Listened to Beyond Belief BBC R4 broadcast Sun 24th May on iPlayer this morning. It featured Stephen Law (@_CFIUK), Nick Spencer (@TheosNick), Marylin Mason (BHA) – with a brief inserted piece from Rory Fenton (also of the BHA) – in conversation with Ernie Rea.

Stephen and Marylin’s stories are similar to mine. Naturally atheist, yes, but that’s a negative statement, about something not believed, so more than that. Atheism-plus. Finding Humanism when noticing boxes being ticked in positive outlook and values. Few actual requirements in the accepted definitions of atheism; so possible for Christian atheism too, though usage of the word can vary the intended definition with context.

Whether “science alone” can answer the big questions of morality is a matter of broad & narrow definitions. Narrowly defined no, but broadly yes, knowledge believed based on evidence of experience. Certainly moral values have evolved with us.

Some debate about the origins of humanism, much as per two recent posts. Ancient Greek – Epicurian/Stoic origins – thinking about good lives leaving gods aside, very human gods anyway at this time. (Same as Grayling’s talk here). Versus Nick’s focus on post enlightenment / renaissance forms of humanism. Stephen conceded humanism does not preclude Christianity, it does not necessitate atheism. Marylin “hostile” to religion only where it impinges on individual daily politics – essentially the secular view.

Discussion of Humanism being used in an anti-religious sense, is really one of boring semantics. There is a lot of shared history. In fact Stephen called it a “phoney war” and then (dare I say) engaged in it – putting prickly straw-men into the discussion with “Of course what Nick thinks … / what Nick is attempting to …”

From my perspective, there was no real disagreement here. The origins of humanism are important in understanding its evolution, but no-one owns the resulting reality or its definition. Humans probably evolved humanist values independent of religion, and religion may have focussed on co-opting, codifying and maintaining them. What matters is what’s positive about it in a secular society; certainly not exclusively atheist, more atheism-plus, to use Stephen’s word. In fact surely, the more we share claims to subscribe to the content of Humanism the better? They’re in our custody now and in future.

Two significant points as the discussion drew to a close:

The idea of “bedrock” in education. Something people can be taught before and whilst they learn by thinking for themselves from experience and first principles. Humanism should be a part of that. (We may not want codification cast in stone, but there needs to be a resource – see also the Grayling piece again.)

Secondly, in defining that Humanism, Nick highlighted one possible point of difference. The clue is in its name. One key aspect is in understanding “what it means to be human“.

Hear, hear.

Had an interesting evening Thursday, listening to Rupert Sheldrake (again) at Theos, the Christian religious think-tank (for the first time), and having the opportunity to question and talk with him and with other Theos members. Also acquired a copy of Nick Spencer’s “Atheists, the Origin of the Species“; more on which later. [Post Note : Full audio of Sheldrake here.]

I sympathise with Sheldrake, indeed agree that most of his ideas benefit from [ie rationally deserve] proper scientific consideration. Pending “materialist promissary notes”, I’m even happy to hold his panpsychism-based ideas as possibilities. (Interestingly, Iain McGilchrist who was cited as a recent Theos guest speaker, and someone whose ideas I recommend to anyone who’ll listen, holds a not-quite-panpsychic position in seeing the brain more as our “transducer” of consciousness (maybe of proto-consciousness) than its physical container.) None of which means I believe in the paranormal (by definition there’s no such thing), or that “morphic resonance” is the most likely explanation. Sue Blackmore, protege of Dawkins and Dennett, of course held the same position as Sheldrake in taking scientific research of the paranormal seriously. No-one can accuse Sheldrake of not taking a properly sceptical scientific stance on these (whackier) topics. It’s science’s response to scientific questions that is the target here.

Nailing his “10 theses” to the door of the “church of reason” Sheldrake succeeds in maintaining his pariah status in mainstream science. I questioned whether greater progress might be achieved by focussing on fewer key questions that deserve answers, than turning the situation into one large battle on a very broad front. Like, for example, Unger & Smolin who support (at least) two of Sheldrake’s positions (but couldn’t admit as such). One that physical laws and constants are fixed, and somehow don’t deserve evolutionary explanations of their values and form in the current universe(*). And, two, that when it comes to form and knowledge in the universe of physics, mathematics has some absolute privileged “Platonic” position. Science needs to recognise its own metaphysical dogmas as such.

One point I take issue with Sheldrake is in placing Dennett in the camp of denying the self and the reality of consciousness. Dennett rejects “the hard problem” characterisation of their explanation. He very much sees a common sense evolutionary explanation based on information as form independent of physical substrate, as do I, as does Sheldrake.

Anyway, I’m posting these Sheldrake notes under the “Atheists, the Origin of the Species” heading because the common point is that so much of the history of post-enlightenment science has had the denial of soul-like-stuff as its materialist agenda, the thin end of a theist wedge, rather than honest, sceptical investigation of how it is properly explained by natural science.

I’m only maybe 1/4 thru reading Spencer’s “Atheists, the Origin of the Species” since Thursday, but the parallel with Anthony Grayling’s talk “Values and Humanist Values” the night before is already making me smile. They’re both taking a historical view – Spencer on Christian atheism mainly post-1500, Graying on non-Abrahamic humanism from the Greeks onwards – the common ground is obvious. Christian humanism, Christian secularism and Christian scepticism are as real as their atheistic, scientistic counterparts.

[Reformation] sceptics could believe as confidently as any religious adherent. They were simply doubtful of the rational grounds for belief, and its capacity for certainty. Scepticism was the antithesis of dogma, not faith.

The fact that theological differences might be a cipher for political and social threats was a nuance easily lost amid the aroma of cooking [human] flesh. Theological certainty could kill, and it wasn’t even certain.

Earlier in the introduction, Spencer uses a quote from Francis Bacon that has intrigued me before and, in my case. has led to a more than passing interest in OxBridge intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that converted to Catholicism late in life.

