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final remarks preliminary to a voyage, part 1

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Where in the world? At bustling Adelaide airport, surrounded by the usual well-wishers

Where in the world? At bustling Adelaide airport, surrounded by the usual well-wishers

I’ve been incommunicado for the last longest 24 hours of my life due to marathon (but OK common as muck for some) double hemispheral flights – north-south, east-west – and traveller net-availability issues, wholly predictable but probably eminently solvable if I had that ideal 13-y-o techwiz TC at my side, and I don’t mean to thus disparage my current uncommonly wise TC. But more of that enervation in due course, let me pick up the soi-disant story from my arrival at good old Adelaide airport.

Adelaide airport has been a rare destination and even rarer point of departure for me over the years. I’ve already described my first adult plane trip here, but didn’t focus much on the airport itself, and why would I as I’m fast learning that airports are generically unmemorable. No major disquisition on airport culture here, as if I could, just some vagrant impressions.
Just a couple of weeks ago my college colleagues were jokingly comparing Adelaide to the various city airports that they, as bona fide middle-class westerners of varied ethnic provenance, have processed through. They agreed that unlike other international airports, good old Adelaide airport is never busy, and they mean never busy busy. This is supposedly a stain on dear old Adelaide, this pretty little ornamental place that’s never choked with tourists or business conventioneers. I regularly feel stabbed to wounded pride for its putative dreariness, especially come festival time when over the past no less than 40 years now I’ve overheard chitchat among Big City visitors in which bright young things are informally instructed in sneering at small-city try-hardism by their smartarse seniors. Yet, take this, I just read somewhere that Adelaide is among the five most liveable cities in the world. Probably fifth. And that’s funny, I’ve no idea who makes these random pseudo-quantative studies but whenever I hear that Adelaide is one of the 10 or 50 or whatever best cities for xx (which I often hear) I always assume that it comes in 9th or 10th or 47th or 49th or something and I don’t know whether that’s just me following the fashion of putting Dear Old Adelaide down or me being quite rational, sort of. E.g., if DOA came 3rd on a list of 10 or 50 or 100 best x’s, you wouldn’t crow about it by saying ‘up yours, we’re in the top 100 cities for women over 75 sporting dreadlocks’, say. We’d surely boast ‘hey bro, toke on that, we’re in the top 5′, or ‘we is numero trio!’ Dang right. I would say that’s a top x rule in psychological statistics, if there is such a field, and dang right there is. If your city is in the upper half of a ‘top x statistical measure’, say 23rd out of 50, you must, for the purposes of most effective preening, divide the denominator [in this case 50] by the largest whole number [in this case 2] which provides a new denominator [in this case 25] that remains larger than the numerator [in ths case 23]. Only we’re not, sensu strictissimo, talking numerators and denominatora here… Am I being too pedantic?

Okay so I’ve run out of words and I’ve not even started on Adelaide airport yet (which would only take a sentence or two anyway). So at least I’ve arrived and I’m posting this from the lobby of the Mercure-Konica hotel, Budapest.

Written by stewart henderson

April 25, 2016 at 4:57 pm

The philosophers want more power

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tamsin shaw

tamsin shaw

Canto: Well I suppose the apparent detection of gravitational waves should be capturing our attention more than anything else right now, but it’s very well described in The Economist, and in many other places, and we’re no astrophysicists, and we did promise to focus a bit more on philosophical issues, so…

Jacinta: But we’re no philosophers. But we’re philosophasters at least, so let’s have a go.

Canto: Well I came across an article on Three Quarks Daily which vaguely gave me the irrits, so with your help I want to explore why.

Jacinta: Right. The essay is called ‘The psychologists take power’, the author is Tamsin Shaw and it was originally published in the New York review of books.

Canto: Yes, and on reading it in full I find it an interesting but confused piece, which seems to take the failings of certain individual psychologists as an example of the failings of psychology as a whole, and even of neurology. Shaw seems to be entering the philosophy versus science debate, on the side of philosophy, but I don’t find her arguments convincing.

Jacinta: The essay seems to divide into two parts, first a general critique of psychology and neurology, which can be summed up by the title of a philosophical essay by Selim Berker, which she quotes approvingly, ‘the normative insignificance of neuroscience’. The second part is an account of how certain professional psychologists, practitioners of the ‘positive psychology’ pioneered by the influential Martin Seligman, colluded with the US government in providing dubious evidence for the psychological effectiveness of torture in eliciting valuable information from ‘enemies of the state’. Shaw clearly wants to link these unethical practices to what she might want to call ‘the normative insignificance of psychology’.

Canto: Yes, and it’s a bit of a dangerous game – you might as well label Heidegger’s allegiance to the Nazi party, or Althusser’s murder of his wife, as examples of ‘the normative insignificance of philosophy’.

Jacinta: Ha, well Althusser was declared insane at the time, no doubt by psychologists, who would be examining Althusser to determine whether he was, while strangling his wife, capable of understanding and following the normative rules of his society. Such determinations are hardly normatively insignificant, even though, no doubt, individual psychologists might make different determinations, due to levels of competence, corruption, ideological considerations and so forth.

Canto: Right, but let’s look more closely at Shaw’s essay, and pick it apart.

Jacinta: Okay, but first let’s make a philosophasters’ confession. Shaw mentions eight or so books or sources at the head of her essay, which form the basis of her discussion, but of those we’ve only read one – Pinker’s eloquent tome, The better angels of our nature. And we don’t intend to bone up on those other texts, though no doubt we’ll refer to our own reading in our responses.

Canto: And we are reasonably familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work and ideas.

Jacinta: So Shaw begins her essay with the overweening ambition of behaviourist extraordinaire B F Skinner, a pretty soft target these days. I have no problems with criticising him, or Freud or any other psychologist whose theories get way out of hand. Shaw’s concerns, though, are specifically about the moral sphere. She feels that a new breed of psychologists, armed with neurological research, are making big claims about moral expertise. Here’s a quote from her essay:

Neuroscience, it is claimed, has revealed that our brains operate with a dual system for moral decision-making.

Canto: I like the ‘it is claimed’ bit. Claimed by who? Someone has put forward that hypothesis I’m sure, along with their reasons, but most neurologists bang on about neurology being a field in its infancy, and most findings are highly contested, it seems to me.

Jacinta: Shaw may be referring to the work of Daniel Kahneman – a psychologist not a neurologist – who distinguished between system 1 thinking (intuitive, less conscious, rough-and ready) and system 2 thinking (reasoned, conscious, more changeable depending on inputs and knowledge). But really there are many dual-process theories going back at least to William James. But Shaw is explicitly referring to the fMRI imaging work of the neurologist Jonathan Cohen, who analysed brain activity when subjects were asked to think about moral hypotheticals.

