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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excellent educational and thought provoking read.

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

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

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

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

So, to the meat.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbers are a tool, they are never the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just joining up some obvious dots.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Post Note : From Bryan Appleyard’s review :

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

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

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

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

Scientists can be as PC as anyone else.]

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

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

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

Another keeper for later (HT to Paul Mason on Twitter)

““What part of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason didn’t you understand?”

Interesting that Blackburn’s recent lecture drew attention to the point in the title of  Kant’s critique being against “Pure” reason – ie why would anyone expect enlightenment reason to be anything more than a new tool in the armoury of argumentation, justification and decision-making, rather than seeing any suggestion that some purer rationality could entirely replace established human decision-making reality. The servant of the passions, the emissary of the master.

Jon Butterworth’s column in the Grauniad picks up where he left off introducing the importance of symmetries in physics last time, in explaining how symmetries beyond the particles in the standard model (ie super-symmetries) affect the search for “what next” in the CERN LHC restart – dark matter or whatever.

Prompted to record the point since I’m in the middle of reading Lee Smolin’s contribution to the latest Unger and Smolin book (notes on Smolin chapters yet to be published) – where one corollary of their placing maths inside cosmological history (and its evolution) is that the idea that symmetries must be fundamental to physical laws and cosmological models is misguided – a misleading impression gained from experience within “Newtonian control volumes” as sub-sets of the cosmos.

On “the glorious 12th” of February Robert Ashby BHA Chair of Trustees introduced the 12th annual Darwin Day Lecture hosted by the BHA. Richard Dawkins then introduced anthropologist Dr Eugenie Scott of the US as the guest speaker on ‘What would Darwin say to today’s creationists?’ (Note that NCSE has a wider educational mandate, and currently AGW-denial was another hot topic.)

Dawkins introduction highlighted two important points. Firstly that “evolution” is not a theory (a hypothesis) in the sense Darwin originally intended it, nor is it even a scientific law, but is an explanatory principle of how things came (and continue to come) to be (*1). Secondly that he is not as diplomatic or effective as Dr Scott when it comes to arguing the case for evolution against creationism. Both topics to which Dr Scott returned.

The event is celebratory and targetted at a large public audience, so naturally Dr Scott kept the content more entertaining and anecdotal than technical, and succeeded in that. Many of the well known creationist arguments aimed at undermining either evolution (by natural selection), or Darwin’s own originality or conviction to his own theory, were aired and shown to be missing the point whether or not they were scientific or even contained an element of truth.

For me, the one new item was the (laugahbly crude) creationist literature under the name Harun Yahya which had strong links with Turkish state support. Apart from the punchline Darwin might give to modern creationists (young earth, IDist or otherwise) “Haven’t you been paying attention for the last 155 years?” the telling points were in two of the questions.

Nicky Campbell (Host of BBC’s “The Big Question”) asked if Scott (or Dawkins) had ever had a creationist come up to them after a debate or argument and indicate that they now accepted Darwinian evolution? No, said Scott. Dawkins cited one who after a full undergraduate course had come to him and to say “Darwin makes sense”. Scott elaborated that she never wasted her time and lack of credibility arguing with those who professed faith-based creationist beliefs, life’s too short and there are plenty of people in an educational context who benefit more from having Darwin explained. After that Darwinian evolution takes over from the seeds of mutation sown. (Lesson there for Dawkins?)

Sue Blackmore (Evolutionary Psychology Lecturer and author of The Meme Machine) expressed the view that even in her own graduate lectures she had trouble getting many intelligent students to “get” Darwinian evolution by natural selection, did Scott have any tips? Scott had two. One, as Dawkins already indicated, it’s not simply “a theory” and success was easier if the open audience was targetted in an educational context, so yes, even there it was often difficult hence her own priority of educating open minds where success was more likely. Secondly however, Scott reminded us that since it was not “a theory” or a subject-matter scientific topic in its own right, it was important to teach the principles of Darwinian natural selection in every subject from the start, not just in biology as a particular science lesson. (Interestingly however, neither Scott nor Dawkins mentioned any non-biological evolution during the course of the evening; geographical and geological – tectonics, sedimentation and erosion – mechanisms affecting and explaining biological evolution, but no non-biological evolution by Darwinian natural selection. (*)

[(*) Note recent Unger & Smolin publication extolling the view of taking all causal explanations within the cosmos as evolutionary with a history of how things came to be; nothing, not even natural laws and mathematics are outside the history of the cosmos.]

