Our hearts go out to those caught up in the Paris and Beirut atrocities of the past week. At the beginning of the year we were all “Je Suis Charlie” and now 70% of my Facebook contacts have adopted the tricolor avatar of “Vive Paris”. [See also Isabel Hardman.] Charlie Hebdo was specifically – no less unjustified – in the sphere of freedom of expression, whereas the recent Paris attacks were of the more general “indiscriminate” soft terror target. Still, disconcerting that human nature more quickly expressed solidarity with the closer to home event than equally atrocious, soft and indiscriminate Lebanese or Somali or Nigerian events in between, but the instinctive solidarity should be no less real.

And, take your pick – ISIS / Daesh / AlQaeda / Taliban / BokoHaram – whatever violent terrorism (against hard / soft / human and cultural targets) committed by or with allegiance to any variation of Islamist extremist with or without specific claims in the name of Islam – is murderous evil first and foremost. And why stop there, – this has always and equally been true for IRA / ETA / BMG, any flavour of terrorism in fact. (For so-called “state-sponsored terrorism” – see *)

The first response is quite rightly honor & respect for, and human solidarity with, those affected directly, as well as using lethal force against perpetrators to prevent continuation and (however imperfectly) bring to justice and secure against recurrence. Part of that solidarity is to continue our lives there and elsewhere as normally as possible in defiance of the immediate terrorist aim or threat of insecurity. And still a further part is at the very least to respect the “security forces” efforts to achieve that. Even we non-theist / non-religious / non-believers should recognise this “human solidarity” as the spiritual core of “religion” – that which binds us (as humans). Something true quite independent of any specific religious “dogmas”, churches, texts or their interpretations.

This is surely a given. Clear and simple.

To raise any objections or even nuances at this point of immediacy – in our Spartacus moment – is often branded “apologist”. But to recognise there is more detail to be considered beyond this immediate response is not apologist at all. Terrorism is evil. But to stop there and to see it as pure evil – by “evil monsters” – without an agenda is denialism, a refusal to acknowledge and address any underlying issues.

What else these are depends on the agendas of the particular terrorists – actual and claimed. An extremist with no agenda is vanishingly rare. An extremist whose claimed objective is the whole of their motivation is similarly rare. So:

  • Violent Terrorist who is Nihilist or Strategic Anarchist – Evil for evil’s sake, literally no other agenda, is the vanishingly rare case. No respect for society’s governance and legal arrangements. To be taken out by lethal force.
  • Violent Terrorist who is Tactical Anarchist – Aims may not be total anarchy, but probably much reduced regulation by state and social constituencies, using immediate anarchy as means to that end with no respect for humanity in the process. To be taken out by lethal force IF they refuse surrender to the current judicial system.
  • Violent Terrorist with any other political agenda – ie 99.99% of terrorists. To be taken out by lethal force IF they refuse surrender to the current judicial system AND to work to understand and address the particular underlying issues that motivate the terrorists directly and indirectly by association.

In the case of Jihadist / Islamist terrorists, much of their agenda may be claimed to be in the name of an Islamic religious objective, supported by their religious texts. Even for the claimants, an Islam-dominated state may be a common real aim, it may not be that objective in isolation, a means to an end. And, for the vast majority of adherents to Islam, the claim may be in the name of their religion, but not a claim they share or even recognise. A claim that majority reject as not in my name. Indeed most such religious adherents hold to the same basic human solidarity as the rest of us.

Now amongst religions, Islam does have particular problems as a source of such claims, and indeed deeper historical and cultural issues in terms how “Islamic” societies handle equality of opportunity, toleration of difference and freedoms of expression. And there is a whole agenda – a dozen agendas – there in how such issues should be addressed by society at large and by the wider Moslem community, working through normal processes of governance and change. But that agenda has little to do with the extremist terrorist agenda, except by association and as a potential source of difference and grievance.

The idea that Islamist terrorism is everything to do with Islam is just as fatuous as the claim it has nothing to do with Islam. Islam does have specific problems in their own right as well as these feeding into extreme Islamist agendas, actual and claimed.