Canto: Yes and she’s quite straight about describing the two systems apparently highlighted by Cohen’s research and the brain regions associated with them, but becomes scathing in dealing with Joshua Greene, Cohen’s co-researcher, whom she quite deliberately introduces as a mere ‘philosophy graduate student’, whose interpretation of the research she describes thus:

Greene interpreted these results in the light of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology. Since primitive human beings encountered up-close dangers or threats of personal violence, their brains, he speculated, evolved fast and focused responses for dealing with such perils. The impersonal violence that threatens humans in more sophisticated societies does not trigger the same kind of affective response, so it allows for slower, more cognitive processes of moral deliberation that weigh the relevant consequences of actions. Greene inferred from this that the slower mechanisms we see in the brain are a later development and are superior because morality is properly concerned with impersonal values—for example, justice—to which personal harms and goals such as family loyalty should be irrelevant. He has taken this to be a vindication of a specific, consequentialist philosophical theory of morality: utilitarianism.

Jacinta: Okay, so here’s where psychology – especially evolutionary psychology – first comes under attack. It’s often said to present just so stories, which are necessarily highly speculative, as if they are facts. But I would question whether these speculations, or hypotheses, are unverifiable (forget about falsifiability, a term made popular by Karl Popper but which has come under heavy criticism since, both by scientists and philosophers of science, and I suspect Shaw has simply used it as a ‘double whammy’ to vilify Greene), to me they’re important and useful, and in any case are rarely presented as facts, at least not by the best psychologists.

Canto: So how do you verify this hypothesis, that fast, rough-and-ready responses for dealing with immediate dangers are systematically different from slower, more sophisticated responses that deal with the ‘impersonal violence’, the many restraints, justified or not, on our personal freedoms that we deal with on a daily basis?

Jacinta: Well one obvious way is through neurology, a scientific field still in its infancy as you say. Clearly the system 1 responses would be shared by other complex social mammals, whereas system 2 thinking is much more language-dependent and unique to humans – unless cetaceans have developed complex language, which is far from being out of the question. New techniques for mapping and exploring neural pathways are coming up all the time, as well as non-invasive ways of exploring such pathways in our closest mammalian relatives.

Canto: Good point. So to go to the second part of the above quote, Greene is presented (and I wonder about whether Shaw is fairly or accurately presenting him) as finding system 2 thinking as superior because it deals with more abstract and less personal values, whereas I would prefer to think of this system as a further adaptation, to a human existence that has become more socially complex, systematic and language-based. And in this, I’m apparently in line with the thinking of psychologists Shaw takes aim at:

Many of the psychologists who have taken up the dual-process model claim to be dismissive of philosophical theories, generally. They reject Greene’s inferences about utilitarianism and claim to be restricting themselves to what can be proved scientifically. But in fact all of those I discuss here are making claims about which kinds of moral judgments are good or bad by assessing which are adaptive or maladaptive in relation to a norm of social cooperation. They are thereby relying on an implicit philosophical theory of morality, albeit a much less exacting one than utilitarianism.

Jacinta: But I detect a problem here. You’ve talked about adaptation to the fact of growing social complexity, and the need to co-operate within that complexity. Shaw has written of a ‘norm of social co-operation’, by which she means an ethical norm, because she claims that this is the implicit philosophical theory of morality these psychologists rely on. But that’s not true, they’re not claiming that there’s anything moral about social complexity or social co-operation. We just are more complex, and necessarily more co-operative than our ancestors. So it’s kind of silly to say they’re relying on a less exacting moral philosophy than utilitarianism. It’s not about moral philosophy at all.

Canto: And it gets worse. Shaw claims that this phantom moral ethic of social co-operation is greatly inferior to utilitarianism, so let’s look at that normative theory, which in my view is not so much exacting as impossible. Utilitarianism is basically about the maximising of utility. Act in such a way that your actions maximise utility (act utilitarianism), or create rules that maximise utility (rule utilitarianism). So what’s utility? Nothing that can be measured objectively, or agreed upon. We can replace it with happiness, or pleasure, or well-being, or Aristotle’s eudaemonia, however translated, and the problem is still the same. How do you measure, on a large-scale, social level, things so elusive, intangible and personal?

Jacinta: Yes, and look at how laws change over time, laws for example relating to homosexuality, women’s rights, the protection of minorities, and even business practices, taxation and the like; they’re all about our changing, socially evolving sense of how to co-operate in such a way as to produce the best social outcomes. This can’t be easily bedded down in some fixed normative ethic.

Canto: Yes, Shaw seems to imply that some deep philosophical insight is missing from these psychologists which makes them liable to go off the rails, as the second half of her essay implies, but I’m very doubtful about that. But let’s continue with our analysis:

Rather than adhering to the moral view that we should maximize “utility”—or satisfaction of wants—they are adopting the more minimal, Hobbesian view that our first priority should be to avoid conflict. This minimalist moral worldview is, again, simply presupposed; it is not defended through argument and cannot be substantiated simply by an appeal to scientific facts. And its implications are not altogether appealing.

Jacinta: But surely she’s just assuming that ‘they’ – presumably all the psychologists she doesn’t like, or is it all the psychologists who posit a two-tiered system of decision-making? – take the view that avoidance of conflict is the highest priority.

Canto: Well I must say that Jonathan Haidt seems to take that view, and it’s something I find uncomfortable. So I agree with Shaw that Haidt ‘presupposes that the norm of cooperation should take precedence over the values that divide us’, and that this view is dubious. It’s just that I suspect my own view, that there are values more important than co-operation, is also a ‘presupposition’, though I dislike that word. But more of that later perhaps.

Jacinta: Right, so Shaw refers to the sinister implications of a minimalist Hobbesian worldview, supposedly held by these psychologists. What are they?

Canto: We’ll get there eventually – perhaps. Shaw describes the work of the ‘positive psychology’ movement, stemming from Martin Seligman and practised by Haidt among others, including Steven Pinker, whose book The better angels of our nature was apparently influenced by this movement:

In that extremely influential work Pinker argues that our rational, deliberative modes of evaluation should take precedence over powerful, affective intuitions. But by “rationality” he means specifically “the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games,” rather than any higher-order philosophical theory. He allows that empathy has played a part in promoting altruism, that “humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering.” But nevertheless our “ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary.”

And here’s where I see another problem. Pinker is here criticised for not subscribing to any ‘higher-order philosophical theory’, but Shaw doesn’t attempt to outline or give examples of such higher-order theories, though she does refer to empathy – an important factor, but one that doesn’t obviously emerge from philosophy.

Jacinta: Right, and we’ve already referred to utilitarianism and its problems. This reminds me that years ago  I read a sort of primer on ethics, I think it was called Moral Philosophy, in which the author devoted chapters to utilitarianism, Kantianism, rights theory and other ethical approaches. In the final chapter he presented his own preferred approach, a sort of neo-Aristotelianism. I was intrigued that he felt we hadn’t made much progress in philosophical ethics in almost 2,500 years.

