the infamous ‘Gish gallop’, in which the opponent has little hope of addressing all the erroneous elements embedded in every point in the allotted time, so he or she (but actually I don’t recall a female ever debating Dr Craig) has no choice but to select two or three points to focus on. This allows Dr Craig to claim a very dubious ‘victory’ for the points that aren’t addressed. Hopefully in pointing this out, I’ve helped you to see the limited relevance of the time-constrained debate format in answering these big questions.

Now, I want to focus finally on the growth of the non-religious trend in the west. I recall hearing Dr Craig in an interview stating that only 2% of the US population was atheist. He probably got this figure from the 2009 ARIS report, the American Religious Identification Survey, which did indeed find that some 1.6% of surveyed American adults self-identified as atheist or agnostic. However the same report found that some 15% of Americans identified as having no religion. Make of that what you will. That same report also found that, in 2008, some 76% of Americans identified as Christians, compared with 86% in 1990. The report concludes that:

‘The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion’.

A more recent 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

The USA, however, is a lot more religious than other western nations. My own country, Australia, is I think more typical in its profile. In Australia’s 2011 census, the non-religious category amounted to 22.3% of the whole, the fastest-growing category by far, and considering that 8.6% of the population chose not to answer the question, and that a substantial proportion of those would be non-religious, it probable that more than a quarter of the population would identify as non-religious. Some 61% of Australians now identify as Christians, compared to around 84% in the early seventies, and it’s been falling more rapidly in recent years. Figures from Great Britain and Canada are much the same, with rapid growth in the non-religious categories in recent years.

Yet in spite of all this evidence, Dr Craig scoffs at the challenges to his theism and dismisses atheists as intellectual lightweights. He even likes to make the claim that atheists have been using the same arguments for the last 300 years and that all their arguments have been quashed. This amuses me, because this is exactly what any number of atheist philosophers have been saying about theists and their arguments. And I have to say, having read a few essay collections on the existence of god, I’ve always thought that atheists had by far the best arguments – but then, I would, wouldn’t I?

The difficulty that Dr Craig and his cronies must face is this. If he has all the best arguments, why are the majority of philosophers – trained analytical thinkers – non-believers, even in his own country? Why is it that non-belief is growing far more rapidly among the most educated than among the least educated? Why is it that millions and millions and millions of people, in Australia, Europe, North America and Japan, are comfortably rejecting Christianity and religion? Is there a virus going around? Have people dumbed down from the glorious days of pre-Enlightenment Christendom? Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to shake Dr Craig out of his smug complacency – not that this would be possible – but I do want to pose that question to you, the audience. What has changed over the past half-century? I’m not saying that I know the answer myself, though I have my speculations on that question, which I won’t share with you today. But let me be clear that there is a change under way.

Dr Craig, as I say has spoken of 300 years of atheism. The writer Jack Miles has written about how galling it must be for atheists that the term has been around for a couple of thousand years, with still only a minority of followers. But Miles has misrepresented the situation. A couple of thousand years ago there were very few people, mostly intellectuals, who scoffed at the religious superstitions of their fellows. Epicurus, Seneca, Lucretius, these were largely isolated individuals, islands in a sea of theism, or at least deism. The term atheist in fact began to be bandied about with the rise of Christianity. The Christians called the Pagans atheists, and the Pagans called the Christians atheists, and in a sense both sides were correct, because each side refused to believe in the only god or gods worth worshipping, according to the other side. Of course to modern observers, neither side was atheist.

Atheism as a ‘movement’ is of far more recent vintage. Isolated individuals cropped up again in the eighteenth century – Jean Meslier, Baron d’Holbach, Hume, Diderot and a few others – but many of the Enlightenment and early nineteenth century critics of Christianity, such as Voltaire, Paine, and the American founding fathers, were deists. Even in the late 19th century, the great voices of atheism, such as Robert Ingersoll, were largely voices in the wilderness, though the intellectual claims of atheism were forwarded by many philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill who simply ignored the ethical claims of religion completely, as have most moral philosophers since their time.