In practice any claim of Islamic agendas by the Islamist extremists and terrorists, is always part of a wider political objective. At one extreme the assertion and imposition of an Islamic state per se, but always with a perhaps unspoken “anti-western” agenda – a state of affairs reacting to perceived oppressive, imperialist relationships in local and global economies. A more Islamic state in reaction to a more-western / less-Islamic state arrangement. Throw into that factional Islamic agendas between states with different positions in those relationships – Baathist, Salafist, Sunni, Shia, Saudi, Iraqi, Iranian, geo-political agendas then the power relationships of these with those western states and access to resources is complicated to say the least – on many cultural and ideological axes on any number of historical timescales. And of course the many states involved are at many different points on the axes of freedom and democracy. Suffice to say western positioning in those global geo-econo-political situations has its own imperfections, differences and hypocrisies between states. (* Given these even complexities it’s not difficult to see “legitimate” actions of states branded as state-sponsored terrorism, if only rhetorically.) Even without these specifics, resentments may simply be rejection of basic western democratic freedoms. Life’s complicated and these particular relationships have their own historical complications, so much so we even have a collective name for it – “The Middle East” situation.

The anti-western sentiments are real in those who perpetrate or embrace terrorism against the west or against interests in the complex situation that includes western relationships. And this is true whether the individual extremists have any first-hand reason to perceive any “imperialist oppression” or prejudices against themselves, or simply as more comfortable intellectual reasons to identify with such groups that do, or simply as more ignorant misguided “radicalisation”.

Disaffection and grievance arise in many forms. Resentment can run very deep.

As many commentators have already pronounced – we can never have total security as a solution to terrorist intent. A solid policy of enforcing such security so far as practically possible, in the face of the fact lethal force will always involve political (and human) risks and the fact that it can never totally succeed anyway is at least one incentive to remind would-be terrorists that we are not simply going to let them get away with it, martyr or not.

Be thankful the security guard on the gates of the Stade de France enforced the simple policy of frisking the suicide bomber that rocked-up there. We might otherwise be standing in solidarity with thousands rather than hundreds of innocent dead and maimed in Paris. [Hero security guards did their job – 3 suicide bombers, one victim.]

But one thing’s certain. Whilst addressing the immediate human solidarity and security enforcement aspects of Islamic terrorism, if we then fail to address, and be seen to address, underlying grievances real or imagined, then the motivations never go away and terrorism will continue and escalate.

Vive liberté, égalité, fraternité.


Previously on Psybertron – Islam, We Have a Problem – one of 3 pieces written in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, where the specific topic at issue was freedom of expression, but many of the considerations of “imperfections” in the accepted western free-democratic position are clearly also relevant.

Also, previously on Psybertron – Anne Marie Waters talks sense on deeper oppressive and misogynistic aspects of Islam itself. (And my subsequent piece on the confusing bollocks created by conflation of Islam & Islamic culture with Islamism and Islamist policy, extreme or otherwise.)

See also Radical Islam and the Rage Against Modernity by Kenan Malik on Pandemonium. And his After Paris.

See also On Ideology and the Denial of Islamic Terror by Ben Cobley on A Free Left Blog.

See also Nine Conclusions Not To Draw From Paris by Douglas Murray in The Spectator.

And specifically on the French connection Haroon Moghul at Quartz, history matters even when it doesn’t justify:

[The] issues are worth paying attention to.
To be abundantly clear, these neither explain nor justify the attacks.
But they help explain why France is so repeatedly targeted.

And an alternative view of unintended consequences suggests at least how seriously the complexity has to be taken, even if you don’t agree with the logic and conclusions. Bassam Tawil at Gatestone Institute on what we might learn from the Israel-Palestine component of the problem. Hat tip to @AMDWaters.

And some truth in irony taking apologism to its logical extreme, on Facebook:

Media preview

Enough for now.

I’ve been blogging for over 15 years and reached a point in life, as has happened a couple of times before in that time, where I need to take stock due to some significant life changes happening. I should probably “just write a book” as the psychiatrist said to the madman, and in fact more than one reader has actually suggested that to me, which is nice.