“a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism;
but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

Or in my own corollary, even a little more attention to dialogue on philosophical common ground, might bring humanity to more rational shared values and priorities.


[(*)Note – and there are other real physicists questioning these if sources are required.]

[Post Note : Good timing. Humanism & Christianity Discuission on BBC R4 Beyond Belief between Nick Spencer (Theos, above) Stephen Law (CFI_UK) and Marylin Mason (BHA) – and Rory Fenton (BHA). Non-contentious agreement, more notes here.]

Listened to A C Grayling talk to the Central London Humanist Group last night at Conway Hall. He’s a favourite speaker because he is such a good talker, drawing on deep knowledge of the history of philosophy since the greeks, interspersed with anecdotes from real life politics and stories from classic literature. All done naturally without slides and minimal (if any) notes.

Content-wise, his messages were pretty straightforward, his title redundant. All the values being talked about are humanist, or were humanistic anyway. Pretty well all philosophy on values, virtues and morality from the Greeks onwards is humanistic. About good behaviour of humans. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics remains the classic standard work. The clear transition from the masculine warrior virtues to those civic virtues of a civilised society. Freedom of thought and action, think for yourself with thoughtful consideration for others, minimum harm, golden rule, etc.

Thinking for yourself and giving consideration for others at all times may be inconvenient, messy and inefficient, but it is that very muddle that helps preserve the freedoms. Legality should be case law, not detailed rules codified with comprehensive legislation and objective definition – cast in stone. And systems of enforcement should be multiple and loose, not directly constrained by technology. Bi-cameral governance should be clear on different roles and responsibilities and on different bases for membership – eg not both by popular voting.

Diversity, imperfection and redundancy are messy but good. Hear, hear say I.

Conversely, the religious and totalitarian alternatives of stricter codification and the psychological and physical means of enforcement, provided plenty of anecdotal and Q&A content for such a talk with a group of liberal, atheist, secular, humanists. “Simple, no need to think for yourself, we’ve got some clear rules for you.” Even if applied benevolently, such a scheme ossifies the natural evolution of value and, if too efficient and effective, is too easily open to malevolent or misguided misapplication. The messier, distributed, diverse approach wins. So far so good.

But, what about those values. After virtues, virtue? After virtue? Freedom and Consideration. That’s it?

All variations on that, all additions, are essentially pragmatic and contingent, towards smoother, efficient running of society, leaving more time to live life, more time free from worrying about difficult decisions, more opportunity to delegate and share the workload of governance of that society. Free society open to question and challenge, naturally, but self-sustaining and smooth running.

With only those basic values, not all decisions can be straightforward or self-consistent to work out the balance of freedoms and consequences of every decision and action. Life is full of inconsistency and conflicting pressure across multiple time-scales. It’s good that everyone – as many as possible, including the youngest in education – appreciate the philosophical questioning and thinking processes, but not that we all spend all our time being philosophers, fully working out the solution to every problem. We’d get nothing done, we’d live no lives.

So my question. Where and how do we agree practical values, useful rules of thumb for typical real life situations?

Grayling’s reply was “nowhere; we don’t”. As soon as we do record them, they risk being documented definitively, cast in stone and abused. Fair point, but.

Interestingly however, in his response Grayling used the “story” of The Good Samaritan to illustrate the message that encoding the specific values of the specific situation, would never have the same power by parallel association to apply the “story” as a parable on good behaviour in wider life situations. How often will we actually get the opportunity as a bystander to help the innocent victim of a mugging in the street?

Clearly the place we document, in order to learn, communicate and educate values of living is in stories. Parables and literature that are clearly not intended to cast values as rules in stone, but which nevertheless contain the values in ways we can appreciate in their literary (fictional, mythical, apochryphal) context yet “slip”(*) sideways into our individual daily lives, lived now in the present.

We need great works of literature. We need good books.

What was it Samira Ahmed said – the story of Ishmael reminds how good a work of literature the Old Testament is.


(*) For “slipping” see Hofstadter.

[Post Note ; And same day today, BHA tweets on The Golden Rule.]

[Post Note : and to reinforce Samira Ahmed’s point, here is Samira Shackle in New Humanist, interviewing Azar Nafisi, writer of “Reading Lolita in Tehran”]


Just a holding post for 3 related links, so I can draw others attention to it:

SciAm article : Dark Energy Tested on a Tabletop

Sabine Hossenfelder’s earlier “BackReaction” response to the original source paper.

Rick Ryals speculation on consequences for the cosmological constant and the standard model (from Sabine’s Facebook timeline):

Negative mass particles would fall “up”… should have negative density and negative pressure…

A cosmological constant with negative pressure *mimics* negative mass via its anti-gravitational effect, and a cosmological constant that is a less dense form of the same mass energy as ordinary matter rho<0 would have real massive particle potential when enough of it was gravitationally condensed to attain the matter density… until then the “almost material” would logically be “dark”.

It would also be virtually undetectable, except gravitationally, and in a finite model matter generation from the vacuum structure *causes* expansion via the hole that the “hole” leaves in the vacuum during matter generation which necessarily increases negative pressure via rarefaction of the ever thinning vacuum structure.

This coincidence makes me wonder if anyone has ever written down the basis of wave functions in this background, including an expansion of the field in corresponding creation and annihilation operators… computed the stress-energy tensor in that background and quantitatively described the vacua. Has anyone worked out the matrix elements of the stress-energy tensor between Einstein’s original finite vacuum and the one-particle states?

Has anyone even checked with GR to see if negative mass has negative pressure?

Anyone else share that wonder?