Canto: Well, his may be a minority view, but it’s doubtful that our changing laws derive from philosophical work on normative ethics, though this may have had an influence. I do think, with Haidt, that there’s a great deal of post-hoc rationalisation going on, though I’m reluctant – very reluctant actually – to embrace the relativism of values. And this brings me to the nub of the matter, IMHO. To go back to an old favourite of mine, Hume: ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. A fairly notorious pronouncement, but I take the passions here to be something very basic – the fundamental drives and instincts, largely unconscious, that characterise us as humans…

Jacinta: But doesn’t Hume break his own is-ought rule here? He says that our passions rule our reason, which may or may not be true, but does it follow that they ought to?

Canto: Please don’t complicate matters. Hume also wrote this, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view, and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind.

So these true interests of mankind…

Jacinta: Hang on, so there he goes again, gaily bounding over his own is-ought barrier, saying that in order to work out what we ought to do we need – pretty well absolutely – to determine our interests, what in fact makes us human, what we actually are.

Canto: Well, precisely…

Jacinta: Or what we have evolved to become, which might amount to the same thing. So we need to study our evolution, our genes and genetic inheritance, our brain and its inheritance, and adaptive growth, and maybe the physics of our bodies…

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

Canto: So we need neurology, and genetics, and palaeontology, and physics and psychology, all of which contribute to an understanding of what we are. Without them, normative ethics would be empty theorising.

Jacinta: So I suppose you’re going to write a rejoinder to this ‘normative insignificance of neurology’ essay? Something like ‘the insignificance of normative ethics without neurology’?

Canto: Ha, well that would require reading Selim Berker’s essay, which I’m not sure about – so many other things to explore. But I should end this discussion by saying a few words about the second half of Shaw’s article – and I’ll pass over many other points she’s made. This section deals with the collusion of some psychologists, practitioners of the above-mentioned ‘positive psychology’, with the CIA and the US Department of Defence in the commission of torture.

Jacinta: And what exactly is this ‘positive psychology’?

Canto: Well, to explain that would require a large digression. Suffice to say for now that it’s about using psychology to make us more resilient, and in some sense ethically superior, or more benign, humans. Shaw dwells on this at some length, but claims that in spite of much rhetoric, these psychologists can only offer what she calls the bare, Hobbesian ethic of avoidance of strife. However, she herself is unable to point to a more robust, or a deeper, ethic. She presumably believes in one, but she doesn’t enlighten us as to what it might be. And this is very striking because the tale of these psychologists’ collusion with the Bush administration  on torture, and the huge financial gain to them in applying ‘learned helplessness’, a theory of Seligman’s, to the application of torture, is truly shocking.

Jacinta: So it would be a question of what, in their make-up, allowed them to engage in such unethical behaviour, and was it the lack of a deep ethical understanding, beyond ‘bare Hobbesianism’?

Canto: Right, and my answer would be that, although two psychologists took up this lucrative offer to ‘serve the state’, there would have been others who refused, and would any of them, on either side, have made their decision on the basis of some rigorous normative ethic?

Jacinta: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have colluded with that sort of thing for all the terracotta warriors in China, but I’m also sure it wouldn’t have been for deep philosophical reasons. I just have a kind of visceral revulsion for physical violence and bullying as you know, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I’d facilitated the premeditated cruel and unusual punishment of others. I’m not even sure if it’s about empathy, but it’s not a particularly reasoned position.

Canto: Yes, and so the only way to understand why some people are more prone to do unethical things – actions outside of the ever-changing standards of community ethics – might be to look at individual psychology, and neurology, and genetics, which takes us further away from normative ethics than ever.

Jacinta: Yes, and didn’t we read, in Sam Kean’s The tale of the duelling neurosurgeons, about a poor fellow in his mid-fifties who suddenly started engaging in paedophile acts, something he had never showed any signs of before? A brain scan revealed a large tumour pressing on parts of the brain responsible for higher-order decision-making (to put it over-simplistically). When the tumour was removed he returned to ‘normal’, until some time later he regressed to paedophile acts. A further scan showed they didn’t remove all the tumour and it had regrown. After another more successful operation he was cured and never diddled again. But the consequences of his actions for his victims when ‘not himself’ would have required him to be punished, on a consequentialist ethical view, wouldn’t they?

Canto: Very good point. And yet, and yet… can it be true that we’ve barely gone further in our ethics than the Golden Rule, or Aristotle’s mean between extremes?

Jacinta: We’re animals, don’t forget. Okay we’re animals that have managed to detect waves from space that are a tiny fraction of the diameter of a proton, but we’re still not that good at being nice to each other. And the extent to which we’re able to be nice to each other, and follow social norms, that’s a matter of our individual psychology, our neurology, our individual and cultural circumstances, our genes and our epigenetic profile, so much particular stuff that philosophical ethics, with its generalities, can’t easily deal with.

Written by stewart henderson

February 26, 2016 at 8:37 am

Is Malcolm Turnbull a libertarian?

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Jacinta: Okay so here’s a topical topic. I was listening with baited breath – I can do that, I’m a multi-tasker – to Malcolm Turnbull’s post-election speech the other day, and along with the whole nation I heard him extoll three ‘roolly good things’, in his estimation. The holy trinity – freedom, the individual and the market. Did y’all hear that? And I thought, Jeez, the libertarians among us will be doing cartwheels right now. And I further thought ‘hang on a minute Malcolm, turn that bull around’.

Canto: I see, so you prefer slavery, group-think and state control?

Jacinta: Ah very good, but let’s prise ourselves out of the straightjacket of ideology and slip into something more comfortable, like reality. Of course freedom’s a good thing, but of course it has its limits. And of course individuals are great, but as any mathematician will tell you, all individuals are members of a set, that’s actually what makes them individuals, and the market..

Canto: That’s not a very good analogy, I don’t think – that one about individuals.

Jacinta: That wasn’t an analogy.

Canto: Well… maybe, but bringing maths into it isn’t very helpful.

Jacinta: Okay. Okay, let me focus on the individual thing, because that’s probably my biggest gripe – it all flows from a misconception of the individual, IMHO.

Canto: What flows?

Jacinta: The horrors of libertarianism. I’ve been bottling this up for years, now I’m going to let it all seethe out. And it just so happens that ‘All hail freedom, the individual and the mighty market’ is essentially the libertarian mantra. Of course I don’t take Malcolm’s mellifluencies too seriously, but libertarianism really shits me.

Canto: But really – politics? Can’t we talk about water on Mars? Or Homo naledi?

Jacinta: Well, there is world enough, and time…

Canto: Bullshit.

Jacinta: Ok I’ll try to be the soul of wit. Libertarians – and I know they come in all shapes, sizes and political colours – tend to believe in small government, minimal regulation and the invisible, wonderfully shaping and fixing hand of the market. I got my first dose of libertarianism years ago when I read – or tried to read – Anarchy, State and Utopiaby the American philosopher Robert Nozick. I could barely comprehend it, but I could see it was underpinned by a sacrosanct notion of rights, particularly the rights of the individual. It was also, I thought, an overly rational analysis of how individuals might aggregate. Or rather, that’s how I’ve come to think of it since. I had no idea what to think of it at the time.


Canto: So how do you think individuals aggregate?