There is a side-project to write a book of course, various draft ideas, works in progress, along with several other hopeful initiatives. One way or another all the words I need to say are already in the blog, though (after Eric Morecambe) not necessarily in the right order.

From my perspective, although I flit about across many apparent subjects in the blog (and associated Twitter exchanges) the underlying theme is if anything becoming more narrowly definable even than the manifesto. In ever sharper focus. Of course my (anyone) being able to define it succinctly and accurately doesn’t do justice to its consequential scope – hence the need to elaborate with intelligible examples and engaging narratives.

Meantime, below, I’m posting a state of my nation to pull together many of the seemingly disparate topics and fulfill several promises to elaborate on one or two of them in a coherent way. To take stock and preserve a few key unspoken connections.

[He said confidently …]

So sad to lose Lisa Jardine. I was lost for words last night as the news came through via Twitter, and today maybe 95% of my Twitter activity feed has been dedicated to her. That may say something about the kind of people I follow on Twitter, but she surely made an impression on those who encountered her. Genuinely appreciated and missed by many.

Little I can add to the tributes from friends who knew her as colleagues at Cambridge, QML and UCL, and the many varied groups she worked with. Like her father, she impressed me on radio and TV before I’d ever met her and I’d already blogged a few references. I count myself lucky to have met her 3 or 4 times in the last two years working in London, and blogged those encounters.

Having discovered she shares that same “Bronowski moment” so many of us shared, and seen how close she was to her father as his celebrity was cut short by his own ill-health and death, it was fascinating to hear her talk on her work researching and writing his biography, like a true historian valuing the necessary interpretation, the imaginative filling-in and story-telling. I think my last interaction with her on Twitter was to ask how that publishing deadline was coming along. I wonder now what will become of that unfinished project.

But as one door closes others open. Historian David Cesarani, who also died yesterday, is someone I was only vaguely aware of until now. And Alison Jardine, her daughter-in-law, was introduced to many via Lisa’s Twitter feed, sharing examples of her artistic works and successes. Beyond viewing such pieces on-line, I’d never really looked at Alison’s on-line profile until now. Imagine my surprise to find she is based in Deep Ellum, that little Bohemia the wrong side of the interstate in downtown Dallas. Having visited Dallas several times, usually on a day or two breaks away from other business in Texas over the years, I’ve returned to bars, restaurants and music clubs between Elm, Main and Commerce, the opposite end from Dealey Plaza. A favourite spot.

Life after death is assured for memories of Lisa.

[Post Note : This has to be one of the best tributes, from Erica Wagner. Conveys the faith in humanity behind the intellect.]

[Post Note – And this New Humanist interview with Laurie Taylor.]

Just a holding posts for a thought that is going to need development.

Defending free speech whilst not supporting providing a platform for that speech, is perfectly rational and moral. I’ve said a fair bit before about real limits to free (potentially offensive) speech.
[Most elaborated here, and most recently referenced here.]

The recent Germaine Greer example is prompting plenty of talk about student unions rejecting speakers – all the usual “rational” suspects (*) weighing-in. We need to distinguish between plain ignorance – failing to appreciate what someone is saying and why – and fair blockage of providing a platform depending on the actual / intended message. (The recent Greer case is a former example. But there have been several others recently, Maryan Namazie, Hirsi Ali, etc at various points on the spectrum.)

[(*)The increasingly one-dimensional Dawkins included – in extract:

@RichardDawkins – A university is not a “safe space”. If you need a safe space, leave, go home, hug your teddy & suck your thumb until ready for university.

@psybertron – @RichardDawkins @bencobley Quite the opposite. Education [should provide] a safe space where students can take risks without retribution.]

I attended Bill Flavell giving a presentation Wednesday night on “Street Epistemology” at CLHG.