[Post Notes : Since the response trail has gone cold on Sabine’s FB thread, I’m bringing forward here for future follow-up, Ricks additional inputs. It’s a worry that serious open-minded physicists can address these details beyond the initial rebuttal:

Ian : “We know there’s no explanation for the cosmological-constant problem within general relativity and the Standard Model of particle physics,” so, maybe suspend belief in the standard model for a moment, and I’d be interested in your response to Rick Ryals speculation?


Rick : Thanks but it isn’t exactly speculation as it all falls naturally from the mentioned cosmological model. In General Relativity’s most natural universe, the vacuum has negative density when,


In this static state, pressure is proportional to -rho, but pressure is negative in an expanding universe, and so energy density is positive.

The vacuum energy density is less than the matter energy density, but it is still positive, so positive matter density can be obtained locally if you condense energy from this negative pressure vacuum into a finite region of space, until the energy density over this region equals that of the matter density. This will, in-turn, cause negative pressure to increase, via the rarefaction of Einstein’s vacuum energy, (as the vacuum pulls back), so this expanding universe does not run-away, because the increase in positive mass-energy is offset by the increase in negative pressure that results when you make particles from Einstein’s negative pressure vacuum.

In Einstein’s static model, G=0 when there is no matter. The cosmological constant came about because we do have matter, so in order to get rho>0 out of Einstein’s matter-less model you have to condense the matter density from the existing structure, and in doing so the pressure of the vacuum necessarily becomes less than zero, P<0.


Sabine : [via twitter, (max 140 chars)]
Yes, negative (gravitational) mass has a negative pressure.
No, it doesn’t explain accelerated expansion.


Rick : Yes it does when a greater volume of the vacuum is required each time that you make a particle pair due to the rarefying effect that matter generation has on the finite vacuum.

But the universe is held flat and stable as acceleration increases …. until said process insidiously compromises the integrity of the structure and boom… the footprint of this universe gets laid down with the matter field for physicists of the next universe to scratch their collective heads about for all eternity… or so it would appear …

Rick and I continued some private chat on the implications, but these are not worth sharing until serious physicists take the physics inputs seriously. Anyone?]

[Continuing with chat response from Sabine (Matter corrected to Energy in the header):

[So, to the original question] I said, “Yes, negative gravitational mass can have a negative gravitational pressure to the same extent that positive gravitational mass can. That is to say, IF it’s pressureless, then of course it wont.

[T]he rest of the comment, I don’t know what [Rick] means.
[He asked] “Has somebody considered that the cc is a field and quantized it?”
Yes, sure. You can’t quantize a constant. And the cc doesn’t have ‘holes’ because it’s, well, constant.

From my lay perspective two obvious conditional assumptions there:

One, “if” gravitational mass (positive or negative) is pressureless.

Two, “whether” the cosmological constant is (literally) a constant. It’s that very assumption that is being questioned of course. Why it has the particular value it does in the current observable universe? The same point being questioned by Unger and Smolin, the dogma that such laws and constants are fixed and not evolving in the histories of universes.]

Heard Graham Bell talk again last week, this time a LAAG event entitled: “Making moral decisions: Are ‘you’ really in charge?” (With scare quotes around the ‘you’ in the original.) Obviously with that title presented that way, I was prejudiced to expect the usual “You and your free-will are illusions” line of denial.

In fact, although the whole thing came too close for me to denying ourselves and our free will (because it couldn’t be compatible with scientific determinism and therefore science couldn’t logically “prove it”), it was better that I expected. Good because it aired some important sources on the topic(s) – all expounded previously here at some length.

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow from his “Prospect Theory” economics psychology work with Tversky. Good stuff, but purely labels for empirical psychology rather than any explanatory theory of what’s really going on with Fast and Slow thinking. Not mentioned by Graham, Iain McGilchrist’s “Master and Emissary” model builds on explaining the basic phenomenon in terms of how the deeply divided brain has evolved to work that way and why both halves are valuable – need to value, and be valued by, each other. The fast processes are intuitive, more “hard-wired” – almost reflex – responses necessary for flexible behaviour in broad contexts. The slow processes are reflective, more “rational” where time permits and context requires more specific targeted decisions or actions. The key process differences lie in how the divided brain communicates with itself.

Jonathan Haidt too was cited positively, though interestingly Graham backed-off from wholeheartedly recommending him as a reference – too “woo” for the scientistic. Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis” comes close to life-style self-help as I’ve noted before, but his empirically backed psychological explanations are nevertheless good. And Haidt’s call for “conservatism” as a restraint on “freedom” is an important message – albeit a non-PC message for those for whom freedom is the mantra. A message reinforced by Julian Baggini’s latest Freedom Regained – freedom is better if it runs on rails.

Joshua Greene is cited because it appears he too uses “empirical science” to back his decision-making – brain scans to see what’s going on in the brain as decisions are made. Problem here is that whilst these measurements are empirical, the “trolleyology” surveys his subjects take are still nevertheless “thought experiments” – not very real. In fact trolleyology and its variants are a whole industry for some in moral philosophy – but there are two real points these cases make, particularly “proximity” (how close the potentially “harmed” subjects are to you) and “instrumentality” (the extent to which your positive action “causes” the harm). The other aspect not mentioned is “historicity” or context in general, and the whole history of moral development of the subject(s) up to the decision point and their future of living with the consequences thereafter. (PS can find no references to trolleyology having anything to do with super-market trolleys, before the runaway rail-trolleys on which the cases are generally built.) Simon Blackburn, Michael Sandel, Peter Singer and others are good sources of understanding what trolleyology really tells us about moral dilemmas and their limits in reality. (In terms of limits to freedom Julian Baggini’s latest is highly recommended.)

