Whether you’re Charlie Hebdo, Avijit Roy or Washiqur Rahman no one has the right to murder you or physically threaten you, for what you say or publish. Those are crimes. Unqualified, full stop.

Freedom of expression, does of course come with responsibility for self-restraint, but not restraint based on fear of the above. Restraint based on being constructive, and gratuitous offence beyond a satirical context, is not necessarily constructive. So I’ve always been careful about expressing unqualified support for what such people express freely and why in any given context- other than their freedom to do so, and the absence of any “right” for others not to be offended.

This piece by Rory Fenton in the Independent gets it right, when it comes to the liberal, atheist Bangladeshi Bloggers. The authorities already have a difficult situation to deal with, that’s clear, in terms popular support for blasphemy law and the bloggers in question do seem to be constructive and not to be focussed on offence. Either way, it is clear the authorities, there and here, must condemn the killings and the implicit threat of further terror, and actively pursue those who kill and threaten.

Achieving a secular Bangladesh – where the concept of blasphemy law is banished – is a larger project of course. Meantime, can we please assert that murder and terrorism are crimes; hate crimes. Full stop.

Picked-up this YouTube link to 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival set from Roy.

Can’t believe this is as late as ’84, but it so reminds me of his performance delivery during mid to late ’70’s – Essex Uni, LSE, Hammersmith, Blackbushe, to name a few – particularly excellent version of Highway Blues to finish.

[Post Note – As is ever the way on YouTube, I followed additional links to further live Roy Harper videos, and given the Stonehenge ’84 connection I disappeared off down the rabbit hole that is Hawkwind – ending with the BBC Documentary from 2009-ish. The original Westway / Ladbroke Grove punks.]

Noticed this NYT opinion piece (Hat tip to tweet by Bob @IHEU) a couple of weeks ago and my initial response to the statement …

Why our children don’t think there are moral facts.

… was, that there aren’t any.

Of course the sentiment of the piece is correct, so my problem here is a language game, whereas the real issue is the received wisdom that only scientific facts – objective, evidential, empirically falsifiable facts – are facts. Scientism.

Personally, I’m OK with the word fact being associated exclusively with the scientific kind, so long as the word truth covers both objective truths (~facts) and moral truths (~values). This is the word game, which word – fact or truth – you place at the top of the hierarchy. What is not a word game is to privilege either of the sub-types over the other. Objective truths and moral truths are both truths. They have different bases of belief, but they are both truths.

John Gray recently described the problem in terms of the fact that the body of scientific knowledge is preserved in culture, in authoritative textbooks, and persistent technological embodiments, whereas “holy books” are treated as second rate superstition. Moral learning is no longer accretive in culture, but dies with each of us mortals.

Sure, all knowledge is contingent, and open to free questioning and challenging argument, but we don’t all empirically test and repeatedly falsify every fact or truth, not even those considered to be objective facts. They’re taken on documented authority for the most part of living. And of course holy books that might capture moral truths are indeed full of unjustifiable, or easily mis-interpretable, historically-out-of-context superstition, so they shoot themselves in the foot as unmediated authoritative sources of the moral truth they may hold.

Statutory laws are the nearest thing to authoritative documented moral truth – but of course they are framed in the practicalities of how they are applied in the legal systems of the states that codify them. They are not necessarily documented as moral truths independently of the legal system, in the way that scientific truths are documented in publications well beyond the practice of science. Culturally then, scientific facts benefit from a privileged status.

Interestingly, after mentioning hearing John Gray above, and now reading his latest, I noted this Grauniad piece by John Gray “What Scares the New Atheists” (Hat tip to post and tweet by Sam @elizaphanian).

It’s a good “long read”, about how despite the dominance of atheist rationalism, adherence to religious belief is persistent and growing. Not something new-atheists would want to hear, not sure I want to hear actually, but it does highlight the rejection of the idea that moral truths must necessarily be subservient to scientific truths.

If the scientific rationalists don’t address the real issue, then the dichotomy to the death will simply run and run. |There is dissatisfaction with the idea that all truths must be somehow reduced to objective fact. There is a proper relationship to be established between moral and scientific truths.

After the thankless exertions of blogging and follow-up from a couple of weeks ago, I missed two opportunities to blog the week before last, and I have only just caught-up with last week’s Dennett lecture, so I need to record some items I’ve missed. They are, of course, all connected.

I listened to John Gray in conversation with Will Self the Wednesday before at Islington Assembly Halls. I tweeted half a dozen comments #GuardianLive, and started to read his latest “The Soul of The Marionette – a Short Enquiry into Human Freedom” – more about freedom and choice in liberal democracies rather than immediate free-will per se. I’m new to Gray and more intrigued than necessarily in agreement at this point, but it’s his aim to create thinking beyond the herd. Too soon to publish a review of the book, so I’ll just summarise first impressions based on what I noted on Twitter.

Secondly, I was already in the process of reading Åsne Seierstad’s “One of Us, her biographical portrait of Anders Breivik and the story of some of his victims. “The hardest book I have ever written” says this war-zone-hardened journalist. I’ll say. Unputdownable, yet still probably one the hardest things I’ve ever read too. Harrowing, step-by-step, bullet-by-bullet, brutal detail in typically Norwegian matter of fact style, not to mention the thoughts of Templar Knight Breivik. I finished it at the weekend. You may recall I took a special interest in Breivik and his trial specifically for his “extreme rationality” in the ongoing debate between rationality as we know it, and religion as irrational superstition – particularly since Breivik’s agenda was explicitly anti-Muslim.