[Post Note : in that reference to Unger & Smolin above (I’ve not yet completed the Smolin parts) I picked-up on their “conundrum of the meta-laws” – with a barely intelligible “riff” on Doug Hofstadter’s “Tabletop” – for me there is no conundrum, just something that’s hard to put into “Newtonian” forms of causal explanation – there is a “creative emergence”. It occurs to me this is the same issue as saying “Darwinian evolution as natural selection” is not a so much a law or a theory, as some kind of explanatory principle about how evolutionary causation works. The same explanatory principle of how everything came to be through history, that Unger & Smolin are talking about I say. Scientists should talk to each other more, rather than arguing with the perceived irrational.]

Ann Marie Waters, ex board member of the National Secular Society (NSS) and ex left-wing Labour politician, added to her outspoken non-PC infamy when she recently announced joining UKIP as a prospective candidate in the upcoming UK parliamentary election.

What’s that all about?

How does a “left-wing-to-her-soul” ex-Irish-catholic, culturally-British-Christian, lesbian, feminist, freedom-and-equality-rights-activist follow such a trajectory? Worth listening carefully to her answers.

She came to talk to the LAAG (London Atheist Activist Group) last night.
Her topic was Islamism and the Left, but we got the whole deal.

Disillusionment with the left is widespread amongst left-leaning libertarians – as most thoughtful humanists are by nature – paralysed by political correctness and unable to grasp intellectually and express practically any policy necessary to even address serious issues. To the point of being paradoxical, even hypocritical. (And it’s not new, think of Kinnock berating the Liverpool labour politicians, long before we get to analysing the demise of states built on variants of socialism, and the legacies of the “New Labour” project.)

As Anne-Marie puts it, having believed left-wing politics stood for the freedoms and equalities of individuals she (still) holds dear – she discovered that in practice it was dogmatically ideological on internationalism, effectively totalitarian on deciding debate topics and agendas.

Struggling with her own conscience against political careerism and policies of “economic equality” – as much for already advantaged “white anglo-saxon male” roles, as for culturally disadvantaged individuals and minorities – she concluded the left was never really associated with human rights generally, nor with women’s rights and feminism specifically. Even talk of “women’s rights” is patronising to some extent but, for her, women’s rights around FGM, forced marriage, wearing the veil, patriarchal dominance and their Islamic context are the topical exemplars – matters of principle here and now.

Addressing these not only to Islam head-on but, given her more recent allegiance to UKIP, also to Immigration head-on, is the recipe for her incendiary reputation. Vilified in the mainstream media, abused on social media, death-threats in person and unemployable in the legal career she has clearly sacrificed.

Stepping down from her role in the NSS, was less to do with any dissatisfaction with that organisation (though here too there is the dominant left-wing libertarian culture), but primarily a matter of secular loyalty to protect the broader secularist agenda from the inevitable reaction to her current narrower political focus within UKIP.

On Islam, both current practice in states with majority Muslim cultures, and expressly in infamous passages from the Quran, women are second class citizens, reduced effectively to invisible slaves and property in many aspects, and non-Muslims are enemies simply for being so.

[She recited many examples – from the Quran, from the media, from surveys and reports – all previously reported, some are memes in their own right, many already referenced here, but many, as in many. Only a few I’ll note here.]

She contrasted Quranic and Biblical accounts of the stoning of the adulterous woman (let he who is free from sin cast the first stone) and the marriage of the prophet (Aisha was wed aged 7 and “consummated” at 9.)

