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I mentioned earlier last week looking forward to today’s BBC R4 Something Understood “Deserts.

Seeing fatally sunned sandy deserts through western, male, blue eyes (Laurie Lee’s Scott in the Desert) as a contrasting preface to the native female story of Hagar and Ishmael, highlighting of course that the sandy kind are not the only deserts.

Poetic thought in old testament literature. We watch the sun set fire to the sea … Neil Hannon … I might add to the thoughtful and thought-provoking selection. The fear of human (rational) arrogance turning our seeming progress back to post-apocalyptic natural wilderness – letting the desert back in.

Great use of radio to paint images with sound, words and music. Also a feature of the series to let the content speak for itself, without an explicit message or agenda – what is understood is something, not any particular thing. Good stuff.

An interesting irony reading Julian Baggini’s 2015 “Freedom Regained“. Baggini was famously underwhelmed when he attempted to interview Robert Pirsig back in 2006 given that Grayson Perry quoted Pirsig in his 2013 Reith Lectures on the creativity of art.

Baggini quotes Perry’s use of the Pirsig passage – creative ideas as small timid furry creatures, easily scared away into the undergrowth – and continues to use the same metaphor over the subsequent paragraphs on artistic freedom as a better model of freedom than consumer choice.

[More on Pirsig?]

Strong parallel between Perry’s freedom as the rails on which we run, and the John Gray / Heinrich von Kleist metaphor in the freedom of a marionette – not to mention an antidote to the “trolleyology” of moral choice. What are real constraints on freedom – the freedom to run on one’s own tramlines?

For this to be freedom [in the understood sense], there must be some reflection on, control over and endorsement of the desires, beliefs and values you have. But there is no need whatsoever for us to be the originating author of any of these.

Money, resources, practical rather than metaphysical.
“The biggest constraint on any human being is time.”

This is why I say, most recently below, real freedom is about standardisation for efficiency reasons. We can’t spend all our time deciding every decision to act from first principles, although we are “free” to do so.

 

Struck by two references to E. M. Forster in a couple of days. Reading John Gray, as I was last week, as I was intrigued by reference to E. M. Forster that I clearly need to follow-up. Now I’m no fan of Julian Baggini, having described him as the “darling of British philosophy”, wheeled out for media-friendly quotes, and the book of his I’m currently reading came with blurb I’d already bought. Namely that free will is real, and the tendency of science to accuse it of being “merely” an illusion is a failure of science. Free will is alive and well.

I’m resisting the temptation to skip straight to Baggini’s conclusions in “Freedom Regained” – the varieties of free will worth having, worth believing in and worth striving to defend. Having implicitly maligned him, I’d like to do his writing justice. I’m only into the second chapter, and already we’ve covered mis-interpretations of Libet, having started with Laplace’s demon and looked at why neither determinism nor materialism, nor even reductionism, need be nails in free-will’s coffin.

“How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” as E. M. Forster perceptively put it. We should not [never did] need neuroscience to tell us that our conscious minds are often the last to know what we’re thinking.

And referencing Buddhist [mindfulness]:

[We] do have some conscious control over how much we attend to [our thoughts], but we do not control their happening.”

Many more of the usual references, Kant and Hume, Dawkins and Harris, with more Spinoza and Dennett to come, but looking promising for some new avenues of thought. Not entirely an exercise in philosophology.

Sam Harris comes in for some analysis, as I’ve done here before:

Even Sam Harris, the most fervent denier of free-will, says:
“The fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean they don’t matter.”
“Human choice … is as important as fanciers of free will believe.”

Earlier, Baggini points out Harris’ failure to emphasise the second clause here:

“we are not the authors or our thoughts and actions
in the way that people generally suppose.”

Though Harris seems to fit the provocative mould of the worst of the “shrill” scientistic types, I have maintained he wins out because like Dennett, he really is a philosopher first. Though he “denies” free will in simple declarative statements, to fall in line with the crusading anti-superstition armies, he clearly and carefully qualifies what he says, even if what he chooses to emphasise is driven by his personal marketing choices.

Baggini’s suggestion of  99% subconscious vs 1% conscious processing of previous experience is to my mind pure standardisation – with the same efficiency and consistent quality basis as standardisation in any industrial context. If we had to design every chosen solution to every context, we’d never have time to live creatively, or indeed live life.