Libet is perhaps the most famous brain-scan correlation with decision-making, and consequently the most mis-interpreted. Graham didn’t mention him. It appears to reinforce the idea that most of our decisions are made before we have any conscious part in making them. In a sense that’s true – most of it is – but the small bit in reserve is the executive override, the “free-wont” as it’s been called. I always suggest people think of the tennis player (after Daniel Wegner) returning a fast serve and how much is “pre-programmed” by experience and practice, and whether the player still has any choice in the return shot. The point is however small any physical measure of our actual free-will it’s the important – most significant – bit we retain in influencing the outcome. It’s purely a matter of efficiency evolved for maximising fitness to our environment (as indeed is the McGilchrist view earlier). We focus on what matters in the moment and delegate the rest (walking, talking and chewing gum) to subsidiary systems and “tools”.

Sadly, Graham (and LAAG generally) are too quick to dismiss – with easy ridicule – philosophy and philosophers. They’re in good company with Larry Krauss there, but no less ignorant. Which is sad, because one person with a great deal to give in the debates on what free will and our self, wielding that free will, and how they evolved to be what they really are, is Dan Dennett, a philosopher who’s has more than a little fun with his philosophy denying scientist colleagues.

Basically too simplistic a view of determinism and too greedy a view of reductionism misleads us into seeing the physical machinery of the brain as incompatible with ourselves as our minds and our free-will built on that substrate. In order to avoid some mystical dualism of independent mind-stuff incompatibilists choose(!) to deny our free will. If that logic were correct, compatibilists would be misguided too. In fact the best response is to question the causation assumed in determinism and reductionism, since ourselves and our free-will are THE most directly empirical things we can know, even accepting that knowledge can be imperfect and illusory in aspects we can know. Certainly everyone – everyone at the talk – talks about moral choices as if they are able to make choices that (a) make a difference, and (b) they can be seen as responsible for.

Sam Harris is often cited within the new-atheist movement as a fellow denier of free-will. But of course, he isn’t, as I’ve discussed before. (See also Baggini’s quotes re Sam Harris).

The whole topic is really about what our minds are – are our minds “us” and how do “we” make choices that affect the physical world. As Graham described, the moral angle of this is really a sliding scale (onion-skins) on consequential harm and how we as social animals value relative harm and benefit. Like all such topics nothing is fundamentally absolute or universal, but the result of evolution and development. Evolution of our “species” genetically and culturally, and development historically from egg to fully formed forward-thinking “individual” in the moment, and all points between. Graham is certainly a strong advocate of the “naturalistic” standpoint and, on that, he’s right.

I side with Dennett – we are our minds and our minds are collections of memes – thinking tools – and we / they are real patterns of information. But that’s another story. Looking forward to Alan Duval’s talk next month – he appears to pick-up on more sophisticated philosophical views of the “compatibilism” debate.

This is hilarious. [Hard copy of Scientific American June 2012] “The Human Brain Project”

Sad too, but since it seems to be funded by Big Blue rather than public funds, not actually criminal.
Aaaaggghh no. The Human Brain Project is a multi-billion EU project. Now that is criminal.

The saving grace being that latter 2015 article says The Human Brain Project is premature, it needs a rethink. I’ll say. What were they thinking of, other than all that lovely money. This is not hindsight but basic common sense, not science, obviously. Big science needs better non-scientific advisors.

I was reading the 2012 piece because I was given the hard copy last night. We were at a talk on consciousness, mind, decision-making and morality (more on which soon) and the topic came up (a la Dennett) that the key feature that makes the human brain a mind – our mind – was software, not hardware. No amount of physical scale (exa-flops) nor connectivity (connectome) makes it a mind. It makes it a very complex machine. Building an elctronic simulation may be a fine model of its physical working, as physiologiocal, elctro-thermo device, but it doesn’t come close to asking how does the brain work – as a mind.

[Post Note – not watched yet, but here another current machine-brain is a delusion piece shared by Johnnie on FB]

Today we protest another atheist blogger murdered – hacked to death in public – earlier this week, and demand the Bangladeshi government take public action to condemn such behaviour as totally unacceptable, and be seen to capture and bring the guilty to justice.

I posted on the freedom-of-expression aspect of this unacceptable train of events back here. As atheist, secularist, rationalist bloggers for democratic freedoms we share the pain, but we must not forget that the following morning 45 Ismaili Shias were publicly murdered in Karachi just for holding a different view to another murderous sect in the name of Islam.

Also recently we noted the agreement – between (atheist) Bob Churchill and (Christian) Ben Rogers – that in defense of freedom:

Art.18 is there to defend freedom for every human being.
Too often Christians speak up for Christians,
Muslims for Muslims, atheists for atheists.
Freedom should be defended [by all] for all.

When it comes to freedom of thought, belief and expression, we must not be partisan in our condemnation of violent suppression.



[Post Note : And some success.]


If it looks designed, call it designed … by evolution.

At root it’s all about (disembodied) information, and intelligence is evolved too.

(Good to have that Q&A on gender cognitive differences [9:39 to 13:23 (*)] captured for posterity too.)

Anyway – reported on this talk back in March 2015.

[Post Note : (*) on that gender differences issue. In fact the question is specifically on “intelligence” – tougher for reasons of meaningless scales as Dan suggests – but also that balance between scientific benefit and social disbenefit – I heard it right on the night. BUT also references to reactions to James Watson and Larry Summers statements like these – non-PC but not false, says Dan … ]

Hat tip to Sabine Hossenfelder for this link to SciAm article by Victor Stenger, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian. Their title is “Physicists Are Philosophers Too” misled me slightly. Misled me into the “Yes, but often not very good ones, if they prejudice their philosophy with their physics” response. What was it Max Born said? “When we are doing theoretical physics, we are doing actual metaphysics.”

In fact it’s a plea for Physicists to recognise rather than deny philosophy, whether they consider themselves to be philosophers or not. Doubly interesting to me since the arch-denier cited is again Larry Krauss, US humanist of the year – again – with whom Stenger has had much debate on the topic in 2012 before his death last year, and because one of the contributors is Peter Boghossian, darling of many an atheists fighting irrational religious dragons. The latter is someone I need to bone up on.