One way or another epistemology is the topic of my blog these last 15 years, and using epistemology to create ontologies for business information models has been my day job for maybe 25 so far, so epistemology (and cladistic taxonomies) I know something about. So-called Street Epistemology I’m previously no expert on, but it’s the branding of a methodology for atheists “interlocuting” with those of faith, after Peter “How to Create an Atheist” Boghossian. More on which later, but I gathered a few thoughts on what I was expecting, based on materials on the web sites of Peter Boghossian and Anthony Magnabosco, before the actual session. So first my own pre-amble:

Epistemology is the study of knowledge about the world.
It covers what, why and how we know, and how we understand the semantics (meaning) of what we (believe we) know about the world. That is not so much what is believed but the basis and the mechanics of believing and knowing.

[Ontology is the study of what exists in the world.
Assuming there exists an actual real world, ontology is really therefore about the model of what we believe to exist, hence the presumed relationship between our model and the actual world, based on what we know about it.

Most ontologies involve a taxonomy of classes (types) of things that exist, and their relationships. The basis for membership of any classes is therefore invariably based on what we can know about them – a kind of 20 questions (is it a bird? is it a plane?) or structured sequence or strategy of questioning (why is that your answer, etc.)  – hence an intimate relationship between ontology and epistemology.]

Street Epistemology (SE) is defined as:

A way of having more productive conversations
with believers to help them
re-examine the foundations of their beliefs.

[That way of conducting the dialogue is just such a sequence, flowchart or strategy of asking the basis of what is known / believed. Hence Epistemology. And, the context is to conduct such a dialogue in everyday terms on everyday neutral territory. Hence Street.]

So far so good. Understanding what we know by asking questions is as old as Socrates, indeed the Socratic method is named after him. Adding logic to create episteme and ontolog is what Aristotle first sought to formalise, and the debates continue today.

However, the phrasing of the definition is decidedly one sided – them and us. We are about to help and educate them apparently? “With all due respect” arrogant, cynical and disingenuous. Better (ie more equitable and honest) as:

A way of having more productive conversations
with believers to help them to help us
re-examine the foundations of their our beliefs

So (most recently a la Baggini): “Faithful” or “Rational” we all have thin ice or stacks of turtles under what we believe, whether we call it truth, knowledge, belief or faith. There is always a why (first cause) or at the very least a next question beyond our declared foundation.

The main quality of what we believe on the scale of knowledge to faith is how dogmatic or contingent we hold it to be true and the basis on which we justify holding it (if asked – hence the SE Q&A). The point is to recognise evidence and revisability based on experience (direct first-hand and/or authoritative, transparent, positively- or negatively-verifiable, second or third-hand experience).

The main enemy of reasonable belief is dogma, either individually or in unchallengable authority. Belief that doesn’t recognise doubt, questioning and challenge. Common dogmas are in:
(a) What counts as evidence of what.
(b) Denying the turtles, claiming a foundation more solid than we really have.
(c) Denying that what we believe, we know on whatever basis we hold  about the world is always going to have a human dimension, however “objectively” we might rationalise it.

Corollaries? There are too many to mention, so let’s switch to the actual talk:

After introducing the idea of the Socratic method, the questioning strategy, with the proviso not to lapse into any judgmental or emotional statements, nor to assert any alternative beliefs or arguments held by the questioner, the talk was mainly examples from the Magnabasco web resources. Both raw recordings of Q&A street interviews with theists, and a post-analysis commentary by Magnabasco – points to note and lessons to learn in conducting better Street Epistemology interviews.

Several comments from the audience questioned the disingenuity of the approach. Sure, there is nothing wrong with the Socratic method, but the unspoken (denied) objective of converting the target interviewee, or at least sowing seeds of doubt, getting them to question their beliefs, to leave holding such a question, is disingenuous.

Secondly all the examples used were too easy. Certain (100%) believers, but young, with little evidence of previous theological or philosophical bases of their beliefs. The SE people even have a name for them (after Socrates) “the unexamined”. All too easy to find a question to which the Interlocutor (interviewee) had never considered the basis of any answer, or to hold back on superior knowledge of ancient rehearsed arguments (Pascal’s wager, or Socrates Euthyphro argument).