Well beyond the Forster reference now, so far as I know, I also noticed the Hofstadter “meta” connection in Baggini’s use of the Tom Stoppard “Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead.” Once we raise issues of “fate” to conscious thought, we have changed fate. By slipping side-ways we create new levels, and leave category errors in our wake. Thinking about thinking is something different to thinking, and we’re free to repeat, to pile on the meta-levels ad infinitum. That’s what humans do.

And finally for now, at the end of chapter 3 “The Genticist” in which the nature vs nurture arguments are played out with the natural conclusion that either/or is misguided, I hear the following passages in the context of the most celebrated freedom of will, the freedom of thought and expression. Baggini makes these points in reaction to the emphasis on complete freedom of choices when we assess freedoms:

If we become accustomed to thinking of freedom as completely unfettered, anything more limited will, at first sight, look like an emaciated form of liberty. We might even dismiss it as mere wiggle room: the ability to make limited choices within a framework of great restraint. But that would be a great mistake.Unfettered freedom is not only an illusion; it makes no sense. It would not be desirable even if we could have it. Choices are not meaningful unless they reflect values, and values cannot be meaningfully chosen unless we already have some.

The scientific world view, therefore, destroys only a strawman version of free will, a naive conception that would crumble under rational scrutiny long before scientists could get there hands on it. Quite simply, the commonplace idea of free will we have lost was always wrong. Good riddance to it.

A little microcosm today of why I find myself (as an atheist) arguing in defence of religious theists, particularly more sophisticated theologian types, when they’re confronted with the stereotypical “flying spaghetti monster” or Dawkins / Krauss  attack formations.

You know the kind, since god is clearly a ridiculous supernatural invention, everything you believe or say you do based on those values is fair game for criticism – ridicule – because that core assumption is ridiculous, obviously, right?

Sure the values captured and conserved within religions are neither exclusive to either any one religion or even the theistic religions in general, nor are they even invented by those religions, more co-opted from civilised experience – wisdom. (And further co-opted by national cultures as a result – think of the current tiresome “there are no such things as British values” mantra. Zzzzz.)

And obviously, does it even need saying, neither do such beliefs represent “objective truths” to a rationalist, whether hard-core or merely wet-apologist.

Clearly if you come up against some naive believer, simplistic arguments based on the ridiculousness of some literal aspect of their belief – preferably with a little wit, irony and satire if ridicule is your wont – then the potentially offensive risk of the ridiculous is a fair – attention-grabbing maybe even though-provoking – choice of weapon.

If your interlocutor’s attention is already there – say a theologian or scholar who’s studied the topic – then this tactic serves little purpose other than to make the point about yourself – you find the idea ridiculous (yeah, we get that) – and, depending on how well you know your interlocutor and /or how witlessly you deliver the criticism, other than to offend for offense’s sake. There’s a lot of it about.

It would need a separate thread – a book – on how best to conduct constructive criticism with a more sophisticated interlocutor – from which you might both learn something, but today I learned something.

Samira Ahmed tweeted a blog today about her upcoming “Something Understood” (Sunday 19th on BBC R4), and I exchanged a couple of comments with her.

I was hooked at the mention of T E Lawrence and the allure of the desert, Ozymandias too. Lawrence of Arabia was a boyhood favourite, and since acquiring David Lean’s cut on DVD, I do indeed sit in anticipation each time of the dot of Omar Sharif’s approach from the horizon – an expectation extended both musically and visually in that edition. (And as she commented, the effect works even through the musical score alone.)

Ishmael is a motif I’ve referenced several times, as used by many authors post Melville’s narrator in Moby Dick, seeking to discover the (tiny) leviathan in the vast inhospitable desert of the sea. The story of Ishmael is the core of Ahmed’s piece. The story of Hagar and Ishmael that is, banished to the desert wilderness in the bible story. A story I’d forgotten until Ahmed’s tweet reminded me:

It’s like a whole parallel narrative in Genesis.
Why the OT is such a great literary work.

Worth understanding. Literary value is as real as any. This really struck home back in 2002 when I was reading Dupuy on the original 1976 Macy conference on Cybernetics and Cognitive Science – in the days when these subjects were about evolving human systems of self-governance, before being usurped by the AI & Tech fraternity (*). Dupuy described the problem as:

The schizophrenia between the need for formal models
… and the nevertheless deeply held belief that ….
… literature is a superior form of knowledge to science.