Also interesting, because although I’ve done Krauss position on denial to death before, it includes a link to his debate with Julian Baggini in the Grauniad back in 2012 when Krauss was making his ignorant claims, and when I was too ignorant of Baggini.

Anyway both good reads. The SciAm article in fact analyses much of the content of the Baggini piece before going on to a pretty thorough summary of the changing relationship between philosophy and the field of knowledge now generally known as science. Good stuff.

The immediate data:

Actual 2015 Result in Full.

Comparing D’Hondt PR with FPTP in 2015 Voting. (ER Tweet) (Proportionality)

Electoral Reform  and A Constitutional Convention (<<< This)

Unlock Democracy and Joint Electoral Reform Petition
(naff link, may need to search each org for fresh link)


[Community Union] [Paul Mason’s Blog] [Adam Bienkov’s Blog] [Left Foot Forward] [Alan Johnson] [Spiked Brendan O’Neill] [The Economist] [Laurie Penny New Stateman] [Claire Wilsher] [Rod Liddle]

That last message – we must turn anger and disappointment into constructive action, and not let it become despair and depresssion. Or as Michael Cashman put it:

My mantra for the next few months: Don’t blame others, no one sets out to fail, accept responsibility, be generous and don’t become bitter.


My starting positions:

Liberal & Democratic & Sustainable, where Values beat Arithmetic. Freedom – individual human rights – not “individually unconstrained” but guided by values. In order to decide (things of value) you need values to start with.

Individual Representation – is first about “self-identity” – who are we, who do we see ourselves as, what constituencies are we part of, what labels to we choose.
Multiple identified constituencies National, Regional & Local, and National, European, Global/Cosmic as well as Multiple tribal constituencies on shared features and issues.
Multiple representational institutions – nationally we are bicameral, regionally/locally we have overlapping authorities. Extra-nationally we have many authorities.

So electoral reform is not about House of Commons in isolation. It’s also about relationship to second house and to lower and higher institutions, and about democratic arrangements of those other houses & institutions. (eg HoC vs HoL, UK vs Countries and Regions, UK vs EU, UK & EU vs UN, etc.)

Delegation vs representation. Pragmatism. We can never pre-agree, or decide in real time (referenda) on every decision our various representatives make (or promise to make). Authority is “delegated” UP the chain of institutions (federation). Representation is “delegated” DOWN from people to the representatives in the institutions, Our representatives cannot literally be our delegates, making the decision we would make in every case in every institution.

Life is for living according to values – mutual values (freedoms) – our individual time cannot to be taken up with governance. Governance we want to delegate efficiently to those we can trust (and hold accountable). Some of us can spend some of our life wholly bound up in campaigns for something or other, but we can’t all spend all of our time on the campaign, it’s the “something” we really want to live, not the campaign.

Trust and love (care for fellow human individuals, individuals in a shared sustainable cosmos), are the key values. Everything else is priorities and practicalities of resources, of which time is one we all value (for living, otherwise why care about sustainability).

Some immediate corollaries:

Do not want pure arithmetic solution for proportionality of popular (votes) to representation (seats). We must not replace values, or allow them to be replaced, with numbers.

Do not want same democratic representation arrangements for all houses and institutions – not all popular vote based. (eg if HoC is popular vote based, then HoL should NOT be, not entirely.) Diversity is an important component of sustainability.

Assuming a good level of trust is maintained, the best relationship between population and governance is bottom-up. Popular votes for local / regional institutions, with lower institutions delegating power and authority upwards upwards (federally) and delegating appointed representatives upwards, generally without popular voting. Exceptions should be exceptions, and in practice there will be many until and unless that trust-based state is achieved. The fact that this would be a multi-generational project, does not change the aim, the vision.

Manifestos may be filled (for practical reasons) with promises of short term plans and actions, but must not be confused with actual values and visions shared for the sustainable long-haul.


Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, so the elected will not have electoral reform as their highest priority. Something like the Constitutional Convention is therefore essential to making progress with electoral reform in line with longer term shared values.

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.


Post notes:

[@RustyRockets Vlog Sweet, naive learning with a voice, real time before our eyes. Split “anti-nasty-Tories” vote. Common compassion message, needs new thinking, but the naïveté means his language inevitably hits the right words. What’s so funny ’bout …  The boy done good.]

[And a good long Facebook exchange on Clive Andrews timeline.]

[And more on voting for individuals you can trust locally – even if they’re Tory. Hat Tip to Smiffy on FB.]

[And, Oh wow, the Vive La Difference agenda too.]

[Jim Messina in The Spectator.]

Oscar Holderer, the last survivor of Wernher von-Braun’s team of “rocket scientists” (proper engineers dreaming of a sustainable future actually) based at Redstone (Huntsville) Alabama, has died. The city has a considerable German connection and von-Braun is commemorated in civic buildings and the like.

Recorded when Ernst Stuhlinger passed back in 2008 at the time we were living there, and Sylvia had some tales to tell having met the old boy.

[And the same day – the baton passes eastwards.]

Law against Islamaphobia? OK here goes:

  • Phobia? – Literally “fear of”, but generally understood as “hatred of” or “prejudice against”.
  • Religious Freedom? – We have UN Dec Art 18 (Freedom of thought, belief, expression and conscience – inc religious and non-religious belief and practice.)
  • Prejudice & Hate? – We also have legal protection against hatred & prejudice, speech and acts, against race, colour, gender, sexuality, etc.

[These are protections of freedoms for humans to be who they are, but clearly none of these license or grant rights to these same humans to act in ways that are either illegal or infringe other rights and freedoms of others (illegal religious practices like “burning witches” or establishment of theocracies). Irrelevant to this particular decision.]