John Gray in Conversation with Will Self

So first the conversation with John Gray, as recorded in a few tweets.

#GuardianLive – John Gray talks with Will Self on free will at Islington Assembly Hall

As advertised it looks like another “free will is an illusion” agenda, but that misses Gray’s real point. Free will is not an illusion because it’s not objectively explainable by science – that’s a given. The point is more that freedom itself is kinda “overrated” in liberal democracies. There are not that many points where we (a) have effective influence and (b) really want decision-making responsibility. Most of life is about living and making the most of the one we have.

#GuardianLive – Gray’s target audience is individual liberal humanists who have doubts about received wisdom

That would be me.

#GuardianLive – unlike science and tech progress, moral progress is now in individual mortals, and is not accretive in culture.

This is the dangerous consequence of our privileging science over “non-rational” knowledge. Yes, we have the right or, more accurately, the freedom, to objectively and evidentially decide each and every case of good and bad decision making, but if we don’t have a codified resource of moral rules and values to fall back on, this is a tremendous waste of human mental effort on reductive analysis. Without authoritative codification, the learned moral knowledge dies with each mortal human. Science on the other hand has a growing body of documented knowledge – contingent but nevertheless established as accepted – as well as its embodiment in ever more technologies and products whose nature persists and evolves in the physical world

#GuardianLive – Gray questions whether self-knowledge of the examined life really helps us live better lives

#GuardianLive – Self responds that it is exceptional. Vast majority of life’s choices are mundane.

Yes, this is the point already summarised. Sure, we have the freedom, not to mention rights, to challenge, question and analyse anything and everything, but we can’t all spend all our time questioning everything, not even all the things we don’t understand or agree with. We don’t need to have the vote on every democratic decision. The scientistic meme might itself gain in advancing its kind of future knowledge, but life still needs to be lived. The wisdom of flourishing humanity is more than the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Governance – self-regulation – of life must involve some element of trust in what we already “know” individually and collectively, or all progress stalls.

More when I’ve finished reading Gray’s Marionette and more.

Breivik – One of Us.

As I mentioned, having previously taken a deep interest in Breivik’s extremist rationale, his extreme rationality, Åsne Seierstad’s book was a must read for me. Rather than sensationalist, the dramatisation of the plot in all its harrowing details, is extremely emotive – and the same shocking level of evil in the trajectory of Breivik’s life according to his own rationale is simply reinforced by the Nordic style. A rationale that left him found to be of sound “rational” mind. Personally, I was always for insane and culpable – extreme rationality is insane or at least autistic in the technical sense. The gap between arguments he expressed – easily expressed in near-identical terms by many concerned with islamisation – the same “raping our women” cry – and the action rationale he developed to inhuman ends are scarily narrow. He really was one of us.

Having read Seierstad and having also just read Kenan Malik’s philosophical “textbook”on the evolution of morality to date – the quest for a moral compass – imagine my surprise at also reading Malik’s very brief work “Multiculturalism and its Discontents. Surprising, and indeed gratifying, in that whilst it’s clearly a post-9/11 critique of arguments around multiculturalism, he leads and closes with the Breivik case – Norway’s 9/11. What Malik’s book shows is how fine these lines of argument are, how very similar reasoning leads to perverse conclusions and opposite actions whichever side of the debate you find yourself. Extreme care in reasoning – and in the associated terms and language – is needed, and even then, unintended consequences mean we need to reign in our arrogance to intervene with political governance decisions and actions when we might be better off understanding cultural evolution more naturally.

I was fortunate to meet and hear Dan Dennett delivering Convergence: Information, Evolution, and Intelligent Design at The Royal Institution on Wednesday 25th March this week. I say fortunate because, despite being a huge fan of his as these pages will attest, and despite exchanging emails with him back in January when I noticed he was making an upcoming UK trip, I didn’t notice this event until the Monday, when he appeared on BBCR4’s Start The Week. As a sell out, I only just squeezed in off the wait-list at the last moment on the night.

As an “evolutionary philosopher” it’s easy to associate Dennett with biology and neuroscience, and indeed he is most closely associated with “Cog Sci” at his home institution of Tufts, but it’s important to recognise he is first and foremost a philosopher.

The “world’s greatest living philosopher”, according to the introduction by John Stein of Oxford University, from whom we discover that Dan was a close friend of the geneticists in the biology department back in the days he was studying philosophy at Oxford. A connection that later led to Dennett becoming allied with Dawkins, both as an ongoing major advocate of Dawkin’s “meme” concept, and a fellow “horseman” in the recently topical “God vs Science” wars. Dan I see as the antidote to the problem of scientists who shouldn’t be allowed out alone with opinions about existence and meaning. For those you need a philosopher. Dan Dennett preferably.

John’s admiration for Dan shares two points of reference with mine. Firstly, the body in a mine in Tulsa, connected to its brain in a vat in Texas posing the question “Where am I?” in the seminal Godel, Esher, Bach, co-written with Doug Hofstadter. And secondly John was brandishing a reprint pamphlet of the laws of computation chapter most recently published in Dan’s greatest hits “Intuition Pumps, and Other Tools for Thinking” – a lesson I’ve been recommending to anyone who’ll listen.