I shall be listening to Samira Ahmed on Something Understood this Sunday.

[(*) Coincidentally (!) I was clearly reading Melville at the time I blogged about Dupuy.]

My southbound East Coast (Virgin) (06:32 Darlington to Kings Cross) was delayed this morning for around 40 minutes, halted and slow-running until we got past Retford. Apparently some chav had nicked the signal cables.

Anyway, the extra 40 minutes on board meant I could listen to Start-the-Week following on from Today on BBC R4 before we pulled into KGX. A good one – despite guests from 4 different fields – the focus was altruism and the good life. Worth a listen.

The take-away for my agenda was more group-level evolution – what’s good for the group is good for the individuals, even if each and any individual takes a cost hit – small or large – for the benefit of the whole. Good to hear Sloan-Wilson pointing out Dawkins disagreement. The key was communication and group sizes. Too public do-gooding in too large a group makes if difficult to keep real account of whether the doing is really investment justifying less-good deeds less-publicly later. With many groups across multi-levels any “utilitarian” cascade of accounting is not really an objective matter.

John Gray is one of those philosopher / social commentators that has been dawning on me slowly. Positive mentions since 2008, and that was a link to a “Straw Dogs” post from 2005, and again in 2009 with “Gray’s Anatomy”. Increasingly frequent notices of Guardian pieces picked from social media – including this recent long read “What Scares the New Atheists” – until I eventually went to hear him speak in interview with Will Self a couple of weeks ago. Since then I have for the first time read more than an article, reading his “The Soul of the Marionette”.

First impression is somewhere between Zizek and Eagleton – in the sense of pricking received wisdom on the big issues – unconventional, laconic and erudite, but less flamboyantly so as perhaps befits his surname. Easier to miss until you sit up and concentrate. Until now I’d forgotten my own pre-2014 references already recorded here.

I like what I read. A good read, dead pan as if he’s stating the obvious. If as I do, you already buy what’s wrong with received wisdom – our objectively rational arrogance – as I’ve been calling it for 15 years – then it is obvious. What I don’t buy though is the cup half empty (more like 99% empty) pessimism of his main conclusions – that we are not just misguided and mistaken in our freedoms and competencies to affect the world for mutual benefit, but we are practically helpless and hopeless. Get over ourselves! We are the problem, not part of the solution. Not surprisingly he is accused of the nihilism he naturally denies. We’re doomed, he doesn’t actually say.

His main theme is to sow the seed that a string puppet is more free than we are – a theme he borrows from Heinrich von Kleist. A puppet doesn’t need to expend any effort counteracting gravity, that’s already been taken care of in its puppet world and is therefore free to participate in positive activities. We on the other hand are beset with maintaining and dealing reactively with the infrastructure of living more than acting creatively.

I say main theme, because although it recurs from beginning to end, the main chapter contents are quite distinct topics. Some quite disturbing, by design of course.

In The Puppet Theatre – Roof Gardens, Feathers and Human Sacrifice, he is describing the logic of human sacrifice in Aztec civilisation, obviously perverse to received wisdom. You can’t help develop that uneasy feeling that talking reasonably about positive benefits of such activities is dangerously close to potential supporting arguments for ISIS – a point he eventually makes. It’s an exercise in getting the reader to confront how foreign accepted practice could be.

In Dark Mirrors, Hidden Angels and Algorithmic Prayer Wheels, he contrasts that routine consumption of a small selection of human lives, in an otherwise stable society, with human lives lost in conflict in the mainstream world as we know it. You can’t help feeling he’s unpicking the comfortable arithmetic of Stephen Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature – which of course he is. He’s written critical articles on that work before. Life is more complicated than arithmetic, and arithmetic based on inevitably selective data at that, can lead to unintended consequences.

I like the assured style of declarative writing without pausing to insert supporting references. Maybe it appeals to my “knowing” mentality, but the book is properly referenced, in page-numbered notes at the end of the text.

Two connected topics, where I disagree with his apparent conclusions. Sure, looking at cybernetics as a machine view of systems, and then hoping to use such a view to find free-will and some privileged form of human consciousness in the mechanistic functioning of our brains is a fools quest. But, cybernetics is only a machine view to the computer geeks who’ve come to dominate our tech-driven world. In reality how information is organised and processed to govern our decisions is independent of machine based systems, independent of any physical substrate – or at least it was when Wiener and co developed the idea. It was exploitation of the idea by the “military-industrial machine” – to fund the same people who invented it – that channeled it into computer systems technology.