Jacinta: No no what I think doesn’t matter, it’s more about what history and psychology and sociology tells us. And they tell us about families and extended families and kinship groups and trade affiliations, becoming ever more extended and convoluted as societies grow. And all this without any concept of rights.

Canto: Okay I think I see where you’re coming from. You think the individual shouldn’t be seen as the central human unit, or political unit, you’re wanting to emphasise social connections.

Jacinta: Of course! We didn’t get where we are now, the top predators of the biosphere for better or worse…

Canto: The fat controllers of the planet…

Jacinta: We didn’t get to this situation as individuals, we got here because we’re the most socially-oriented mammals around. Our language, our technology, our superior brainpower, these are all socially constructed. And our systems of government are just ways of organising and trying to get the best out of this dynamic, interactive, co-operative and competitive society.

Canto: So there are legitimately diverse views about the role of government. So what’s wrong with that? Libertarians just happen to lean towards the individualist, unregulated, small-government side.

Jacinta: Well, as I’ve said, I’m not so much interested in opinions as in what actually works to create the most effective society…

Canto: You’re trying to be scientific, but the question of what makes for an effective society will have different answers, not based on science. Some will say an effective society is one that looks after its minorities and its disadvantaged, others will say that diversity and dynamism is key, and this means inevitably that there will be winners and losers. How can there be an objective, scientific definition of an effective society?

Jacinta: Okay, I concede your point that there are a range of legitimate views on this, but I would be guided by what works, and that would reduce the range of legitimacy. Extreme libertarianism – of the ‘there is no society, only individuals’ kind – seems to me to be paradoxically an outcome of the success of certain societies in educating and empowering their members, so that they start to fantasise about themselves as ‘self-made’ and owing nothing to anyone. It’s delusional and would result in scrapping all history has taught us about the communities of language and shared knowledge and values which have shaped us. It’s an ahistorical ideology which has never been instantiated anywhere. Not to mention its arrogant (and ultimately self-defeating) selfishness. Of course the other extreme is also unworkable, that of communism with an equal share of communal goods, which would stifle innovation and diversity and would have to be imposed from above.

wtf? Most people don't give a tinker's toss about the state when they act. But they do think about the consequences for others

wtf? Most people don’t give a tinker’s toss about the state when they act. But they do think about the consequences for others

Canto: Which would be self-contradictory because in communism, there is no ‘above’, presumably absolute equality is just meant to happen naturally…

Jacinta: There’s no perfect or perfectly fair society, just some are fairer than others, and it’s an endless balancing act, it seems to me, between encouraging the freedom to develop ideas and ‘get ahead’, and protecting others from being exploited and done down. So to me it’s a matter of pragmatism and endless adjustment rather than gung-ho ideology. Individuals are pretty well infinitely complex so you would expect society to multiply that complexity to to a new level of infinity.

Canto: But I notice that many libertarians tend to avoid going on about ‘society’, they prefer to focus their ire on ‘the state’, as if it’s the enemy of society.

Jacinta: Oh yes, good point, the rhetoric goes that the state is this abstract, inhuman monster that steals our money, stifles our initiative and makes a mess of everything it touches. Insofar as it consists of people, it consists of really dumb or power-mad types who haven’t seen the light and just don’t realise that society functions better either without the state or with a minimalist one. They’ve never been able to point to any evidence to support their claims though. Essentially, the libertarian ‘state’ has been trialled in the real world even less than the communist state, its polar opposite, has been.

Canto: So how is it supposed to work?

Jacinta: Well, clearly there are libertarians of many different types and degrees who would argue endlessly about that. But many of them seem to think it would grow ‘organically’ through adherence to certain basic principles, one of which has to do with the primacy of private property, though I’m not sure how to articulate it. Another is that no law or imposition should be applied that interferes with an individual’s liberty, the idea being I think, that you’re free to do what you like as long as it doesn’t interfere with everybody else’s right to do what he or she likes, which when you think about it is a recipe for disaster, because who decides between competing claims – for example my right to enjoy the peace and quiet of my own residence versus my neighbour’s right to play shite music all night with the volume up to eleven?

Canto: Aww, is that neighbour still bothering you Jass?

Jacinta: Fuck off. Actually what really bothers me is the obsession with private property and ownership. Coming from a pretty impoverished background, I was always more fond of the ‘property is theft’ mantra. And that reminds me of a story from my youth. I was living in a share-house very close to the spacious grounds of Saint Peter’s College, the biggest and most exclusive private school in South Australia. It must’ve been school holiday time, and we decided to take our racquets and balls and have a hit around on one of their tennis courts. There was no fence or anything, we just walked in and started playing. There was no net either, so it wasn’t a particularly serious hit-out, but we were absorbed enough not to notice a fellow scurrying across the greensward to tick us off. The look of outrage on the face of this fellow was unforgettable, it was as if he’d caught us pissing on the altar…

Canto: Which is exactly what you were doing mate.

Jacinta: His get-up was unforgettable too, he had this bright orange cravat, and sort of pantaloons with braces as I remember…

Canto: You’ve forgotten the candy-striped jacket and the Old Boys’ cap…

Jacinta: No, it was too hot for that. Anyway, I remember his words, more or less. ‘What are you doing here? Don’t you know this is private property!!’

Canto: Ah yes, a defining moment in the Great Australian Class War. So you made mince-meat out of him with your graphite, carbon-fibre and kevlar weaponry?

Jacinta: Well, we were just teenagers. I remember we stood our ground for a while, more out of shock than anything. So he went on haranguing us about our outrageous behaviour and threatening to call the police, so we wandered off. But I was so infuriated when I realised what was happening. I wish I’d confronted the guy, and I ran though imaginary narratives in my head many times afterwards. It was a defining moment for me, actually, it crystallised for me my attitude to private property…

Canto: Which is?

Jacinta: Well, it’s never been very important to me – I mean, as part of his harangue, this guy said something like ‘how would you like it if someone came into your garden and started..’, and my honest answer would’ve been that it wouldn’t have bothered me, certainly nothing like the way it bothered him. And the comparison was odorous anyway, I didn’t own any spacious grounds, I wasn’t born into that world. The way this guy mentioned private property, as if it was his Lord and Master, to be protected and fought for with life and limb, it just sickened me.

Canto: You were outraged?

Jacinta: Yeah, I suppose our intellectual positions are just post-hoc rationalisations of some basic feelings.

Canto: Reason is but the slave of the passions and all that. Anyway, I’m keen to get on to some of those more interesting topics. So let’s get back to the original question – is Malcolm Turnbull a libertarian?

Jacinta: Well the correct answer is that he didn’t say enough, in that first Prime Ministerial speech, for us to make that inference. He believes strongly in freedom. So do I, of course. He believes in the individual. So do I, and I believe individual expression and effort should be nurtured. He believes in the market or markets. I most certainly do too, as sources of exchange, cross-fertilisation, community and growth. The devil or delight is in the detail. I mean, I’ve called his statement a libertarian mantra, which it is, but it’s also classical liberalism. In the end, though, we need to judge governments on their actions, not their words. We’ll have to wait and see.