She contrasted statistics and surveys of freedom and equality for women in states around the world, where unsurprisingly the Scandinavian & Nordic countries come out best, yet where non-home, non-date rape cases are (a) the highest in the world and (b) predominantly “Muslim immigrant” men assaulting local women (*). [Such inflammatory claims need careful checking beyond anecdotal evidence, but this is clearly the extreme end of the more general point. In that sense, she is stating “extreme” views.]

What is interesting is Waters’ take on #nothingtodowithislam and the “TME” meme (the problem is The Minority of Extremists). She sees these as “pathetic and dangerous”. I’ve been clear on my take. The truth lies somewhere between “it’s nothing to do with Islam” and “it’s everything to do with Islam”. Or as “moderate” Muslims would plead “Islam, we have a problem.

There are problems, some of which are driven by Islamic culture. The extreme “terrorist” problems by extremist minorities, others – the particular women’s rights topics of Waters’ agenda – by wider, more deeply ingrained aspects of the culture. The tangled web covers everything from the historical religious influences on those states and cultures, to prejudiced pretexts and scholarly readings of the holy texts, not to mention the qualities and motivations of the scholars and the regimes enacting the political influences. But.

The problems of Islamism are a problem with Islam.
A problem better addresses than denied.

So why Immigration and why UKIP?

Immigration is quite straightforward here. It’s a policy against open borders, against unconditional immigration. (It may be a straw man to imply such a state exists, but) why would you welcome immigrants espousing a culture that actively denies the rights and freedoms of half of our existing citizens. Why import such beliefs. Why admit expectations that legal (eg Sharia) exceptions will be made for cultural content that directly conflicts with “our” human rights?

This is quite simply saying immigration should be conditional (which it probably already is) and the conditions of undesirability should include such direct conflict with cultural values on rights and freedoms (which it almost certainly currently is not). Highly non-PC but logically a no-brainer. Codifying and enacting such conditions would clearly require technical skill and political competence, but that’s no argument against against the core point.

Why UKIP? That’s trickier. For Waters, it’s a question of priorities and practical opportunity for turning principles into policy. Whatever other policies UKIP may have formally, or may appear to have according to media hype, or may contain due to individual members’ cultures and behaviours, does any other UK political party – expressly support secularism; real (non-PC) support for women’s rights as equal human rights;  and the (non-PC) concept of a British culture beyond “multi-culturalism”? Waters clearly believes not, and she’s probably right, though frankly I don’t know.

On the “I” in UKIP – Independence, the third-I – Waters claims that she (and UKIP) are actually all for a UK within a culturally unified Europe, the independence is really from the existing EU institutional arrangements – which have evolved to be inefficient, unworkable and effectively “corrupt and evil”.

What is clear is that Anne Marie Waters is sincere and candid, and is a conviction & issues (ie non-careerist) politician. Her specific agenda on women’s (& LGBT & other) freedoms, Islam and Immigration, whilst far from PC, is nevertheless clear and rational. And, whilst her focus is on the necessary and the possible here and now – (ie she’s not the Irishman who wouldn’t start from here) – she clearly has a deep appreciation of the historicity of the religious, cultural, nationalist, colonialist, east-west guilt-and-responsibility snake-pit in which we find ourselves.

The question is – does UKIP have any more like her?


[(*) Post Note : Actual Norwegian NRK1 TV Dagsrevyen Nyheter interview with police chief in 2010 – all 41 cases over 3 years by “non-Western immigrants” – not specifically “Muslim” but explicitly from male dominated hierarchical cultures. We lived in Oslo 2009 – 2011 and enjoyed frequenting the ethically diverse east-end – food stores and restaurants in Grønland & Tøyen – a good deal in the final few months. Well-educated Norwegian colleagues certainly expressed concerns over immigrant population. Breivik was spring 2012, specifically targetted against labour left “tolerating” multiculturalism.]