If you know Dan’s work, his title needs little introduction, although the particular text and material of the talk seemed an entirely original story in its telling. If you didn’t already know, the logic emerges only in its telling. If it quacks like a duck, Dan is clear about using terms like designed and intelligent, reclaiming them effectively from those who attribute them to the supernatural. Rather than denial, the better approach is to explain how they really do arise in reality in nature.

Dan regularly uses his R&D and Engineering metaphors, because they do indeed reflect the reality of what it takes for new “applications” arise, where not just the problems and opportunities but the histories of time, efforts, cost -benefits and sequences of events matter in how solutions come about. Another key concept is that evolution at core is about information – genetic or memetic. And fundamentally so, in that the information created, modified and communicated is immaterial; independent of its living biological or even any inanimate physical embodiment.

So, the body of the talk, video recorded for later publication on the RI media channels, followed the major transitions and “inversions” in the history of evolution, with examples and key sources.

Without prior intelligence involved in the progress of evolution, the process is bottom-up and opportunistic. Where humans are concerned, where the evolution is predominantly memetic (cultural) we have elements of both bottom up and top down design with purpose in mind, those purposes themselves being evolved.

In cultural / memetic evolution space we need to think of the information not just as the raw material but also as configurations of thinking tools for using and manipulating further information. When looking at the difference between 70m clueless termites constructing a beautiful nest structure of cathedral proportions and Gaudi’s brain of 200bn clueless neurons designing and building the Familia Sagrada, the difference is not in the numbers but in the tools. You can’t do much carpentry (or stone-masonry) with your bare hands. It’s the flexible and independently-mobile arrangements of the information, not their bit count. Tools and technology are the result (and source) of cultural evolution of information. In intelligent hands, tools build tools. But “Cui Bono” still applies. Information tools can build new information and tools whose benefits are not necessarily those of the intelligent designer. Memes as culturally evolved thinking tools invading intelligent brains – symbiotically. Thinking of this as evolving intellectual capability it becomes clear why the fundamental nature of the computation model (above) is so important to understand. Turing meets Darwin.

In describing the Leonard Eisenberg version of the “tree of life” from the earliest single-celled life to the current world of the Familia Sagrada and seemingly never-ending technology advances, Dan used 3-dimensional evolutionary design-spaces – themselves evolving – to illustrate the transitions and inversions, and some of the intermediate species arising en-route. Too many to record here. Lynn Margulis work – against much denial – was recognised in establishing the eukaryotic revolution as the first such explosion in possibilities long after the formation of single-celled life itself. Eörs Szathmáry, John Maynard-Smith and Peter Godfrey-Smith all acknowledged as contributors to the story of transitions and inversions and Paul MacCready for the explosion of human dominance of the ecosphere in the last 10,000 years, with Frances Arnold as an archetype of those taking post-Darwinian evolution back into bio-engineering.

Internet memes appeared in one of the design spaces discussed. An example of a recent inversion, a reductio ad absurdum, the human creation of memes for the purpose of being spread – ie not a new species of meme but an entirely new category. [Aside – This kind of game-changing, where rules of the game become part of the game, and thereby evolve to another level – a new category – I’ve discussed examples in an actual game (football) context, but is also very much part of the Hofstadterian view of “creative slipping” in Tabletop, whereby some aspect “meta” to the original topic becomes a new topic, and hence entirely new category is innovated.]

Q&A – The question of gender differences in human brain function, I blogged a separate post here.

Q – Does Dennett support the concept of there being a “hard problem” of consciousness?
A- No. In fact in a recent Edge Question collection of answers, Dan’s choice was that the so-called hard problem should be thrown out.

Q – With the speed of development of computation power, with computation at the heart of evolution, does Dennett support the idea of the Singularity whereby AI overtakes humans?
A – No. It’s not about power in terms of the scale of processing – Moore’s law, etc – see the termites and neurons above – its also about the power and complexities of arrangement, and about the evolution of tools – software – that allow one level to transition to the next.

The greatest or not, Dan Denett is certainly my favourite on many levels. Not least his “avuncular” gentle-giant demeanour and delivery reinforces the positive wisdom & common-sense direction of his arguments. An excellent lecture.

[Post Notes:

A video of Dan’s equivalent talk given in Edinburgh the Thursday before.
Not the same, but similar scope. In which we learn those three dimensional evolution spaces were invented by Peter Godfrey-Smith, Dan fancies a “raspberry beret”, and like Simon Blackburn, Dan’s favourite philosopher is David Hume.

A good (long) review of “Intuition Pumps”
- includes some criticism, but a ringing endorsement in that final conclusion.

A little video animation on what meme’s really are and how they work. Recommended by Dan.
And by way of contrast here a classic “internet meme” designed to be shared. Contrast in the sense that calling something a meme doesn’t make it so – as in “please share my meme”. Internet memes may be “designed to be shared” but if that meta-fact is incorporated into the content, then it’s an inversion or game-changer (see above), no longer a meme, though it could still become a meme for reasons depending on how it spreads. In the classic example the addictive little clip was clearly recorded and published knowing it would share easily, but that fact is not part of the content being shared.]

 

 

 

 

This is a side post following a truly excellent Dan Dennett lecture at the Royal Institution this evening. More on which later, but I was prepared for disappointment meeting a hero of mine in the flesh. He did not disappoint.

However this post concerns a single Q&A. James Shaftesbury(*) asked a politically incorrect question on gender cognitive differences that Dan answered very carefully – on camera.

Vive la Difference has been a tag of several of my posts over the years. Gender differences important to recognise and understand even if not to use directly as the basis of decision and action.