So far as it goes, to sow seeds of doubt in “the unexamined” believers, then SE is fine of course. And, for atheist interlocutors, if learning the value of the open questioning strategy is needed, rather than reacting negatively and emotionally with “rationalist” counter-assertions, then a 2500 year-old lesson is always good too. All good if done genuinely.

There remain the two problems however. One, it could never lead anywhere with sophisticated theists or theologians, without switching into more active alternative arguments. ie it’s not that argument is bad, whether the dialogue is one-sided questioning or two-way cut and thrust, but that respect and politeness add value to both (mutually from both sides). Sophisticated theists have plenty of doubt. The trick is to understand the things about which they have least doubts.

And two, what is missing with SE is any respect for the other. The whole basis is “we know; we’re educating you”. The “empathic” approach is all a front. You can just about get away with such arrogance when the target is (a) naive in terms of the content of the argument, and (b) naive in terms of the hidden one-sided agenda. Anywhere else it is plain disrespectful and guaranteed to antagonise.

The right kind of respect is what Daniel Dennett cites as “Rappaport’s Law”. You should never start from a position opposing your interlocutor (in explicit open debate or in secret behind your questioning approach) unless and until you can demonstrate your understanding of their position. Indeed, demonstrate it so well they might reply “Yes, that’s exactly what I mean, I wish I’d thought of it like that.” OK, so sometimes time and life are too short to really get to that position in all real cases, and if naive your interlocutor may not have any sophisticated position anyway, but it is the principle of respect to at least genuinely wish to understand the other’s position. That’s empathy.

The disingenuity kills that stone dead.

Sadly, it’s even worse than that. Not only is there no attempt to understand the other, over and above the “we’re educating them” stance, there were several totally dismissive positions cited:

The idea of “believing A and not-A to be true” was dismissed with with a snigger. Actually such a position is usually a big clue that neither side really understands yet what A is, or is holding only partial definitions. And, in other cases where objects are unclear or paradoxical, there may be truth and falsity spread over multiple categories of objects and layers of causation, not to mention timescales from historical, immediate and predictive.

Similarly the idea that not all belief in the truth of A can be 100% definitively backed by evidence was also ridiculed. Believing – knowing A – by feel and presence. This is just another consequence of dealing with poorly understood A. (Which isn’t to say a better defined A is necessarily better understood, simply that more questions are needed).

To cut a long story short, atheist rationalists have as much to learn from others (atheist or theist) using SE as any theists might do from atheists. It is dismissive and pejorative to start from a position that treats the other as deluded and unreasonable, in need of the benefit of your education, mentally ill in need of our conselling. At least Socrates knew he knew a lot less than the average atheist. SE is a curate’s egg. Good in parts, for the unexamined, but fundamentally rotten.

Finally, the supreme irony, is that scientistic atheist rationalists are typically the most vocal “new-atheists” in denying the value of philosophy. Science and logic already have everything anyone need know sewn-up apparently. Good news is that Bill Flavell blogs at “NilDogma” so hope for change 😉

Hat tip to @SamiraShackle for drawing my attention to @FrankieBoyle’s Comment is Free piece in the Grauniad.

The theme and conclusion is telegraphed in the title, but the content is explicitly about the seemingly deranged rationale of supporting vaguely motivated bombing in Syria but resisting direct support for Syrian refugees. It’s a very intelligent read, plenty of historical, cultural and political content to support the arguments and, most importantly, it’s seriously witty.

I won’t quote spoilers, but the passage of 8 or 10 lines from “A handful of Afghans ….” to “…. how shit Leeds is.” must have a dozen gags within it on several levels, every one of them hillarious. That’s some skill.

I’ve used Frankie before as my archetype of the official “court-jester” in the context of freedom-to-offend debates. Whether writing for the Sun, or being written about in the Sun, no-one has a greater right to be as offensively funny as Frankie. His deadly clever wit earns it.

However, on top of that quality of content and delivery, Frankie nails the real underlying issue we are all struggling with. We can all criticise the “other side” in any political debate, but there is this nagging doubt that whichever side is actually in power, we never seem to learn from past bad decisions. The more rationally we try to justify them, the less we seem to have learned, and the less comfortable we are with supporting them. We (they) must be mad.