Now, we need to be careful not to conflate religion with these topics, nor these topics with each other, BUT they share a key feature which is being protected. Something which humans are, claim or hold, which is not an individual choice in the present, but biologically or culturally inherited difference (*). Something self-identifying and self-expressed, physically or verbally.

My view is that prejudice and hate laws should simply cover creed, as well as race, colour, gender, etc … Creed here is simply belief, and external expression of that belief.

End of.


(*) And before anyone throws the “multi-culturalism” pebble into the pond, here we’re just talking about non-prejudicial recognition of difference – different culture, different religious culture – this says nothing about national cultural norms and values, which evolve naturally from the actual present and its actual history – conserved but open to inputs. How to “manage” this with policy is another story, a recent minefield. The current issue above is simply freedom from prejudice in the meantime.


Post Notes:

Realised a flaw in my argument – grey scales from biology (genes, etc) to culture (memes, etc) to religion (more memes) – but there is a key point of distinction – hard to clarify, but bound up in choice in the present moment. We are our memes.

Real distinction is between reasonable criticism and prejudiced hatred or phobia – but reasonableness of criticism depends on ability to change. At one end – can I reasonably criticise an individual’s genes? At the other how personally directed can my criticisms be of mere “views” someone holds. Important point linked by Love (what’s so funny ’bout .. ) and Ad-Hominem (no no). It’s the difference between valid criticism and gratuitous, prejudiced bigotry or hatred.

Collecting other contributions:

James Lawrence via Adrian Dewey

Sarah Brown

Alex Wood / Richard Dawkins

Ali Sina

And right on cue the next “bunch of fucking idiots”
Just because the content is art & cartoons and the headline is free expression doesn’t make it do. Bigotry is bigotry.

Here, fig leaf of free-speech in Glasgow Herald.

And here Michael Gove before his new appointment as minister for justice.

And to be clear this example – @AMDWaters – is not Islamaphobic.

[Key point is non-explicit legal (negative) constraint on free-expression, but (positive) incentive of explicit values. See Ayaan Hirsi Ali.]

[Latest from Kenan Malik on banning of hate speech.]

Sarah Brown, @SarahAB_UK writing at Harry’s Place ( also responds to Charlie Klendjian’s Islam vs Islamism post. Also generated was a fair amount of twitter traffic about what he and I had posted. If I had time this Saturday evening, I might give Sarah’s post the fuller consideration it probably deserves, but for now the points of constructive agreement. Sarah said, verbatim:

Clearly it’s possible to argue (as Klendjian does) that for whatever combination of reasons Islam is either inherently or contingently more problematic than other religions. (This point is made by Psybertron here.) But if liberal Muslims are in a minority compared to liberal Jews and Christians, all the more reason to offer them some support by reinforcing the fact that Islamism, although it’s certainly a subset of Islam, is not identical with it.

Repeating two of Sarah’s points for emphasis:

although [Islamism is] certainly a subset of Islam, [it] is not identical with it.

Agreed. The original core disagreement with CK’s thesis. Whatever terms we choose there is an important distinction to make between the two ideas, and understand when and where that distinction matters.

all the more reason to offer [Muslims] some support by reinforcing [their distance from Islamism]

Agreed. Pretty much where I’m coming from more broadly.
Support = constructive.
(What’s so funny ’bout … etc.)
I think @SarahAB_UK gets it / me.

Sadly, the full posts and the twitter threads arising degenerate into what I called “whataboutness” in my original criticism of the original talk. If in any one conversation we bring the entire history of every religious influence on every cultural, demographic, walk-of-life – like why I eat fish on a Friday –  where “we agree, already” – we create a fog-screen that means we never make progress on the original point. Very much my meta-point on constructive styles of dialogue. If we simply want noise to promote the existence of issues, publish satirical cartoons, increase your twitter following, fine, but I’m well beyond that. I’m seeking progressive solutions to those issues, in achievable chunks. Understanding of and sensitivity to historicity is very important, but that’s no excuse to cram every dialogue with everything we know.

I’ll always condemn criminal acts, but I’ll not be letting the terrorists win by distracting our valuable time from progress where it can be made.


Thanks to Charlie Klendjian for clarifying his Islam vs Islamism agenda. I witnessed the first delivery of the talk he mentions [and blogged about it here with follow-up here] but couldn’t be at the second talk. The first for me was “all over the place” too unfocussed, and too many topics – freedoms, extremisms, crimes, legal arrangements, sharia, holy texts on the table all at once for any coherent argument. Feedback from the second already suggested it was more focussed on this specific Islam vs Islamism terminology topic, and this written article helps enormously.

Below I’m responding to specific text in the article direct to you Charlie in the 2nd person.

I recognize the term Islamism has this aim [to be distinct from the term Islam],
I just don’t think we need a separate word to achieve that aim.

Well yes we do, or if not, we’ll constantly need to add a qualifier – private or theocratic – Islam (say). To recognise two distinct concepts for which you don’t see the need for distinct words is plain wrong, logically, linguistically, rationally. It’s wishful thinking. It’s PC nonsense. I think your valid concerns are those you voice next – about problems with their use / mis-use and the fascistic thought police you mention earlier that might be motivated to derail dialogue by crying foul if you / we step the wrong side of some definitional line.

I’m particularly relaxed about definitions, so we agree a reality of definitions “something like” (more later) and neither of us wishes to impose “homogeneity” across the range of concepts – and people, human individuals – captured by the two terms.

Your concern is really with problems arising:

I think it can even lead to some serious problems, which I outline below.

Too right. But addressing the problems is better than the denial of significant difference.

Islamists call themselves Muslims

Obviously, because (they claim) they are. But simple logic says therefore not all Muslims are (or call themselves) Islamists. In fact many go out of their way to self-identify otherwise. Hell, you even use two distinct terms yourself to make your point.

Many Muslims and ex-Muslims reject the term “Islamism”

I’d like to see your evidence for that in context. They will certainly reject being labelled with that term (as I mentioned above) and may share our concerns with use of the term, but I doubt many would reject the conceptual distinction which you and I agree at root.