Holding Notes : [Tatchell][Cashman][Women][Colonialism][FurtherLinks][LeftPCIslamAlliance][Modesty]

Prompted by Tweets in response to this Grauniad Higher Ed piece:

If “research” being published is primarily human readable text, then nothing wrong with PDF provided saved in a text-searchable form – how you save it matters. (And purists would say LATEX is a better format which keeps text separate from formatting – but formatted viewers have less wide-spread adoption than Adobe products. And being locked against casual editing, or open to annotation and comment are all widely available features with PDF.)

If what is being published really is structured – or benefits from being structured – where the organisation and formatting of content is really part of the information being published, then an XML document with (say) RDF-Schema (for structure) and style-sheets (for presentation) is the most future-proof way to go. Turns documents into databases without building the database first.

This is a common issue for all information publishing in all businesses, not just academic research.

The political philosopher Roberto Unger and the cosmologist / physicist Lee Smolin have jointly written “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” and its release last month had already been promoted as a landmark work.

It’s actually two books, one by each of them, with common introduction and index. So far, in addition to the introduction and index, I’ve completed only Unger’s contribution, which is about 2/3 of the total. Stylistically it’s written for a multi-discipline but technical audience in terms of the philosophy and physics. It’s not “popular science”. It’s also arguing a case rather than simply informing, so there is a lot of repetitive near-restatement in elaborate and technical language.

However the arguments are already clear and compelling, only a few points to disagree with.

There are three explicit and one corollary theses (my own paraphrased re-statements):

  • The Singular (Individual) Universe – the cosmos comprises only one universe, evolving with a history. Nothing lies outside the universe.

  • The Reality of Time – time is real and inclusive of the whole history of the cosmos. No part of the universe lies outside time.

  • The Selective Reality of Mathematics – maths is a tool for describing, representing and manipulating reality, but is not some privileged layer underlying fundamental reality. Not even maths lies outside the cosmos and time.

  • The Reality of Causation – but patterns of regularity, that might look like laws at periods in cosmological history are not timeless laws, rather they evolve and speciate like any other aspect of the cosmos. Not even patterns of causation lie outside cosmological time, they are emergent and meta, whether they appear law-like or not.

Aside – As well as those bare bones, reiterated, explained and argued by Unger, there are encouraging references to Mach and Poincare, Riemann and Einstein too, and the Hilbert project terminally scuppered by Gödel. More links later. (*)

The agenda and argument are not idle speculation. Unger is recommending this reset of simpler philosophical foundations removes a misleading “metaphysical gloss” from currently accepted physics, and provides greater empirical possibility for exploring any and all of the stubborn gaps in existing theory.

A recurring theme is what Unger refers to as “the conundrum of meta-laws”. Causality may be independent of the existence of laws, but is the causal evolution of of genuinely novel patterns and species of regularity itself governed by meta-laws?

Struggling to see what exactly he sees as the problematic meta-laws conundrum? [Personal riff on Hofstadter – Clearly patterns of regularity themselves occur in recursive “meta” layers upon layers, with “ortho” patterns in relationships between the layers. Again, patterns or principles of the possible, but not fixed timeless laws per se. For me this creative evolution of the actual from the conceivably possible screams “Tabletop” after Doug Hofstadter’s metaphor for “slipping” to adjacent possibles via any number of meta layers of meta relationships – meta-meta-physics.]

Anyway, to close this review of the first part of Unger and Smolin, here a large [snipped] quote from Unger as he closes his chapter on patterns of regularity in causation, before moving on to his final chapter on the selective reality of maths:

“The reality of time is [in fact] a revolutionary proposition. […]

[The meta-laws conundrum] suggests a sense in which our conventional ideas about causality are confused. Causal judgements presuppose the reality of time. The relations among logical or mathematical propositions do not. The laws of nature have been commonly understood to justify causal explanations. If time […] is all inclusive, the laws of nature should not be understood to be outside time.

Laws of nature [in the present cool universe] codify causal connections over [distinct] structure with a relatively stable repertoire of natural kinds and [patterns of] recurrence.