Dan’s thoughtful answer did not deny difference. It did point out the lack of any unified or combined scales to judge such cognitive differences better or worse. And it also suggested that weighing up disbenefits, knowing the significance of such difference was not necessarily a net positive benefit – some things were better not known and efforts better not spent trying to know objectively.

Good answer. But. The main positive benefit in my thesis is an informational evolutionary one. Significant genetic difference is a piece of information that adds to the opportunity pool of future cultural evolution. “Cui bono?” still applies of course. For me this is crucial in the make-up of teams generally, and teams of management and governance in particular, that members bring more than one homogeneous bag of thinking tools to the party. Diversity of thinking beats groupthink – western-male groupthink.

(*) James was unknown to me before this evening, but in the intro to his question he indicated he had research, involving known science and media people, being prepared for publication.

Interesting responses to my critical post of the recent LAAG event below. Defensive and now, sadly, largely ad-hominem. Apparently the number and size of my balls affect the arguments. I’d drafted a couple of yards of replies on Friday afternoon, to the initial handful of comments that day, but the aggressive responses continued over the weekend until yesterday afternoon. Anyway, I’ve now cut back the response to a few inserts to the original critical post below, which, since I’m a lifelong atheist, secularist, rationalist and humanist, with an active project now for 15 years, I still very much intend to progress this debate constructively.

The block-quotes below are the original post, with additional responses inserted. So, here goes:

Perhaps not the environment for a constructive conversation

It’s a passionate and unruly group – which is a good thing – but it has its downsides if human respect is lost.

- speaker talks for over 40 minutes and individual audience members get to ask a single question -

The advertised format, in advance and in the introduction on the evening, is an uninterrupted talk followed by Q&A. Furthermore, given the range of potentially related topics, questioners are asked to ask straightforward questions about the talk and not make their own statements.

The moderator invites those who indicate with a show of the hand that they have a question. For me personally, given that I have a 1001 points and questions relevant to the myriad topics, I tend to restrict my questions to a minimum of simple requests for clarification or elaboration of the actual content of the event, so as not to dominate proceedings with my own prior interests. I can always follow up with more considered views afterwards via the blog. On this particular evening I asked a single question about the relevance of one topic that was generating many minutes of dialogue between the speaker and a prior questioner (the blasphemy law in relation to the Paris events). In fact many other questioners made long preamble statements about topics beyond the talk, By the time I was moved to raise my hand a second time, the facilitator was already scanning for “anyone with their hand up who hadn’t yet asked a question“, and had quite rightly reserved a little platform time for one overseas guest to make their statements. So many topics and issues, many introduced by “questioners” that I personally no longer had any particular questions.

but for me a disappointing evening at LAAG to hear Charlie Klendjian talk on – well – a bag of loosely related topics.

Disappointed enough to record these constructive criticisms, given how good the previous event had been (referenced and linked in the original piece below).

A lot of “whataboutness”

See above. A lot of digression into related areas not directly within the agenda of the talk itself, driven by interaction with questioners who made their own statements.

and Godwin’s law (!) in evidence – Nazis, Antisemitism, Khmer Rouge, Communism (sic) for a start.

Apparently to cite Godwin’s law is “déclassé” – clearly I need educating on that – the but the topics aired were as recorded, and I forgot to mention Jews and the Palestinians, and ….

Post Paris and Copenhagen a lot of chaotic opinion on freedom of thought and speech as a “right to offend” and post Rotherham about the PC-Paralysis of “not mentioning” religion and/or race.

(Aside – Interesting statements from Trevor Phillips race and religion yesterday. Another post.)

Then there’s Salman Rushdie – we bottled it (?) Charlie Hebdo and Blasphemy Law (?) – man, what’s that all about? (Blasphemy & Political Correctness) A lot of western-(middle-class)-white-male war-like talk of attacking and victories.

What would I do different? Ensure organisers and speaker had a sufficiently focussed agenda for the single event, and ensure that facilitation followed the rules, sanctioning those that failed to show respect for the rules and the agenda. A mix of talk and debate could be planned-in, but with an open debate the rules, perversely, are even more important.

Anyway, eventually the focal point, a thesis that using Islamism instead of Islam itself was a veil behind which to hide fears, and deflect accusations of racism.

The speaker asked several times, and I made it clear I disagreed with the thesis, and hadn’t heard any valid arguments to change that. Indeed, as I note below, several points to reinforce the disagreement. Nothing was made of this on the evening. (Additional clarification – as I suggest later and in the conclusions “PC”ness is part of the problem, and certainly some may choose to use it as such a veil of true meaning. The word itself has distinct meaning.)

No doubt fear and courage play a big part in debates and actions around the current slew of knotty topics, and the successful campaign by Charlie and the LSS to remove any Sharia-specific content(*) from UK legal framework is to be applauded. An aberration by The Law Society surely anyway, but also encouraging to see it not only withdrawn entirely, but with an apology too for the initial error. Unusual courage.

Positive applause for the speaker and more. No doubt about the size of his balls.

But why the constantly repeated references to “not being racist” and being “friendly and open-minded” ? Methinks it can only give the impression of having to protest too much. Better to address the topic(s) IMHO. For that reason we should use every word in our vocabulary to understand the complexity of the human political and psychological processes involved. (Contrast with the sharpness of Anne-Marie Waters’ agenda at the previous LAAG meeting.)