What other religions do we do this for? When other religions become “political” do we issue them a new name by adding the letters ism to the end?

Generally not no, agreed, but sometimes in context we do need to make the distinction. Aron Ra uses the term “dominionism” to qualify those religious groups that assert their religion over secular, temporal, legal and governance arrangements. The fact that we don’t often use such a clarification for religions other than Islam is because we have a particular problem with Islam.

After a couple of your case studies …

… the words Islam, Islamist, Islamism and Muslim do not appear once.
But there are 5 x “extremism”, 1 x “extremist” and 5 x “radicalisation”.

Absolutely. These are extreme violent cases. The word extreme is enough to distinguish from the non-extreme.

[T]here’s no point creating definitions unless you use them, and you use them consistently.

Agreed, but as we’ve both also agreed in “everyday language”, such distinctions have to be “something like” good enough for the job. As I said in the original response, I don’t actually care which terms we use, and their watertight definitions, so long as we choose labels that distinguish the significance of concepts we’re talking about. What we do care about is not people misusing terms in any fascistic “correct” definitional sense, but abuse of terms for obfuscating political reasons, hiding issues for PC reasons.

In closing … the term Islamism is unhelpful and even dangerous.

Problematic, yes for reasons we’ve agreed above but, let’s be honest, not as dangerous as the extremism it denotes.

Atheists and secularists have arguments with many aspects all religions and the religious. But we have different arguments with different extreme and non-extreme cases, even different arguments between the extreme “dominionst” and extreme “muderously, violently terrorist” kind. For the latter the key argument being unconditional condemnation and the full force of law and the forces of establishment authority.

Maajid Nawaz …  someone the LSS stood shoulder to shoulder with when he was in the eye of a particularly unpleasant blasphemy storm – has said that Islamism suffers from the “Voldemort effect”: it is the ideology which shall not be named. Well on that basis, Islam suffers from an extreme Voldemort effect.

Well yes, Islam has that problem too, a particular problem as I’ve also said, but precisely because of the political correctness that fails to name the ideology.

So back to your opening question in your title:

Is there really any difference between Islam and “Islamism”?

Clearly we both actually agree there is. I think the real point is that Islamism is maybe not always (not often) be the most helpful word to make the distinction. Can’t argue with that and there are plenty of alternatives depending on the context.

[The] set of ideas is called Islam.
The followers of Islam – the good ones and the bad ones – are called Muslims.
If those two statements of mine are in any way controversial, then [we have a problem].

Sure – absolutely not contentious, though as you highlight neither is monolithic nor “homogeneous”. They’re good and bad (like you and I) on many different human aspects. The issue unrecognised in your simple statements – the ideology we must name – is the dominionism, the theocracy; The non-secular establishment aims, the sharia alternative to establishment legal process, the extremist actions to achieve those aims beyond honest political processes.

[Choose your words to make these distinctions] for the right reason. What I mean by that is do it because you honestly think there’s a significant difference. Don’t do it to shield yourself from (baseless) accusations of racism and bigotry. Don’t do it out of fear. Don’t do it because everyone around you is doing it. Don’t do it because you’re scared of falling out with the In Crowd. Don’t do it because you’re worried about losing Twitter followers.

It’s a pity the second half of that is an accusatory straw-man, because the sentiment is so clearly right. What really matters, as you say is constructive dialogue based on trust and honesty, with inherently less motivation to abuse any perceived linguistic mis-steps to obfuscate and derail progress for negative political reasons. But that’s Political Correctness, politics without trust. There’s a lot of it about.

What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?

Heard Aron Ra (aka The Texas Tank) state director of American Atheists speak at a LAAG event 30th April. Sell-out capacity crowd (70+?) filling the room at The Prince of Wales, Drury Lane.

As befits the rock’n’roll / goth / heavy-metal image plenty of T-shirts with messages on display – not all of them black – Eisenberg’s Tree of Life, Muse(!), We Are All Africans, The Null Set, … oh and I spied a copy of this:


Anyhoo … after an introduction highlighting LAAG’s campaigning credentials, Ra gave what turned out to be a fairly low-key laid-back summary of weird conclusions arising from various “logical” combinations of so-called-religious so-called-beliefs – anecdotal and delivered for the laughs. He majored on his recurring theme of “cladistic taxonomies” (though he didn’t use those terms for this audience) of what defines gods & religions (& philosophies, & social identities) – not a hard and fast ontology, obviously, how could there be – clades are no the only classes, strict taxonomies are not the only ontologies? But I digress. Some stats on relative sizes of various self-identified religious and non-religious populations. No strong point, given he was preaching to converted “Active Atheists”, on specific American Atheists campaigns to compare and contrast the US with UK contexts. Entertaining however.

A couple of points I picked up – one on the US / UK contrast – was a reminder of the idiotic situation in the US of having  “dominionists” other than Islamists, from Christian denominations, that believe in their own one world theocracy being higher than all potential competing institutions. [In my agenda this leads – once you accept secularism – to the national / shared-community / human values question – that atheists and humanists often duck.]

Most striking theme was his constant reference to his own Mormon (family / cultural) background – not exactly ex-Mormon, since he never was one, but a source of many anecdotes. A little history of Mormonism, it’s ’tis / tisn’t relationship with Christianity generally, and the Mormon Wars.

Novel fact for me, was the history of the Mormon dominated area at the corners of Arizona, Utah & Nevada – where in fact “Mormon Peak” lies – rather than the ubiquitous Salt Lake City campus. Particularly interesting to me since, having lived and worked in the US – based in the deep-south – for several years myself, we also experienced that part of the world. We steered clear of SLC, but travelled the roads between the national parks of southern Utah and northern Arizona, including one memorable run “down” I15 through Mesquite. We tried to stop for beer / food / sleep in Hurricane and in St. George, doubling back on ourselves a few times in our search. It must have been a Sunday – either way traditional religious observance meant there was little comfort on offer.