Nature often satisfies these conditions, but not always. The stability and the mutability of the laws need not contradict each other [historically].

It follows that we cannot hope to ground causality in a timeless and changeless foundation. […] Our conventional beliefs in [the dominant interpretations of] science, fudge the difference between the two horns of this dilemma. They grant the reality of time, but not to the point that [laws may change within it.]

To accept this criticism is to recognise the need to revise our view of causal explanation. […]

[The greater] the scope and ambition of our theories, the greater the danger in disregarding the historical character of causation [and their regularities] in the universe.”

Purely logical (timeless) objective structural descriptions of reality overlook the value of historical “becoming” explanations (to paraphrase Mary Midgeley berating Larry Krauss).

Right now I’m looking forward to reading the cosmologist’s (Lee Smolin’s) contribution to this argument, and skipping ahead few pages into his first chapter “Cosmology in Crisis” it’s pretty clear he is restating the same key points at the outset, despite the caveat that the two authors kept their contributions separate because they actually claimed to have disagreements in their views.

Already Smolin is also making it clear that sweeping away the misguided metaphysical gloss in contemporary cosmology and resetting a more common sense metaphysics, far from undermining today’s best accepted standard models and symmetries, actually increases the possibilities of empirical exploration for the many current gaps, mysteries and paradoxes. Reading on.


[(*) Some Post Notes:

Unger is fairly dismissive of anthropic principles, weak or strong – but I interpret that as being a warning against sloppy anthropic thinking. ie our “anthropic perspective” in the “current universe” is clearly real, so recognising that is important, especially when pondering the “fine tuning” effects mentioned in this work, and evaluating interpretations already made by other humans with similar tunnel vision. We are always looking at our cosmos from our insider perspective. There is no other.

Also, the “Darwinian” evolution of laws of nature all the way down is pretty much what Brian Josephson was describing earlier at the meeting of Nobel Laureates.]

[Post Note : Final review here after completing Smolin’s section.]

Listening to Simon Blackburn last night at Conway Hall, indeed mulling over the title of his talk before listening to him, it is transparently obvious that he has an important agenda when it comes to his close association with humanism and the BHA.

Now Blackburn is probably “the” greatest living British philosopher active and teaching in the field, so even an amateur enthusiast such as myself can’t fail to have noticed his work over several years already. My noticing switched to paying attention the first time I heard him speak in person (at Hay on Wye “How The Light Gets In” festival) only last year. He, in his own words last night, has that appearance of the “fuddy-duddy” white-haired old-guard, so last year, so two and a half millennia “out of date”, and a very patient, gentle, wry delivery to boot. He hardly screams “listen to me” in our times of attention-grabbing, social media headlines with everything.

But listen we should; the man talks sense. Once listening, it’s clear he has a very important message that humanists generally, and the BHA in particular, need to hear.

On a previous occasion, giving the Bentham Memorial Lecture on 26th November 2014 at UCL, hosted by Joe Wolf  (UCL Philosophy Professor) and Peter Cave (Humanist Philosophy Group chair) presented in association with the BHA, Blackburn’s title was:

“Was Hume The First Humanist?”

Hum(e)an wordplay aside, the answer to the explicit question is clearly no, not the first by a long way, but the rhetorical point for his captive audience is that Hume is the model humanist for modern humanism.

Last night, 27th January 2015, Blackburn delivered the belated 2014 George Ross memorial lecture at Conway Hall, hosted by Anja Steinbauer of Philosophy Now and Philosophy For All London. His title:

“Faith, Hope & Charity for Humanists”

Bringing the three cardinal Christian virtues into the house of rational and humanist ethics, elicited the “how dare he?” knee jerk from a thankfully small minority of the audience and questioners, but his message was clear to those humanists who listened.

Explicit in his first title, immediately apparent in the content of the second talk, and front and centre right from his first major book publication “Spreading The Word”; Blackburn is a scholar of Hume, all the better he says, for being read in the Edinburgh accent that Blackburn doesn’t have.