Some great stuff on conspiracy theories and the quest for meaning. And a dozen other references – in the end notes – that I need to follow-up, not least E M Forster and Nassim Taleb. A thoroughly worthwhile and disconcerting, though-provoking read.

Picture this:

(1) A is a Christian, but …

(2) A is a Christian who is also a theologian, a Christian who’s given it some thought, and been able to show at least some level of intelligence, and …

(3) A is a theologian whose belief motivated them to heroic courageous acts that culminated in their death at the hands of the Nazis.

Now consider that:

(4) Some people “criticise” Christians satirically in general for believing in a god like anyone might believe in a “spaghetti monster” – which would be seen as a stupid thing to do – but this is irony, right? so most Christians would accept such a criticism without personal offence – turn the other cheek, etc. (Though there is no actual “argument” in this criticism, other than to make the “and that would be stupid” point. It’s a free country n’all that.)

(5) Another theologian B points out the historical heroism of A (point 3 above), and ends with the footnote that FSM’s (flying spaghetti monsterists and like people) should take that as “a point of reference” – something to think about – no specific message. That’s it. End of.

Then, digressive twitter debate ensues. ie interminable in short bites, because each bite introduces a new topic, without ever agreeing conclusion of any existing topic. So what were the topics?

====

Deliberately paraphrasing, to home in on intended issues, maybe this is the assertion from one side : Believing in god or spaghetti monsters is stupid or at least irrational, but this is needn’t be ad-hominem criticism, insulting such people as stupid, unless their personal beliefs in this regard interfere with their public actions.

(Obviously, people hold many beliefs and are motivated to many actions – so apart from some general concept of self-consistency – not all actions are motivated by all beliefs. We’re talking about specific individual beliefs, motivations and related actions.)

So, do individual beliefs form part of their motivations?
And do such beliefs and motivations therefore affect individuals public actions and their intended outcomes?

If no. STOP (Start separate discussion on the individual and free will, etc.)

So, yes, in general actions are motivated by belief:

But do we believe A’s actions specifically were motivated by their Christian belief,
And do we agree A’s – very public – actions were indeed, good, virtuous, courageous and/or heroic say?

(ie not just Christian belief and believers in general, but an individual theologian whose heroic life was very much defined by this fact.) Note there’s nothing exclusive in these statements, about all good actions necessarily being attributed to Christian belief, nor that equally good actions are motivated in others with other beliefs. Just a fact in this individual case.

Yes?

====

C : I don’t see the connection [between spaghetti monster criticisms and recognising the goodness of A’s actions]. Criticising religion doesn’t equate to disrespecting individuals such as this, does it?

This is the point – not seeing the connection – does affect the ability to see the relationship between the belief and the “good” action of the individual. The nature of the criticism does affect the view of the individual and the relationship between their beliefs motivations and actions.

So how do we join up the nature of criticism of someone’s beliefs, with opinions (more beliefs) about the quality of them and their actions.

We have a (at least) three things – qualities of people, their beliefs and their actions – individually and collectively, whole and in part. [Now this discussion is 3000 years old. Virtue and the virtues. Old, and knotty too.]

Clearly, objectively, with hindsight, we judge the quality of people in their actions.

At that point we may say their motivations and the beliefs that underpin them are not relevant, so long as their actions appear “good”. (Though even this depends on how much the quality of consequences are indeed apparent at any given viewpoint in time – but for now we may hold that belief and motivation – and any other qualities of the individual – are irrelevant.)

So why then, does anyone criticise anyone else’s beliefs?
Why does anyone care if such criticisms cast aspertions about qualities of the individuals that hold them?

Well, because we do care and we do value them. Beliefs are NOT irrelevant.

We judge historical actions (and expressions of beliefs and motivations, verbal or otherwise, are simply more actions) as a stock of resource in the person – qualities and values – their “virtues”. And we value them because we have to judge who to support, ally with, vote for, be seen having a beer with, now and in the future. A “stranger” about whom we know nothing empirically is either given the benefit of the doubt or treated with caution and suspicion, or typically some combination of the two, until more “objective” evidence emerges. But we value the emerging stock of virtue(s).