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2015 at 10:06 am

some thoughts on humanism and activism

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What Australia needs


I’ve been a little more involved in ‘movements’ in recent years, though I’m not usually much of a joiner, and I’ve always been wary of ‘activism’, which is often associated with protesting, personning the barricades (doesn’t have quite the aggressive ring to it, does it?), even a bit of biffo – if largely verbal, by preference. I’ve just been hungry for a bit of stimulus – salon culture, witty and cultured and informative exchanges with people cleverer than myself. But since I’ve been occasionally asked to engage on a higher, or deeper level, in ‘the culture wars’, on the side of reason, atheism, secularism, humanism, whatever, my thoughts on the matter have started to crystallise, and they’re hopefully in evidence in my blog writing.

I don’t mind calling myself an activist for humanism, or for other isms, but I think we should be activists for rather than against. Now it might be argued that to argue for one thing is to argue against another, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think it matters a great deal. It’s a matter of trying to be positive and influencing others with your positivity. Secular humanism has a great case to promote, as do reason, self-awareness and ‘skepticism with sympathy’.

I’ve learned from years of teaching students from scores of different countries and cultures that we all can be excited by learning new stuff, that we’re amused by similar things, that we all want to improve and to be loved and appreciated. The ties that bind us as humans are far greater than those that divide us culturally or in other ways. I’ve also learned that the first principle of good teaching is to engage your students, rather than haranguing or badgering them. This may not seem easy when you’re teaching something as apparently dry and contentless as language and grammar, but language is essentially a technology for communicating content, and if we didn’t have anything meaningful or important to communicate, we’d never have developed it. So the key is to engage students with content that’s relevant to them, and stimulating and thought-provoking enough that they’ll want to communicate those thoughts.

I suppose I’m talking about constructive engagement, and this is the best form of activism. Of course, like everyone, I don’t always ‘constructively engage’. I get mad and frustrated, I dismiss with contempt, I feel offended or vengeful, yet the best antidote to those negative feelings is simple, and that is to throw yourself into the lives, the culture, the background of your ‘enemy’, or the ‘other’, which requires imagination as well as knowledge. I mis-spent a lot of my youth reading fiction from non-English backgrounds – from France and Germany, from Russia and eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. It was a lot cheaper than travelling, especially as I avoided a lot of paid work in order to indulge my reading. Of course I read other stuff too, history, philosophy, psychology, new-wave feminism, but fiction – good fiction, of course – situated all these subjects and issues within conflicted, emotional, culturally-shaped and striving individuals, and provided me with a sense of the almost unfathomable complexity of human endeavour. The understanding of multiple backgrounds and contexts, especially when recognising that your own background is a product of so much chance, creates multiple sympathies, and that’s essential to humanism, to my mind.

However, there are limits to such identifications. Steven Pinker discusses this in The better angels of our nature (the best advertisement for humanism I’ve ever read) by criticising the overuse, or abuse, of the term ’empathy’ and expressing his preference for ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an impossible ideal, and it can involve losing your own bearings in identifying with another. There are always broader considerations.

Take the case of the vaccination debate. While there are definitely charlatans out there directly benefitting from the spread of misinformation, most of the people we meet who are opposed to vaccination aren’t of that kind, usually they have personal stories or information from people they trust that has caused them to think the way they do. We can surely feel sympathy with such people – after all, we also have had personal experiences that have massively influenced how we think, and we get much of our info from people we trust. But we also have evidence, or know how to get it. We owe it to ourselves and others to be educated on these matters. How many of us who advocate vaccination know how a vaccine actually works? If we wish to enter that particular debate, a working knowledge of the science is an essential prerequisite (and it’s not so difficult, there’s a lot of reliable explanatory material online, including videos), together with a historical knowledge of the benefits of vaccination in virtually eradicating various diseases. To arm yourself with and disseminate such knowledge is, to me, the best form of humanist activism.

I’ll choose a couple more topical issues, to look at how we could and should be positively active, IMHO. The first, current in Australia, is chaplaincy in schools. The second, a pressing issue right now for Australians but of universal import, is capital punishment.

The rather odd idea of chaplaincy in schools was first mooted by Federal Minister Greg Hunt in 2006 after lobbying from a church leader and was acted upon by the Howard government in 2007. It was odd for a number of reasons. First, education is generally held to be a state rather than a federal responsibility, and second, our public education system has no provision in it for religious instruction or religious proselytising. The term ‘chaplain’ has a clear religious, or to be more precise Christian, association, so why, in the 21st century, in an increasingly multicultural society in which Christianity was clearly on the decline according to decades of census figures, and more obviously evidenced by scores of empty churches in each state, was the federal government introducing these Christian reps into our schools via taxpayer funds? It was an issue tailor-made for humanist organisations, humanism being dedicated – and I trust my view on this is uncontroversial – to emphasising what unites us,  in terms of human rights and responsibilities, rather than what divides us (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc). To introduce these specifically Christian workers, out of the blue, into an increasingly non-Christian arena, seemed almost deliberately divisive.

Currently the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron Williams, of the Humanist Society of Queensland. As far as I’m aware, Williams’ challenge was largely self-funded, but assisted by a donation from at least one of the state humanist societies. This was a cause that could and should have been financed and driven by humanists in a nationally co-ordinated campaign, which would have enabled humanists to have a voice on the issue, and to make a positive contribution to the debate.

What would have been that contribution? Above all to provide evidence, for the growing secularism and multiculturalism of the nation and therefore the clearly anachronistic and potentially divisive nature of the government’s policy. Identification with every Christian denomination is dropping as a percentage of the national population, and the drop is accelerating. This is nobody’s opinion, it’s simply a fact. Church attendance is at the lowest it’s ever been in our Christian history – another fact. Humanists could have gone on the front foot in questioning the role of these chaplains. In the legislation they’re expected to provide “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, but there’s an insistence that they shouldn’t replace school counsellors, for counselling isn’t their role. Apparently they’re to provide support without counselling, just by ‘being there’. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have their photos on the school walls? The ‘spirituality’ role is one that humanists could have a lot of fun with. I’ve heard the argument that people are just as religious as ever, but that they’ve rejected the established churches, and are developing their own spirituality, their own relationship to their god, so I suppose it would follow that their spirituality needs to be nourished at school. But the government has made a clear requirement that chaplains need to be members of an established religion (and obviously of a Christian denomination), so how exactly is that going to work?

While humour, along with High Court challenges and pointed questions about commitment to real education and student welfare, would be the way to ‘get active’ with the school chaplaincy fiasco, the capital punishment issue is rather more serious.

The Indonesian decision to execute convicted drug pedlars of various nationalities has attracted a lot of unwanted publicity, from an Indonesian perspective, but a lot of the response, including some from our government, has been lecturing and hectoring. People almost gleefully describe the Indonesians as barbarians and delight in the term ‘state-sanctioned murder’, mostly unaware of the vast changes in our society that have made capital punishment, which ended here in the sixties, seem like something positively medieval. These changes have not occurred to the same degree in other parts of the world, and as humanists, with a hopefully international perspective, we should be cognisant of this, aware of the diversity, and sympathetic to the issues faced by other nations faced with serious drug and crime problems. But above all we should look to offer humane solutions.