This criticism still stands and has so far received no response.

So, to the meat.

The meat of my constructive criticism:

First: Active and Atheist in LAAG? “Active” = talking (and campaigning), “Atheist Group” = about critical thinking. What ? A form of critical thinking that rejects and mocks humanism as apologist at every turn, apparently. And yet apparently we need “unity” amongst rationalist campaigns? Atheism is about not believing in god(s) as part of the explanatory workings of the world. Full stop. (ie it’s about what we’re agreed we’re against. Rationalism and Humanism and Liberalism, unlike Atheism on the other hand, are examples of things we might be for.)

There has been some discussion on this criticism. Many LAAG members self-identify as humanists, and many are cross-members of other humanist organisations and groups. It is hardly welcoming to those members to constantly make snide remarks against humanism. If LAAG has criticism of humanism, humanists or particular humanist organisations or individuals, it should voice them carefully and respectfully.

Or, as I would recommend, find the common ground where we can agree constructive progress. All groups and campaigns need allies. Mocking each other is hardly helpful, even if it is everyone’s right. (As I say later, it is both sad and ironic that careless talk about who is being mocked and attacked is allowed to happen when our topic is why “careful” wording associated with one of our target issues is considered unhelpful. As I say, I disagree.)

Next: Secular in LSS? Secularism is “about ideas being separate from people”. What? Sounds like a concept of objectivism, though as quoted I couldn’t actually agree with it – ideas are absolutely not separable from people anywhere other than conceptual discourse. Secularism is about not having any established religious position in the lawful governance of the land. Full stop.

There has been no response so far to this criticism.

Full stop, like murdering cartoonists (and Jews) is not just illegal, but evil. Full stop.

I’m not actually a fan of linguistic definitions and gymnastics as solutions to any problem, but we do need multiple tools to have any understanding of the dialogue necessary if we are to achieve any solutions. Different problems require different / multiple solutions. We can jettison definitive language once we have that shared understanding, and only use it lightly even when having the conversation.

Sadly, ironically, the “PC” attempts to massage meaning and language, as Orwellian as any examples criticised (and mocked), display exactly the PC attitudes to the topics pointed out at the last meeting. Pointing in fact to the very problem screaming to be discussed in the questions from the floor – political correctness. Whether driven by fear or pragmatism – perhaps we can agree on that?

Despite highlighting this potential starting point for constructive dialogue, there has been no response so far. After several polite reminders, I think the only suggestion so far has been to put this dialogue somewhere else? I may take up that offer if there are any signs of criticism and constructive suggestions being heeded.

No doubt efforts here (LAAG and LSS) are sincere and courageous, just my fear that throwing every issue into one pot and shaking vigorously is unlikely to achieve more than lowest-common-denominator progress, or worse, degenerative developments.

Positive wish to build on the commitment, and a summarising suggestion that too many issues on the table at once, particuarly with a rejection of any clarity of language is not going to be productive. No acknowledgement of the issue. Apart from the “what would I do differently?” question answered above, and the ongoing anti-humanist and ad-hominem rhetoric, there have been no responses to the actual points made.

====

[(*) And here’s a thought. It’s a simple – no-brainer – corollary of secularism that says there should be no religion-specific privileges or exceptions in established legal arrangements. (Secular Muslims would agree whole-heartedly too, even if islamists or jihadists  would – by definition – disagree.) But, given that the existence of Sharia is a real phenomenon, albeit fragmented and ill-defined with patchy support and rejection even in the Muslim world, it might not be a bad thing to have advice on how to proceed when it presents itself in a real dispute or claim situation. That might actually be useful?]

Simply one of the suggestions made. Another suggestion, read Kenan Malik.

[And post note – sadly only response was “Yawn”]

Somewhat begrudgingly I noted that the Kenan Malik I was reading was very good. In fact having now finished it, I can say it is truly excellent, probably the only disappointment is that his conclusion primes us for an exhilarating ride, without risking giving any advice on the best strategy. I was sceptical at the cover blurb:

An absolute tour de force. I can imagine it replacing Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy on many a bookshelf – certainly mine. Tom Holland.

Of course its scope is far more than Western  philosophy, and for me Gottlieb’s Dream of Reason had already done that. So much so that I had been eagerly awaiting Gottlieb’s promised sequel to bring that history right up to the present. Gottlieb is in fact one of Malik’s many sources I’ve already absorbed, an important source for the earlier sections, and if anything Malik’s book is the culmination of that dream of reason. Comprehensive and some compelling readings of those philosophers I’d not so far understood as well as many I already valued.

The importance of Aquinas and Spinoza, the hollowness of Sartre, the significance of C S Lewis and Al MacIntyre and ultimately to recognise the ubiquitous East vs West theme in both West vs Islamism and West vs Confucianism without commiting the error of objectifying these as monolithic we vs monolithic other.

In the current climate of scientistic new-atheist secularism vs non-secular religions this is a telling passage:

Science cannot determine values because one cannot scientifically assess what is right and wrong without already having constructed a moral framework within which to evaluate the empirical data. Or, as [Thomas] Huxley put it, science “may teach us how the good and evil tendencies have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before”.

For [Sam] Harris, as for many of the New Atheists, the desire to root morality in science derives from an aspiration to demonstrate the redundancy of religion to ethical thinking. The irony is that the classic argument against looking to God as the source of moral values – the Euthyphro dilemma – [….] – can no more be evaded by scientists claiming to have objective answers to questions of right and wrong than it can by theologists.