C : People “are” – all a mass of countless beliefs and actions. Criticising part is (obviously) not criticising the whole.

Absolutely – individually we are is simply the collection and organisation of the information patterns we hold to date. [Meme theory of individual cognition & consciousness. We ARE our resource of human virtues.] And, before we act, or speak, these are “in our heads” (and hearts).

We can’t criticise (or appreciate) people’s ideas (and their stock of motivations and virtues) independent of the person. They are them. If we care about the person, we must care how we criticise their ideas.

Now for most people with a wide range of beliefs and ideas, it’s perfectly possible to criticise an individual idea (or action or motivation) distinct from a wider complex of ideas. To criticise a part but not the whole individual. Note however for both subject and critic there is some sense of necessary consistency in that complex as a whole. How consistent, and how much effort and competence is put to developing and rationalising that consistent whole, varies enormously – hence the knotty twists of virtue and the virtues, and the examined life. Not all Christians can be theologians. Not all cyclists can be trick-cyclists.

So what is the point of the original footnote.

All beliefs are open to criticism, and criticism includes ridicule (though see separate restraints on gratuitously offensive ridicule beyond the context of satire and irony).

Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (FSM) is of the ridicule variety – suggesting the belief (in spaghetti monsters or supernatural gods) is so ridiculous, it’s a ridiculous – stupid – belief to hold. And of course it’s very general, aimed at the belief and believers as a whole. I’ve not seen FSM make any subtle distinctions between belief, motivation and action; simply that the belief is, and hence believers are, ridiculous. [Interesting development re PZ Myers yesterday.]

If the only thing you know about someone (or care about someone) is their theistic (Christian or other) belief or, in the case of A (and possibly B), that belief is actually their defining belief – FSM ridicules the whole of the person you know. As criticism goes, it’s a very blunt instrument.

If you want to criticise someone’s belief by generic ridicule, you better know a bit more about them, their motivations and actions, before implying insult to the whole person. Criticise with care.

Better still, why not try constructive criticism with someone you do have some respect for. But that’s another story.

C = Clive Andrews @CliveAndrews

B = The reverend Richard Coles @RevRichardColes

A = Dietrich Bonhoeffer #SorrydonthavehisTwitterhandle.

[Footnote – B’s own footnote was click-bait of course, but nowhere did it suggest criticism was out of bounds, nor did it suggest any exclusivity of Christian good. It simply said before you criticise – ridicule – Christian beliefs in general, spare a thought for this individual case.]

Post from Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland, disowning any association with PZ Myers. (Hat tip to @AMDWaters) I’ve had my run-ins with PZ Myers via his Pharyngula blog several times in the past often, if you look at the links, trying to give the positive benefit of the doubt that the rhetoric is worse than the bite, but most frequently giving up in the face of the baying mob argumentation style stirred up in his comment threads.

In fact it’s quite some time since I’ve looked at anything PZ has said or written – so it’s interesting to read Nugent’s piece. Sounds like PZ is single-handedly taking-up the absence of anyone’s right not to be offended, by offending anyone and everyone gratuitously – even erstwhile allies. Highly irrational (and offensive).

I ventured an opinion in my last post on the state of party politics in the current election campaign. Normally I’m more interested in the principles and practicalities of governance itself, but in a democracy we do each have to make a choice occasionally, so picking between party ideologies and “manifestos” – even individuals and policies – does require careful consideration once in a while.

Having posted those opinions, my attention was drawn to several other posts today. The thread that emerged is a recurring one for me.

However dissatisfied we get with the current “political classes” free democracy demands we value that what we have is a free democracy. After all we seem to value that those without it deserve one. Benevolent dictatorship may be the only option that’s better than all the others – nice work if you can get it – but ultimately those we choose to govern us, we must trust.

Scepticism is “de rigeur” for us rational humans, free to doubt or question anything – a no brainer. But it’s not clever or sophisticated to fulfill scepticism with cynicism (hat tip to Sam @elizaphanian), to treat everything as doubtful or untrustworthy or without authority just because as sceptics we are free to do so. In any case where “to be on the safe side” infringed our otherwise reasonable personal liberty, we’d all be in line to denigrate “health and safety gone mad”. (Unintended consequences – think of the cockpit door in #4U9525)

Jim Walsh, CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society, posted a longer post that @conwayhall tweeted today, extolling trust to slake our ethical thirst. Why should we allow fear to change otherwise hard-won freedoms? Freedoms based on valuing – loving – humanity, not by default fearing and distrusting ourselves. Sure we address specific fears and risks arising as problems requiring solutions, but let’s not revise fundamental freedoms.