But it’s really only in the twentieth century, and the later half of it, that atheism has become common-place. This is a trend that I cannot see being reversed, in a world where knowledge – of our universe, of our psychology, and of our human origins – expands on a daily basis. Religious belief is becoming out-moded and, to many, positively embarrassing in its simplistic claims about good and evil, sin and redemption, and gods as lords over us, to be worshipped and feared and so forth. Of course we live in a multi-speed polity, as far as the absorption of new ideas is concerned, and we will long continue to have our backward-facing Islamists, our Haredi Jews and our Amish-style Christian sects, but they will not be among the world’s movers and shakers.

So to return to Dr Craig and his crusade against the world’s atheists. None of his arguments withstands much scrutiny but he will never admit this and he will go on repeating them, unbent and unbowed until, if I may quote the bard, ‘second childishness and mere oblivion’ puts a stop to the farce. I mentioned earlier the flat-earthers who filled halls only 150 years ago with their speeches against the round-earth conspiracy. Not one of those flat-earthers ever admitted he was wrong. Every last one of them went to their deaths proclaiming their ‘truths’ with just as much confidence as when they started out. Creationists never change their minds either, or very rarely. They just die. And they’re not replaced, or the replacement rate is unable to match the death rate, and so the species eventually dies out. This has been the fate of the flat-earthers. It will happen to the creationists too, though it’ll take a little longer, and as to those who in future want to take up the cause of Dr Craig or his later incarnations, you’ll no doubt find the going increasingly tough, and the potential audience increasingly indifferent. The real world is becoming just too interesting to keep focusing on rehashed arguments about done and dusted worldviews.

Go in peace, and thanks for listening.

how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part 7, objective moral values and duties

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ceci n'est pas Jesus

ceci n’est pas Jesus

Dr Craig’s sixth claim, that his god is the best explanation for objective moral values, is one I want to dwell on at some length, so please sit back in your electrified chairs and enjoy my reflections if you can. But please note that I dwell on the subject for my own interest’s sake, not because I find Dr Craig’s views require much work to overcome – far from it.

I suppose it’s fair to say that when it comes to moral issues, unlike with matters scientific, we all like to consider ourselves experts, and we’re all a little more committed and vociferous, because – it’s personal. So I’ll begin with some personal stuff. From earliest childhood I’ve always felt very emotional about issues of cruelty and injustice. I was often in tears on witnessing kids in my class being bullied – more often than not by teachers. When I was a little boy I read the Hans Andersen story, ‘the little match girl’, a simple but devastating story about a young girl out in the cold snow, trying to sell matches for her impoverished family, afraid to go home without having sold any. She finally dies, out in the cold, on the last night of the year. This tale of unfairness and cruelty and indifference, had me awash with tears at the time, and literally haunted my childhood. I think it’s fair to say that a sense of empathy was well developed in me from an early age. Needless to say, ethical ideas based on the harm principle, such as those articulated by the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, held great appeal for me, but further than this, active moral programs to protect and support individual human beings, such as those enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights and in the many conventions and protocols that have followed from that declaration, are programs that I hold dear.

The point I’m making here is that the starting point for my own moral values was an emotional one, a visceral one, if you like, and not something derived from any ‘higher consciousness’ or reflectivity or rationality.  And I suspect that’s quite a common experience. We don’t generally choose to cry over or be haunted by an injustice. So where do these deep emotional feelings come from? I have absolutely no reason to associate them with a non-material being who has, as far as I’m aware, never communicated anything to me. Nor was I, during my childhood, convinced that everyone would feel the same way as I did if exposed to the story of the little match girl. Some would, I was sure, but others would be cruelly indifferent, and there would be a whole variety of responses along the spectrum. In short, my observations of life, even from an early age, told me that people valued things and experiences very differently from me, and very differently from each other, to a rather bewildering and unpredictable degree.

So, from the fore-going I hope it won’t come as a surprise to you that I don’t believe in objective moral values, but that I’m far from believing that this entails some kind of moral nihilism or amorality. In Dr Craig’s presentation of this argument, he suggests that those who don’t subscribe to objective moral values, by which he means, values that come from a male supernatural being, don’t see anything ‘really’ wrong with the massacre of schoolchildren. Let me put that in another way. He argues that my own deeply felt disgust, shock, anger and pain, when I hear about, and see, played out on my tv screen, those sorts of crimes, is not really real, because it isn’t connected to a non-material creator-protector god, which is how he defines objective morality. I find this a ridiculous argument, as well as an offensive one.