Also interesting area is issues of the individual vs society really being ones of context, the individual situated in society including their histories, leading to (necessary) restraints on purely popular democracy. The Chinese “tri-cameral” idea where the lords spiritual have a house distinct from the lords temporal and the other place populated by the popular - contravenes basic secularism, but reinforces the idea that the “popular” cannot be the whole story when it comes to morality and governance.

Interesting also to note as well as MacIntyre and Lewis, and Man’s Search for Meaning, by Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankle, are “profoundly religious books” that comprise main sources of Malik’s closing chapter.

We shall not cease from exploration
At the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– T S Eliot

An excellent educational and thought provoking read.

Perhaps not the environment for a constructive conversation – speaker talks for over 40 minutes and individual audience members get to ask a single question – but for me a disappointing evening at LAAG to hear Charlie Klendjian talk on – well – a bag of loosely related topics.

A lot of “whataboutness” and Godwin’s law (!) in evidence – Nazis, Antisemitism, Khmer Rouge, Communism (sic) for a start. Post Paris and Copenhagen a lot of chaotic opinion on freedom of thought and speech as a “right to offend” and post Rotherham about the PC-Paralysis of “not mentioning” religion and/or race. Then there’s Salman Rushdie – we bottled it (?)  Charlie Hebdo and Blasphemy Law (?) – man, what’s that all about? (Blasphemy & Political Correctness) A lot of western-(middle-class)-white-male war-like talk of attacking and victories. Anyway, eventually the focal point, a thesis that using Islamism instead of Islam itself was a veil behind which to hide fears, and deflect accusations of racism.

No doubt fear and courage play a big part in debates and actions around the current slew of knotty topics, and the successful campaign by Charlie and the LSS to remove any Sharia-specific content(*) from UK legal framework is to be applauded. An aberration by The Law Society surely anyway, but also encouraging to see it not only withdrawn entirely, but with an apology too for the initial error. Unusual courage.

But why the constantly repeated references to “not being racist” and being “friendly and open-minded” ? Methinks it can only give the impression of having to protest too much. Better to address the topic(s) IMHO. For that reason we should use every word in our vocabulary to understand the complexity of the human political and psychological processes involved. (Contrast with the sharpness of Anne-Marie Waters’ agenda at the previous LAAG meeting.)

So, to the meat.

First: Active and Atheist in LAAG? “Active” = talking (and campaigning), “Atheist Group” = about critical thinking. What ? A form of critical thinking that rejects and mocks humanism as apologist at every turn, apparently. And yet apparently we need “unity” amongst rationalist campaigns? Atheism is about not believing in god(s) as part of the explanatory workings of the world. Full stop. (ie it’s about what we’re agreed we’re against. Rationalism and Humanism and Liberalism, unlike Atheism on the other hand, are examples of things we might be for.)

Next: Secular in LSS? Secularism is “about ideas being separate from people”. What? Sounds like a concept of objectivism, though as quoted I couldn’t actually agree with it – ideas are absolutely not separable from people anywhere other than conceptual discourse. Secularism is about not having any established religious position in the lawful governance of the land. Full stop.

Full stop, like murdering cartoonists (and Jews) is not just illegal, but evil. Full stop.

I’m not actually a fan of linguistic definitions and gymnastics as solutions to any problem, but we do need multiple tools to have any understanding of the dialogue necessary if we are to achieve any solutions. Different problems require different / multiple solutions. We can jettison definitive language once we have that shared understanding, and only use it lightly even when having the conversation.

Sadly, ironically, the “PC” attempts to massage meaning and language, as Orwellian as any examples criticised (and mocked), display exactly the PC attitudes to the topics pointed out at the last meeting. Pointing in fact to the very problem screaming to be discussed in the questions from the floor – political correctness. Whether driven by fear or pragmatism – perhaps we can agree on that?

No doubt efforts here (LAAG and LSS) are sincere and courageous, just my fear that throwing every issue into one pot and shaking vigorously is unlikely to achieve more than lowest-common-denominator progress, or worse, degenerative developments.

====

[(*) And here’s a thought. It’s a simple – no-brainer – corollary of secularism that says there should be no religion-specific privileges or exceptions in established legal arrangements. (Secular Muslims would agree whole-heartedly too, even if islamists or jihadists  would – by definition – disagree.) But, given that the existence of Sharia is a real phenomenon, albeit fragmented and ill-defined with patchy support and rejection even in the Muslim world, it might not be a bad thing to have advice on how to proceed when it presents itself in a real dispute or claim situation. That might actually be useful?]

Roughly half-way through, about as far as the reformation and the renaissance, Malik’s potted history of moral philosophy, majoring on the theological. As such it’s pretty good. Many sources I’ve already read, so my prejudice against his presumed (narrow) take on rationality in the humanist atheism vs religion wars got in the way of enjoying the read initially. His presumed agenda preceded him.

So, in fact, I need to record that it’s a good read. Whatever his ultimate agenda and conclusions, his readings are broad and sensitive to the human motivations of their times. Recognises the multi-civilisations “Axial Age” of humanity’s quest for understanding life in the cosmos. The real origins of humanism, in the quest to research “human writings” lost by the later domination of church and scripture – put me in mind of Eco’s Name of the Rose, and an excellent reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the context of Aquinas writings, and the breadths and depths of thinking that prefaced the renaissance itself – on the shoulders of giants. Good stuff.