Topically enough then, BBC correspondent Gavin Hewitt suggested – “Fear dominating election campaign.” and BBC political editor Nick Robinson opines – “Europe: Why you can believe Blair on this.” Even Blair, demonised for his mis-justified, and possibly mis-guided, campaign into Iraq – whose “unintended consequence” meant we failed to help Syria when it needed us – demands our trust, on balance, in context. It was Slavoj Zizek’s “Empty Wheelbarrow” that first pointed out post-9/11 that we must be more circumspect than to accept decisive (ie divisive) calls to “for us or against us” action justified by palpable fear.

Fear and cynicism must not be allowed to crowd out trust and love; faith and trust in love.

What’s so funny ’bout … again and again.

 

Struggling with voting choices in upcoming 2015 election. The 7-way debate of last week was predictable. Good to see 3 women leaders, though equally sad to see their “team women” photo-call opportunity not being missed.

Nicola Sturgeon was predictably smooth, skilled debater like Nick Clegg, but irrelevant (on principle) unlike Clegg. Irrelevant to UK politics that is, so a relatively easy job to come out serenely above the Westminster party-political sniping. Plaid Cymru predictably still having to compete for their Welsh vote, unlike SNP in Scotland, so narrowly targetted messages from Leanne Wood. Nigel Farage on the other hand with an opportunity to play the broader statesman he was aspiring towards, clearly feeling the need to reinforce his core support with his one-trick message – controlling immigration and stopping foreign aid – especially as stopping foreign aid can be counted as economic policy too (!)

I commented some weeks ago that it was a pity the single issue parties had to pretend to have full manifestos across all policy areas – like the big boys. As special interest groups they’d be better sticking to their core principles as part of negotiating their interests in future alliances, rather than diluting their resources dreaming up economic policies – especially as economic policies are for the birds anyway, be honest. But no, the media wants the effin’ numbers.

Take John Simpson on BBC R4 Today this morning interviewing Natalie Bennett – excellent again, as she was last week. She was tripped up a few weeks ago, when she stumbled over numbers that needed to add up – seen as a major gaff – but in fact that’s when I expressed the opinion above – that the single-issue parties shouldn’t pretend to have government manifestos. They should be marketing their main principles to influence and fit with policies of government parties. Simpson couldn’t get his head round the difference between policy as a statement of principles and governing values, and “manifesto” as plans (and promises and contracts with numbers and dates) for a government. Well done to Natalie for sticking to her point.

It’s a pity “marketing” has to be cast as a necessary evil – tainted by commercial consumer business – whereas what single issues really require is explaining how they (might) fit with bigger pictures. Proper narratives, proper vision. The only “selling” the Simpsons of this world seem to get is arithmetic. Brainless stuff, and irrelevant to the values that matter. As an engineer with interests in Oil & Gas and Energy businesses, I actually disagree with a number of Green policies as plans, but Natalie talks the most sense, and I prefer sense to arithmetic. Principles matter, even if you have to bend them to pragmatism.

Did anyone – in the first week of campaigning – mention foreign policy so far, even once (unless you count Farage)? The threat to stable world peace from Islamism has to be our top issue – other local economic difficulties pale into insignificance. Why should Westminster politicians be trading blows over NHS operational arrangements – simply allocate the tax funds, empower the management, get out of the bloody way and focus on what really matters. (At least no-one’s offered to “reform” education – again – yet.)

Until we have PR – even more critical in these post-two-party-system days – when one party trying to establish its identity distinct from all others is less and less likely to have the complete package, then all the bets for voting on policy content are off. Naturally, I’m a social democrat, so Lib Dem by preference, with acknowledged takes from conservative values (with the small c) and the “united conservatism” angle of UKIP, but Labour in practice since Clegg destroyed all the value previously earned by the gang of four in his alliance with the Tories. Labour in my local constituency – local boy, done good, knows the issues.

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.

[Post note : Iain McGilchrist link on emissary and master – two modes of brain function,]

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?]