By far the best contribution to this issue I’ve heard so far has come from Richard Branson, representing the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), who spoke of his and other commissioners’ interest in speaking to the Indonesians about solutions to their drug problems, not to lecture or to threaten, but to advise on drug policies that work. No mention was made about capital punishment, which I think was a good thing, for what has rendered capital punishment obsolete more than anything else has been the development of societies that see their members as flawed but capable, mostly, of development for the better. Solutions to crime, drug use and many other issues – including, for that matter, joining terrorist organisations – are rarely punitive. They involve support, communication and connection. Branson, interviewed on the ABC’s morning news program, pointed to the evidence showing that harsh penalties had no effect on the drug trade, and that the most effective policy by far was legalisation. It’s probably not a story that our government would be sympathetic to, and it takes us deeply into the politics of drug law reform, but it is in fact a science-based approach to the issue that humanists should be active in supporting and promulgating. Branson pointed to the example of Portugal, which had, he claimed, drug problems as serious as that of Indonesia, which have since been greatly alleviated through a decriminalisation and harm-reduction approach.

I hope to write more about the GCDP’s interesting and productive-looking take on drug policy on my Solutions OK website in the future. Meanwhile, this is just the sort of helpful initiative that humanists should be active in getting behind. Indonesians are arguing that the damage being done by drug pushers requires harshly punitive measures, but the GCDP’s approach, which bypasses the tricky issue of national sovereignty, and capital punishment itself, is offered in a spirit of co-operation that is perfectly in line with an active, positive humanism.

So humanism should be as active as possible, in my view, and humanists should strive to get themselves heard on such broad issues as education, crime, equity and the environment, but they should enter the fray armed with solutions that are thoughtful, practicable and humane. Hopefully, we’re here to help.

disassembling Kevin Vandergriff’s gish gallop, part 2

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Feeling almost apologetic for dwelling on this for too long, with so many more important themes to tackle. Of course some out there, especially in those most heatedly devout parts of the USA, might consider that no more essential topic exists than giving proper due to the supernatural creator of the universe, but I would disagree, and I suppose here’s where I get to say why.

I was discussing Vandergriff’s third contention, that ‘Christian theism has significantly more explanatory power and scope than specified naturalism’. Here is his second argument for this:

God is the best explanation for why space-time and all its contents exist, rather than nothing.

Of course space-time has only existed as a familiar concept for about a century. It may well be replaced, or amended, by another concept, and I’m sure Christian theists will find their god to be the best explanation for that too. He’s amazingly flexible that way. Vandergriff here talks of a proof of supernatural causation under the presupposition that the universe is eternal but necessarily caused. It’s rather an unsurprising one drawn from a famous conundrum of quantum mechanics, that quantum indeterminacy can only be resolved through observation. The observation ‘collapses the wave function’. Vandergriff, or the person who posits this ‘proof’, then leaps from quantum states to the state of the universe. ‘What, or who, collapses its wave function?’ Vandergriff asks. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly valid leap. It seems more a desperate grab for an analogy. I’m not that boned up on my fallacies, but this might be the fallacy of the excluded middle, inter alia. I mean, ‘quantum/universal indeterminacy, therefore god’ does seem to take for granted an awful lot of in-between stuff. The supposed essential recourse to the disembodied mind again suggested here fails as Vandergriff has not presented any argument to show that this ‘disembodied mind’ is anything more than an abstract object. The play of such words as ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ really get us nowhere in providing answers to the very interesting questions around the beginnings of our universe and the well-established weirdness of quantum mechanics, regardless of whether the two are related.

The third argument is taken directly from William Lane Craig:

God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.

I’ve answered this claim from Craig here, though I’m amused at Vandergriff’s gloss, in that we’re still not sure that the Higgs boson has been discovered, as the data could well fit other scenarios. In any case, the main point about mathematics is clear. Mathematics seems highly abstract nowadays because over time and through painstaking human effort it has moved a long way from its beginnings. Mathematics developed as a tool to describe particular objects in general terms, that could be manipulated and developed, for example number, leading to multiplication, division, functions and the various forms of calculus. All of these, and further, developments make use of regularities, or explore regularities (some of which have as yet no known applicability). It’s hard to conceive of a physical world that has no regularity. All elements are describable, mathematically, in terms of their properties, which are regular, i.e. describable. Try to describe something that has no regularity at all. It would have no shape, no boundary between it and not-it. If this convinces you that a creator god exists, it’s likely that you were already convinced. As to a super-rational creator, which Vandergriff tries to point to, that would hardly be the brutal monster of the Old Testament who slaughters children and babies in a flood and supports the massacres of whole populations in favour of his ‘chosen people’.

Argument 4: God is the best explanation of the discoverability of the universe.

This is really just a repetition of the previous argument. The universe, to be physical (and therefore discoverable in terms of its properties) has to be regular. However, human development ‘at just the right time’ to discover the universe’s properties and origins  supposedly supports a fine-tuning argument, as developed by Hugh Ross, a Christian astrophysicist who put forward this argument in the early nineties. The late Victor Stenger, among many others, has put these arguments to the sword. There’s also a problem with this and with other ‘best explanation’ arguments in that they are essentially self-refuting ‘first cause’ arguments. David Hume was one of the first to point out the deficiencies of such arguments centuries ago. Attempts to improve on them are well summarised and dealt with by the philosopher Theodore Schick here. To me, one of the best-arguments against fine-tuning relating we humans to the supernatural creator is its grotesquely overwhelming wastefulness. Why create a universe so enormously inhospitable to intelligent life throughout almost the entirety of its vast expanse in order to permit we humans to finally thrive on our small planet through a history of great suffering? A super-rational being could surely do better, and chance seems a much more coherent explanation.

Argument 5: God is the best explanation of why there are embodied morally responsible agents.

I presume Vandergriff is talking here about cetaceans. Or maybe not. In any case, the existence of such agents, he claims, is more probable under theism. Presumably his claim is based here on the idea that it would be more fun to create a universe with moral agents in it than, say, living beings who are little more than scuttling stomachs. Yet considering how enormously complex and diverse these scuttling stomachs are, it seems clear that, if Vandergriff’s god created them, he seems to have found them great fun. You can hardly argue with J B S Haldane’s remark that the guy has an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Vandergriff talks about the unique human ability for self-control and control over our environment because ‘our brains are the most complex things in the universe’. How does he know this? Well, he doesn’t. This line has often been used, by Richard Dawkins amongst many other scientists, but always, as far as I’m aware, with the cautionary addendum ‘according to our current knowledge’. And our current knowledge of the universe, I and many others would argue, is minuscule, in spite of the great strides we’ve made. Vandergriff is concerned here to emphasise human specialness. He describes, without providing any names, how various physical scientists have been ‘stunned’ to discover that the universe must have been fine-tuned to extraordinary precision to provide for this embodied moral agency. Yet this moral agency appears to exist, to varying degrees, in a number of social species on our planet (which Vandergriff doesn’t acknowledge). In any case, I’m sure plenty of other prominent physical scientists could be found who are considerably less ‘stunned’.