Struck by Nigel Farage responding to questioning from Mishal Hussein on BBCR4Today on the principle of an immigration commission establishing and enforcing bases for entry (*1) being about “maintaining normality”.

Particularly impressed with his insistance that a quantifiable cap on immigrant numbers was a compete red herring, the point being “social quality”. If pushed, yes he could point at stats at what had been considered “normal”, but turning such numbers into targets and caps was to completely miss the point.

The wider meta-point, is the media generally. Even high-quality journalists are part of an establishment that values quantity above quality. The underlying point for governance is that not everything that counts can be counted. It’s a deeply pernicious (scientistic) kind of political correctness – a meme – underlying governance itself, as well as the media as part of our checks and balances monitoring that governance, to be seen to stick with “objective facts”. As if quality itself were some slippery slope to leading to the PC bogey-man of “moral relativism” (*2).

Numbers are a tool, they are never the point.

(*1) Typically the bases for entry adopt another meme – “the Australian points system” – but again the focus tends to be “economic value vs benefit cost” of the candidate. Of course here too, there must also be a more fundamental cultural normality aspect to the test beyond the numbers. Coincidentally a fit with cultural normality is the immigration focus of another UKIP supporter (Anne Marie Waters) here. A cultural melting pot is one thing, but we don’t want to import memes that positively deny values our culture holds as basic freedoms. (Though as one commenter pointed out, whilst this logic is fine, and there is an element of straw-man I acknowledged in the previous report, the scale of “a few bad apples” amongst immigrant numbers is likely to be very small compared to those home grown by degenerate radicalisation – radicalisation toward illiberal, cultural values that deny basic freedoms I’m talking here, not specifically violent muderous (eg Salafist-jihadi) extremism necessarily. But the principle is nevertheless important – the quality of values held individually is fundamentally more important than a count of total numbers, or less still economic value. Numbers must not rule.)

[(*2) Post Note on Moral Relativism.]

[Post Note : Interesting to note the similarities between Farage view and Milliband’s take. Need to read the latter more closely, is he really agreeing, are they agreeing on the qualitative point about fairness? Hat tip to Daniel Trilling @trillingual – though by exploiting their own refugee family status, they cloud immigration with refugees.]

Following up a hit on Stevie Lange I happened to notice that Billy Kristian’s biog page used my photo from The Golden Lion around 1978/9ish.

Fair trade. Having left my own page with “whatever happened to … ” I also noted there were several RnB / Rock’nRoll legends I still needed to name check, and I see Billy gives them all credits.

So as well as Chris Thomson, Stevie Lange and Billy Kristian, the stellar line-up of Filthy McNasty and Night over that couple of years in London included : Geoff Whitehorn, Clive Edwards, Robbie McIntosh, Rick Marrotta, Nicky Hopkins, Michael McDonald, Bill Payne, Jimmy Johnson (!) and Steve Porcaro.

What? The Jimmy Johnson, guitar of the Swampers? Suspect he could have been on the Night recordings, but maybe not at the Bridgehouse and other London gigs – I’d have noticed, surely. Geoff, Robbie, Rick and Nicky I recall.

There’s an irony in accepted commentary around “extreme Islamism” that people are very PC around avoiding conflating “racism” with opinions about religions. There is of course a minefield of offense to be avoided in offensive presumptions linking ethnic and cultural appearance with religious positions so careful un-prejudiced correctness does not go amiss. However there are also parallels that need to be recognised for what they are, and addressed accordingly – ie correctly.

This Quilliam piece by Haras Rafiq on CNN uses the expression:

“extremism of all kinds as social ill, comparable to racism”.

So in the next breath that we, in liberal western secular democracies, might say there is no such thing as protection of religions from blasphemy to be defined by rights in law, we would also strongly defend laws that protect race, gender and sexuality from any kind of “blasphemy”. ie not just actual expressed, incited or active hatred, but even any implicit prejudice against such freedoms and equalities would get short shrift. Maintaining such positions would be considered offensive, even vicariously offensive on behalf of fellow humankind. So much so that we are happy that such freedoms are protected by rights in law and offenses in criminal law. We hold these things sacred, and consider it sacrilege to oppose them, non-PC to raise arguments against; might even expect to be considered irrational, mad or beyond the pale to even suggest such arguments exist.

If we put the boot on the other foot, there is a world of difference between believing that religion is irrational (by western objective scientistic standards) and believing that Salafist-jihadi-ideology is positively offensive to civilised human values. The former is open to debate and discussion, but doesn’t in itself demand a high-level of engagement, it’s even possible to “not care” in many a context. But the latter is an offense that should be challenged for what it is, spoken-out and acted against individually and institutionally.

The not caring position is well captured by Quilliam’s Maajid Nawaz here.

The individual and institutional challenge to the offensive position is the point of the Haras Rafiq piece. We mustn’t wait for institutional enforcement in response to hateful incitement or murderous acts, but must simply reject the position held. It should be on a par with race, gender and sexual prejudice.

Political correctness must not be allowed to paralyse our ability to identify and act on the issue.