No room at the inn; now I know why.

Seems a bit lame after the growing noise around the “beach body” poster, but I need to record my original thoughts. The twitterstorm – the feminists vs the PC-rejectors – has grown this week, but when I first saw the poster over 2 maybe 3 weeks ago, I assumed the so-non-PC shock value was deliberate irony – click-bait. I recall a chuckle. It clearly worked.

As one of those previously dismissive of Brand’s naive revolutionary call to reject democracy and throw it’s babies out with the bathwater, without any apparent “plan” to fill the vacuum with anything other than anarchic revolution, I need to point out that his latest Trews interview with Ed Milliband is excellent.

Ironically, Brand’s closing piece credits Milliband with learning something about the reality of the workings of the press and the banks and such like, whereas the person that’s clearly learned something about what it takes to make change happen is Brand.

Some very honest exchanges about shared frustrations, recognition of the difficulties and (real) limits to power and influence, yet a (seemingly) positive coming together on genuine commitment to common aims. Inter-personal good will – respect and trust – is a much bigger part of this than is often given credit. The Love in Revolution.

What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?

As well as several recent posts – [Secular Politics] [The Art of Freedom] [Freedom Regained] – there are a number of other items and events on the topic of freedom. [Still to publish a complete review of Baggini’s Freedom Regained, referenced in the above – but a recommended read.]

Prompted to post this after seeing the headline “Atheism is Freedom” and thinking that’s really a matter of context – the context for that particular atheist being Iran. Freedom really is a matter of degree.

Last night I listened to @BobChurchill and @BenedictRogers in a “Young Professionals in Foreign Policy” event at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall. It was a light-touch facilitated conversation driven almost entirely by audience interaction, around the UN Human Rights Declaration Article 18 on “Freedom of thought, conscience, belief, etc. … ” often annoyingly abbreviated simply to “Religious Freedom”. Both speakers are more sophisticated than that. Practical experiences of the political complexities of violations and of “getting things done” abounded, and the level of agreement from their Atheist vs Christian perspectives was pretty well summed-up in Ben’s closing remarks:

 Art.18 is there to defend freedom for every human being.
Too often Christians speak up for Christians,
Muslims for Muslims, atheists for atheists.
Freedom should be defended [by all] for all.

Political complexities considered – that’s maybe too good to be true, but of course it’s not just realpolitik and hypocrisy that compromises such freedom. The fact is any enlightened freedom worth fighting for still has its constraints and restraints – values against which its quality is judged.

Atheism is freedom, freedom from believing in a god. It’s not freedom to believe [in] nothing. That’s chaos and anarchy. Many of us atheists have had to qualify what atheism means for us – at root it’s a negative belief defined by what it doesn’t believe or believes not to exist – somewhere between anti-theism and agnosticism; I’ve personally gone for non-theism in these days of new-atheism. But on the positive side, as a basis for actual beliefs, I’ve in the past gone for naturalism (many old links in the side-bar) and more often than not humanism or simply a secular rationalism. But too often rationalism tends to be hijacked by those that consider science – scientism – to be the only measure of rationality. But what’s in a name? The question is, what values come with the label.

I see the upcoming A C Grayling talk at Central London Humanists is on “Humanist Values” with a blurb that suggests humanist supporter Grayling chooses, for preference, the label naturalist. [Post note – my write-up on the Grayling talk.] Much has been made in recent debates about the value of humanism being the absence of “imposed” codes – which does indeed look like freedom if your context is of a more totalitarian persuasion. In a generally freer “western” context humanism (or naturalism) does still require a set of values to which we can subscribe, which we are still free to question and can adopt / adapt / improve over time. Successful evolution comes with a degree of conservatism, a generation-to-generation fidelity and fecundity of the established species. Species of value. A valuable freedom worth defending.

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.
Julian Baggini – Freedom Regained


[Post Note: More on Humanist Values (for later)]

[Post Note : Paul Mason’s Grauniad piece on “bogus” identity politics – I beg to differ, it’s ultimately about identity.]

[Post Note : Kenan Malik on inherited Western / European / Christian / Islamic / Greek values etc. My recurring point is that naming a set of values as “ours” is about subscribing to them, not a proprietorial claim of ownership or originality, nor to contrast or distinguish them from the values of others. The more we share the better. The claim is simply an affirmation.]

[Post Note : And – on 13 May 2015, post #GE2015 – values topical in politics and media as measures to limit protections on free expression – of hate & prejudice – are proposed & debated. Links to be collected. This is the basic news story. Cuts both ways – on extremists and “critics”. And the Grauniad take. Samira Ahmed’s documentary piece. Graundiad on “Universal Values“.]

[Post Note : “Stay Quiet and You’ll Be OK” and “Seven Reasons not to Hold Back Your Opinion“.]

[Post Note : Baroness Warsi – on emphasising and promoting positive values, rather than negative legislation.]

[Post Note : More from Sarah Brown on Racism a cross-post of this. My initial response on identity and parallels between racism and religious hate speech was what about “Ethnicity”. See also Framing Islamaphobia law, and UK reworking Human Rights Act story. UK Muslim Myths. Time for a consolidated post from these holding snips.]

[Post Note : Even the Conservatives call time on Pamela Geller.]

This story of several writers pulling out of an event where Hebdo are to be honoured with an award. Quotes Salman Rushdie, and a twitter storm has arisen. Showing that the following are consistently held:

  • Condemn Hebdo murders.
  • Defend Hebdo’s freedom to publish.
  • Celebrate Hebdo’s courage to publish.
  • Criticise Hebdo’s actual publications and motives.

As I have done here. Not complicated.

[And here, Alex Massie in The Spectator.]