Argument 6: God is the best explanation of moral agents who apprehend necessary moral truths.

I don’t believe there are ‘necessary moral truths’, and I don’t find this a particularly interesting philosophical theme, though it obviously strongly exercises some philosophers.

In giving his example taken from Darwin and the behaviour of hive bees, however, Vandergriff completely misrepresents natural selection, comparing what natural selection ‘happens upon’ with the rational choices of human beings. I would strongly argue that there is more to natural selection than just ‘happening upon’ or ‘chance’ as theists like to describe it. Most theists like to think we’re rational moral agents guided by, or able to be guided by, their god; though how the god does the guiding can never be properly answered. Vandergriff cites the prohibition against rape as a necessary moral truth, but Christians have raped women throughout history, in times of warfare, just as readily as have members of other religions. Rape statistics are notoriously difficult to compare from nation to nation, because states have different laws, definitions, reporting methods and resources. It’s clear from even the most casual examination that cultural attitudes to rape vary widely. We don’t find a consistent or clear-cut prohibition against rape in the Bible. However in modern western countries, especially with the advent of feminism, rape has been raised to a higher level of seriousness as a crime. This hasn’t been driven by organised religion, so it just seems absurd to assert, or even to intimate, that the prohibition against rape is a necessary truth derived from a supernatural being.

Vandergriff talks about natural selection or evolution as being only conducive to our survival, and seems to find it unlikely that our ‘necessary moral truths’ or our aesthetic tastes or even such traits as benevolence or kindness could have been selected for, claiming that these qualities are unlikely under naturalism but highly likely under theism. Yet it’s abundantly clear that reducing the incidence of rape, developing better medicines, resolving conflicts by peaceful means, promoting sympathy for others, including those of other species, and exercising restraint and thoughtfulness in our personal lives is conducive, not only to our survival, but to our success and our enrichment. We’ve learned this, not through communication with spirits, but through honest examination of our own past behaviour as a species. It seems to me that it’s through these painstaking examinations that we’re learning to reduce our common misery and to promote our well-being. We’re learning from our mistakes, even if it’s a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ process. A thorough-going education system is essential in disseminating what we’ve learned from the past and carrying those gleanings into the future. It’s precisely because there are no necessary truths, because we could always go back to achieving our ends through brutality, dishonesty and blinkered self-promotion, that we need to maintain awareness of past errors, and of the complex needs of those around us and to whom we’re attached, including humans and non-humans.

Vandergriff has more ‘arguments’, which I’ll deal with next time, though I’m looking for ways to cut this short!

is belief in god irrational? – that is not the question

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forget them - read this!

forget them – read this!

Debates between theists and atheists have become commonplace over the past few years, for better or worse, and the topic has often been vague enough to allow the protagonists plenty of leeway to espouse their views. True or false, rational or irrational, these are the oppositional terms most often used. These debates are often quite arid, with both parties firing from fixed positions and very carefully concealing from observers any palpable hits they’ve received from the other side. Whether they’ve contributed to the continued rise of the nones is hard to say.

I heard another one recently, bearing the title Is belief in God irrational? It was hosted on the Reasonable Doubts podcast, one that I recommend to those interested in the claims of Christianity in particular, as these ‘doubtcasters’ know their Bible pretty well and are well up on Christian politics, particularly in the US. The debaters were Chris Hallquist (atheist) and Randal Rauser (theist), and it was pretty hard to listen to at times, with much squabbling and point-scoring over the definition of rationality, and obscure issues of epistemology. I found the theist in particular to be shrill and often quite unpleasant in his faux-contempt for the other side, but then I’m probably biased.

I found myself, as I very often do, arguing or speculating my way through the topic from a very different standpoint, and here are my always provisional thoughts.

Let me begin by more or less rejecting two of the terms of the debate, ‘God’ and ‘irrational’. I’m not particularly interested in God, that’s to say the Judeo-Christian god, and I strongly object to designating that particular amalgam of Canaanite, Ugaritic and other Semitic deities as capital G God, as if one can, through a piece of semantic legerdemain, magick away the thousands of other deities that people have worshipped and adhered to over the centuries. It’s as if the Apple company chose to name their next Ipad ‘Tablet’, thereby rendering irrelevant all the other tablets produced by competing companies. Of course we have marketing regulations that prevent that sort of manipulation, but not so in religion.

So I will refer henceforth to gods, or supernatural entities and supernatural agency, with all their various and sometimes contradictory qualities, rather than to God, as defined by Aquinas and others. It is supernatural agency of any kind that I call into question.

More important for me, though, is the question of rationality. I’m not a philosopher, but I’ve certainly dipped into philosophy many times over the past 40 years or so, and I’ve even been obsessed with it at times. And rationalism has long been a major theme of philosophers, but I’ve never found a satisfactory way to define it. In the context of this debate, I would prefer the term ‘reasonable’ to ‘rational’. Being reasonable has a more sociable quality to it, it lacks the hard edge of rationality. So, for my purposes I’ll re-jig the topic to – Is belief in supernatural entities reasonable?

But I want to say more about rationality, to illustrate my difficulties with the term. Hume famously or perhaps notoriously wrote that reason can never be more than the slave of the emotions. This raises the question – what are these emotions that have such primacy and why are they so dominant? I have no doubt that a modern-day Hume – and Hume was always interested in the science of his day – would write differently about the factors that dominate and guide our reason. He would write about evolved instincts as much as about emotions. Above all the survival instinct, which we appear to share with every other living creature. Let me give some examples, which might bring some of our fonder notions of rationality into question.

A large volume of psychometric data in recent years has told us that we generally have a distorted view of ourselves and our competence. In assessing our physical attractiveness, our driving ability, our generosity to others and just about everything else, we take a more flattering view of ourselves than others take of us. What’s more, this is seen as no bad thing. In terms of surviving and thriving in a competitive environment, there’s a pay-off in being over-confident about your attractiveness, as a romantic partner, a business partner, or your nation’s Prime Minister. Of course, if you’re too over-confident, if the distortion between reality and self-perception becomes too great, it will act to your detriment. But does this mean that having a clear-eyed, non-distorted view of your qualities is rational, by that very fact, or irrational, because it puts you at a disadvantage vis-à-vis others? To put it another way, does rationality mean conformity to strict observation and logic, or is it behaviour that contributes to success in terms of well-being and thriving (within the constraints of our profoundly social existence)?

I don’t have any (rational?) answer to that conundrum, but I suppose my preference for the term ‘reasonable’ puts me in the second camp. So my answer to my own question, ‘Is it reasonable to believe in supernatural entities’ is that it depends on the circumstances.