Interesting watching the polarisation of opinion around Mohammed Emwazi (previously “Jihadi John”) – that anyone suggesting “victimhood”, that MI5’s intervention around the time of his deportation from Tanzania has anything to do with the outcome, is given short-shrift and ridicule. In fact, things that alienate angry young men enough to take violent action is a recurring topic around Islamic extremism – and it’s very old news that rebels with a pretext in the absence of a cause attract their gangster’s molls. As I always say, life’s just complicated enough. It’s scientistically simplistic – greedy reductionist – to seek simple “causes” involving existing “subjects” or “objects” to “blame” for events. Longer term outcomes that involve chaotically evolving histories influenced circumstantially by many small choices. None of which is “the” cause. Political (jihadi) ideas aired (freely expressed) at Westminster College were another part of the story. Alienation is still a bad idea. Radicalisation toward extremism is another. Conspiracy or cock-up, they’re called evil. Islamic culture, built on Quranic and other texts apparently requiring human practice beyond the social pale, is also part of the problem.

Blasphemy is invalid as a legal concept simply because of the principle of secularity says religious belief should not form part of society’s governance arrangements. Freedom of thought and expression is enough. Extremism is the evil that society must point to as beyond the pale.

Political correctness must not be allowed to paralyse our ability to consider and act on all the issues. All extremisms are social ills, beyond society’s pale.

[Post Note : I didn’t mention the “Cage” response that materialised at the weekend. They are one of the commentators pointing out the establishment agencies and security forces actions as triggers to alienation and radicalisation, as reasons or causes, even justifications for Emwazi, rather than condemning the evil actions. Fine diatribe from Boris in response:

A response which also picks up on other conflations and generalisations prompting the knee-jerk PC reactions.]

Just joining up some obvious dots.

Should we wish humanity could replace aggression with empathy as suggested by a scientist, or should we talk softly and carry a big stick as suggested by a politician? (Hawking vs Roosevelt)

All or nothing or a balance of both. Having the power to act, the freedom to act is one thing, it is restraint and empathy brought to bear on conflict (verbal or physical) that makes us human.

(When was a “new atheist” last empathetic with a theist for example? Good job the scientists are not in charge.)

Finished Unger & Smolin. Having breezed through Roberto Unger’s 2/3, Lee Smolin’s 1/3 was tougher going. As advertised, this is not “popular science” writing and Smolin drops into the mathematical, symbolic and technical weeds of several aspects of many different theories in physics from quanta and string-theories to cosmogeny itself, and he does it in very clipped highlights, referring to published works of his own (and others) for details.

Maths itself is of course one of the target topics – it’s own evolution (evocation) within our models of the cosmos and its history. Much of the agenda is to propose new directions for research in physics given a radically simpler metaphysics – see my previous summary here – lines of experimentation especially open to falsifiability. The summaries and conclusions are clear and positive for science. Scientists must resist their knee-jerk to run screaming from the metaphysical proposals.

Like Unger, Smolin also spends a good deal of time on the cosmological fallacies and the “problem of the meta-laws”. As I said previously I don’t see meta-laws as a problem per se. Clearly having introduced them, the task is to explain them, but that’s “problematic” only if you see them simply as laws at another level operating on the erstwhile “laws” – ie just a shift in the problem to another set of “laws” outside time and the cosmos – nothing gained explanatorily. Obviously meta-laws are not law-like as we know them; they need to be seen as different principles or forms of causal explanation. For me it’s their meta-ness not their law-ness that is no-brainer significant – recursive, meta upon meta upon … and orthogonal to … the things we generally think of as laws. Different animals altogether. No simple language can yet exist to do justice to their explanation – they’re novel as far as common sense physics is concerned. Anyway, time will tell.

The other pleasant surprise from Smolin is the very brief chapter 7 on the consequences of the new metaphysics for consciousness et al. Perceptions – qualia – are the most certain realities we know, and they’re given a proper place as moments within the real flow of cosmological time. Yes, time is real, so qualia, and consciousness, and free-will, and the creativity of genuine novelty can all be real too. Hallelujah. A much needed injection of common sense into so-called science of consciousness.

I’m going to have to investigate more of Smolin and how he fits with accepted “authority” within physics and the philosophy of science. Suggestions on further reading much appreciated.

Unger & Smolin is a recommended read for anyone interested enough to wade through the philosophical and scientific technicalities, and a compulsory read for any scientists bumping up against the gaps and mysteries in the standard models of accepted physics.

[Post Note : From Bryan Appleyard’s review :

It’s important because it is not just about physics …
It is about the way we live now
and the world view we have been sold as “scientific”.

Science is currently selling us a pup. And “scientific” in scare quotes – what I tend to brand as scientistic. Interesting, last time I commented on Appleyard.]

[Post Note : Related from Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post on why science is hard to believe (via Sabine Hossenfelder) :

Scientists can be as dogmatic as anyone else … For some [scientists], the tribe is more important than the truth; for the best scientists, the truth is more important than the tribe.

Scientists can be as PC as anyone else.]

Not in any technical sense incest, agreed. No sense of “genetic-in-breeding” in the specific conception, but nevertheless a little weird arrangement.

“Beautiful” if you’re a geneticist / biologist that Mary chose her brother to be the “biological” father of her “adoptive” child, as sperm donor to her marriage partner, specifically to have some genetic tie with the child. Neat solution to the wish, I’d agree.

But the father (brother) living with the biological and adoptive mother in the same family household as “Daddie”(?), and the idea of choosing a donor for their genetic content for a non-medical reason(?), are both worthy of ethical committee scrutiny as possible precedents. I’m uncomfortable with both. Being possible, doesn’t make it good. (The “love” is not in doubt, but the underlying issue here as in other means of “assisted conception” is whether parenthood is in any sense a “right” – sufficiently strong to push other ethical boundaries.)