It really is an addiction to the decision making process that leads us time after time to the predictable wrong decisions. And the bigger they are the more predictably wrong. It’s a meme itself. An addiction to bad memes. This is a main agenda theme of Psybertron since I started. The first time I joined memes to addiction was back here in 2006 (sadly the content of the Bath conference of Unhooked Thinking on Addiction has suffered link-rot so can no longer be found.)

There’s also a self-reinforcing denial, a neurosis, like any addiction. We do it even though we (really) know it’s wrong, neurotically obsessed by following the well-trod ritual procedure, and again Frankie pinpoints why:

We cling to our dependency with the weary rationale of any addict.
The addiction is simple; giving up is complicated.

Simple repeatable rationale always wins. Anything else is more complicated. Keep it simple, stupid. Logical, quantifiable, arithmetic processes are (a) easy to do, and (b) easy to justify after the event. The numbers never lie, apparently. Unlike values and considerations that don’t fit simple arithmetic logic, where you might need to base your value on some strongly felt belief not backed by objectively definitive proofs. Life and death, not being repeatable experiments, don’t lend themselves to objective proofs. So we fall back on the things that do. Life and death suffer as a result.

Nice one Frankie. A recommended read, a very witty piece of satire, whether you agree with the underlying point or not.

Does Humphrys write his own drivel?

“Chinese dumping cheap steel” in our markets? WTF?! “Dumping” is pejorative and racist language. Sob stories of “our” families losing earners? Disgusting partisan political rhetoric. The Chinese are simply using the free-market as would we.

The problem is all markets being free.

“Parlous state” of UK steel industry? WTF?! Actually not remotely true. Efficiency and quality-wise UK steel industry is second to none in recent decades, both in basic steel-making in modern facilities and in the range of specialist steels and steel products. That’s why Tata, SSI and the like were interested in owning them. Problem is competitiveness of energy and labour and local HSE regulations in a global market.

The problem again is all markets being free.

Proud imperial heritage, used to be “exporter to the world”? WTF?! Maybe true, but irrelevant. Real issue is that steel-making is a strategic security resource. Do we really want to be incapable of producing our own steel, dependent entirely on foreign markets in times of security uncertainty? Clearly we can never expect to produce export steel scaled to satisfy Chinese construction bubbles, but it’s OK to expect we are capable of producing steel when we might need it.

Not all economic considerations are free market.

Somebody please read Paul Mason, and any non-autistic economist.

Map showing location of steel plants and mills in the UK.


red Integrated plants: combined steelmaking and rolling mills.
orange Other rolling mills.
magenta Coating plants.
light blue Wire plants.
dark blue Tube mills.

Only 7 Actual steel-making plants left before this latest crisis. At least 5 are owned by the groups announcing closures, cuts and administration. We may be down to only 2 or 3 ?

[Post Note : I should add, these job-loss figures are dwarfed by those lost from the oil & gas industry during the last two years, but that industry doesn’t benefit from the romance of “the valleys” or “grim up north” clog-wearing traditions, even though Aberdeen is a long way from London. Just as strategic of course, even if publicly unpopular fossil energy is transitioning to renewables.]

Started reading Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz dialogue on Islam – the Future of Tolerance. Sadly not completed due to distractions including another read, but …

My impression is very good. Most of Nawaz subtlety on Jihadi / Islamist motivations looks much like my own – pure common sense, stuff I already agree with – and he has the first-hand perspective I lack.

Alarmingly,  Harris, whilst being positive in the spirit of dialogue, responds with “very interesting” and “that’s important to know”. It’s as if he really has been ignorant of this stuff.

I’ve always criticised Harris’ prejudiced anti-religious “new atheist” position, but always defended his more philosophical rationality, than say Dawkins or Krauss. Surprised he really was that ignorant.

Consistent with my impression of the Harvard live conversation, where I said Harris looked chastened by what he’d learned. Learning is always good. Credit to Harris.