Firstly, Dr Craig’s version of morality is a sham because it exists nowhere. Dr Craig will not be able to give you a single instance of a command from his favoured deity. The decalogue, the ten commandments, were written by men, and though some of them may seem uncontroversial – don’t lie, steal, don’t kill – even these aren’t absolute. A starving person, in my view, would be justified in taking food belonging to another person, who had an abundance of such food, if the alternate was death. I have no difficulty with that. Some people would, as they have the view that private property is sacrosanct. And I could make similar arguments to justify lying, and even killing, under certain special circumstances. To me, there are no absolutes. Other commandments, such as keeping the sabbath day holy, I don’t take at all seriously, because I don’t believe a supernatural being made the world in seven days, though had I lived several thousand years ago, I might well have believed that. And so my morality would have been different then, just as my morality would be different if I were born, on the same day that I actually was born, but in the city of Basra, to a devout Moslem family. My morality, that I hold so dear, and which gives my life so much meaning, is the result of my particular upbringing, my peculiar variety of experiences and influences, the culture that I was born into, my genetic inheritance, and I’m sure there are other factors that I’ve left out. One thing I’m happy to leave out, though, is the command of a deity. I’ve never experienced such a command, and I have no reason to believe anyone else has either.

Now, there are atheists I know who argue for an objective morality, but obviously not grounded in a deity. Personally I find such rational arguments a bit weird, and I’ll say no more about them here, except to make the obvious point that being an atheist doesn’t commit you to any specific moral position, as it’s simply an absence of belief in a deity. That’s all.

What I do want to focus on is the claim that morality without a deity is merely subjective and not really real. That’s to say, without a deity we can do whatever we like and call it morality. Well, that’s not how I feel about morality, and it’s not how morality, and laws relating to morality (and most laws have some sort of moral reasoning behind them) have developed in our increasingly secular society. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is entirely secular, and I think it’s a grand step forward in global human interaction. And it’s more of an effect than a cause, it’s symptomatic of a gradual shift in our attitude to other cultures, in our attitude to race, whether the concept is a valid one or not. In the attitude of men to women, in the attitude of heterosexuals to homosexuals, in our attitude to and respect for children, and in our attitude to and respect for other species on this planet. All of these attitudes have changed drastically in the past 150 years or so. Living in an eternal present as we often do, we can easily overlook how thoroughly transformational these essentially moral developments have been, and they’ve owed nothing whatever to religion, which has generally dragged its heels at the rear. Look, for example, at the Catholic Church.

I’m an avid reader of history, and as such I’ve noted the social changes, particularly in western Europe, that occurred over the past 400 years or so. What has always struck me, in reading about the Thirty Years’ war or the English revolution of the 17th century, or the early slave trade, is how often and regularly God (the Judeo-Christian one) is invoked in the primary documents of those times. God appears on every page, often several times on every page, of every legal document. I’ve described the 17th century, and the centuries before, as a ‘god-besotted age’. And yet the everyday brutality, the callous inhumanity, the cruelty, the viciousness, the inequity, the impoverishment of basic human values of those times, were everywhere on display. If you think you’ve got problems now, transport yourself back to pre-Enlightenment Europe for a wake-up call. Arbitrary rulers, upstart priests, popular revolutionaries, all invoked the divine in order to invest themselves with authority, as still happens today. Think of the divine right of kings, and papal infallibility, and the dear leader and great leaders of North Korea, who promoted themselves as divine. In the past, monarchs regularly passed laws in the name of the god whom they represented. Nowadays, elected politicians pass laws in the name of the people who elected them. It seems to have been a great improvement.

Our morality and our laws are grounded, it seems to me, in our common, but changing, evolving human nature. This is not mere subjectivity. In fact it’s all we have to go on. We don’t make up our own morality as individuals because we’re essentially social beings who rely on each other for our survival and our thriving. We’re empathic because we see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. And we’ve evolved that empathic capacity to embrace species other than our own, which I think is a great step forward.

The theist has no ground for objective moral values because no single moral value, claiming to be objective, has ever been shown to come from a deity. I have no doubt that they’ve all come from human beings.

Written by stewart henderson

March 22, 2013 at 9:55 am