Let’s look at belief in Santa, an eminently supernatural entity. He is, at least on Christmas Eve, endowed with omnipresence, being able to enter hundreds of millions of houses laden with gifts in an impossibly limited time-period. He’s even able to enter all these houses through the chimney in spite of the fact that 99.99% of them don’t have chimneys. What’s more, he’s omniscient, ‘He knows if you’ve been bad or good’, according to the sacred hymn ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’, ostensibly written by J F Coots and Haven Gillespie, but they were really just conduits for the Word of Santa. We consider it perfectly reasonable for three- and four-year-olds to believe in Santa, and, apart from some ultra-rationalist atheists and more than a few cultish Christians and adherents of rival deities, we generally encourage the belief. Clearly, we believe it does no harm and might even do some good. An avuncular, convivial figure with a definite fleshly representation, he’s also remote and mysterious with his supernatural powers and his distant home at the North Pole, which to a preschooler might as well be Mars, or Heaven. As an extra parent, he increases the quotient of love, security and belonging. To be watched over like Santa watches over kids might seem a bit creepy as you get older, but three-year-olds would have no such concerns, they’d accept it as their due, and would no doubt find his magical powers as well as his total jollity, knowledge and insight thoroughly inspiring as well as comforting. From a parent’s perspective, it’s all good, pretty much.

Of course, if your darling 23-year-old believes in Santa, that’s a problem. We expect our kids to grow out of this belief, and they rarely disappoint. They don’t need much encouragement. Children are bombarded with TV Santas, department store Santas, skinny Santas, bad Santas, Santas that look just like their Uncle Bill, etc, and they usually go through a period of jollying their parents along before making their big apostate announcement. Santas are human, all too human.

Santa belief is, it would seem, a harmless and perhaps positive massaging of a child’s vivid imagination, but when a child’s ready for school, she’s expected to put away childish things, little by little.

And isn’t that what many atheists say about the deities of the Big Monotheisms? Yes, but too many atheists underestimate the hurdles that need to be overcome. Most of these atheists either already live in highly secularised societies, such as here in Australia, or other English-speaking or European countries. Even the USA has many more atheists in it than the entire population of Australia, if we make the conservative assumption that 10% of its citizens are non-believers. Atheists are learning to club together but the religious have been doing it for centuries, and you’re likely to lose a lot of club benefits if you declare yourself a non-believer in a region of fervent or even routine belief. Or worse – I just read today of a Filipino lad who was murdered by his schoolmates after coming out as an atheist on a networking site. So just from a self-preservation point of view it might be reasonable to at least pretend to believe, in certain circumstances.

But there are many other situations in which it’s surely reasonable to believe – I mean really believe – in the supernatural agent or agents of your culture. The first of these is that supernatural agency explains things more satisfactorily to more people than any other available explanation. This might sound strange coming from a non-believer like myself, but it’s undoubtedly true. Bear in mind that I’m talking about satisfactory explanations, not true ones, and that I’m talking about most, not all, people.

Why was belief in supernatural agency virtually universal in the long ago? I don’t think that’s hard to understand. As human populations grew and became more successful in terms of harnessing of resources and domination of the landscape, they came to realise that they were prey to forces well beyond their control, forces that threatened them more seriously than any earthly predator. Famine, disease, earthquakes, storms, the seemingly arbitrary deaths of new-borns, sudden outbreaks of warfare between once-neighbourly tribes – all of these were unforeseen and demanded an explanation. Thoughts tended to converge on one common theme: someone, some force was out to get them, someone was angry with them, or disapproved somehow. Some unseen, perhaps unseeable agent.

Psychologists have done a lot of work on agency in recent years. They’ve found that we can create convincing agents for ourselves with the most basic computer-generated or pen-and-paper images. Give them some animation, have one chasing another, and we’re ready to attribute all sorts of motives and purposes. Recognising, or just suspecting, agency behind the movement of a bush, the flying through the air of a rock, or an unfamiliar sound in the distance, has been a useful mindset for our ancestors as they sought to survive against the hazards of life. ‘If in doubt, it’s an agent’ might have been humanity’s first slogan, though of course humanity didn’t come up with it, they got it from their own mammalian ancestors. My pet cat’s reaction to thunder and lightning clearly indicates her view that someone’s out to get her.

But what about the supernatural part of supernatural agency? That, too, is very basic to our nature, and it’s another feature of our thinking that has been brought to light by psychologists in recent times. I won’t go into the ingenious experiments they’ve conducted on children here – look up the work of Justin Barrett, Paul Harris and others – but they show conclusively that very young children assume that the adults around them, those towering, confident, competent and purposive figures, are omniscient, omnipotent and immortal, until experience tells them otherwise. As children we think more in terms of absolutes. Good and evil are palpably real to us, as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ are some of the first categories we ever learn from the god-like beings, our parents, who protect us and are obsessed with us (if we’re lucky in our choice of parents), and who have created us in their image.

Given all this, we might come to understand the naturalness of religion, and its near-universality. But what about the argument, which some of these psychological findings might support, that religion is a form of childishness that we should grow out of, like belief in Santa? It’a common argument among atheists, which to some degree I share, but I also feel, along with the psychologists who have shed such light on the default thinking of children, that ‘childish’ thinking is something we need to learn from rather than dismissing it with contempt. This kind of thinking is far more ingrained in us than we often like to admit, and it’ll always be more natural to us than the kind of reasoning that produces our scientific theories and technology. Creationism is easy – a supernatural agent did it – but evolution – the theory of natural selection from random variation – is much harder. The idea that we’re the special creation of a supernatural agent who’s obsessed with our welfare is far more comforting than the idea that we’re the product of purposeless selection from variation, existing by apparent chance on one insignificant planet in an insignificant galaxy amongst billions of others. In terms of appeal to our most basic needs, for protection, belonging and significance in the scheme of things, religious belief has an awful lot going for it.

So belief in a supernatural being, for whom we are special, is eminently reasonable. And yet… I don’t believe in such a being, and an increasing number of people are abandoning such a belief, especially in ‘the west’, and especially amongst the intelligentsia, which I’ll broadly define as those who make their living through their brainpower, such as scientists, academics, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, writers and artists. New Scientist, in its fascinating recent issue on the Big Questions, features a graph of the world’s religious belief systems. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it claims 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Moslems, 900 million Hindus, and 750 million in the category ‘secular/non-religious/atheist/agnostic’. These are the top four religious categories. I find that fourth figure truly extraordinary, especially considering that it was only really recognised and counted as a category from the mid-twentieth century, or even later. In Australia, where religious belief is counted in the national census every five years, this optional question was first put in 1971. In that year the percentage of people who professed to having no religion was minuscule – about 5%. Since then, the  category of the ‘nones’ has been by far the fastest growing category, and if trends continue, the non-religious will be in the majority by mid-century.

So, while I recognise that religious belief is quite reasonable, it’s clear that, in some parts of the world, a growing number find non-belief more reasonable, and I’m not even going to explore here the reasons why. You can work those out for yourself. It’s clear though that we’re entering a new era with regard to religious belief.