So what makes Hume the model humanist?

  • Concern for humans, obviously; for humanity, individuals and populations in the world in general, but also so for “kith and kin”, nearest and dearest, family and friends, those with social associations and practical dependencies in the day to day world we inhabit here and now.
  • But more importantly in this context; modesty and economy of argument, despite vaulting ambition. Not the bull-headed agendas of the “new atheists”, campaigners with clenched-fists and all guns blazing, concerned primarily with winning and being “right”. Valuing the virtues in others.

And in that earlier Bentham lecture, he proceeded to develop strategies and exemplars of argumentation – based on the above values – for humanists arguing with the religious. Much nodding in the direction of Andrew Copson sitting in the gods. (I’ll say more on this in a later post, but coincidentally, earlier the same week as the Bentham event was the Common Ground event “How can Humanists and Muslims live and work together in London?” – my brief notes included in this earlier post.)

Last night he first introduced the three terms of his title. Seeing the cardinal (but no doubt non-exclusive) virtues of Christianity as imports from “the other camp”, meant it could be easy to give them short shrift, but we’d be wrong to do so.

Faith, contrasted with other forms of belief and knowing, formed the bulk of the evening’s discourse and the Q&A, and had the biggest problem with negative connotations, given its popularly mis-understood substitution by enlightenment “reason”. Part of the received wisdom of the humanist “creed” is to see faith in opposition to reason. But for Hume, reason is seen as the slave to the passions as the basis of belief and action – reason as a servant(*), a tool, not a substitute for belief. The very existence of Kant’s own “critique” of “pure” reason stands to show the real enlightenment gap between reason and existing “habit”.

Hope, seen as effectively redundant once you have faith, was not given much time at all by Blackburn. Hope implies some fear of risk associated with opposite to whatever you have faith in.

Charity, easy to see as “a good thing” but needs more careful analysis to understand its fit with human values. Always possible to have too much of a good thing too; charity at the expense of other immediate and local needs of kith and kin. And easy to develop a cynical take if you focus on the feelgood and self-interest value of donation resourced charity institutions. But being charitable, has a deeper and well established place as “altruism” in moral philosophy.

Here we are talking about human nature, and if you’re so inclined, the science of human nature. But, let’s not confuse science with the ideology of science. Kant’s anthropology was developed from a purely pragmatic point of view, so wrong to infer scientific fundamentals.

There are scary “totally competitive” takes on the Darwinian place of altrusim, say from Ghiselin: “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed”. This is an important mistake of the Darwinist creed. Spencer “red in tooth and claw”, Dawkins “selfish you name it”, Pinker, Wilson (on Marx) to name a few names. Beware, distinguished scientists don’t always speak distinguished science.

The Darwinist scientific creed is a kind of triumphalism of new knowledge over “out of date” views. By contrast philosophers happily re-read contributions centuries and millennia old. Historical context is lost if viewed only with hindsight. Altruism is closely related to the ability to identify and empathise with others, including historical, literary, fictional, even “tv-soap-opera” others, experienced in real (imagined) time.

At this point Blackburn proceeded to illustrate evidence and myths addressed by other thinkers in altrusim.

  • Canine pack behaviour examples show absolutely no need to take either extreme view of benign cooperation nor lethal competition with game-theoretic options of cheating and freeloading. Reality is subtle, complex, learned, effective social behaviours. Taking the same thinking to the human case, these organic, learned trust effects can be shown to be more effective even than formal promises and contracts. These are not rationally calculated quid-pro-quo benefits of mutual back-scratching, but intuitively developed social regularities. Habits. Good habits.
  • The depressingly reductive views of the Dawkinsian Darwinists was misguided. Even the “selfish” attributes of “genes” was redundant from the arguments, the genes themselves too. Peter Godfrey-Smith’s work, describing the necessary conditions for heritable evolution of species (of anything) to occur, supports populations of anything, transmission of anything advantageous by any means, even groups of anythings. (“Group selection” is supported whilst not essential to the still raging controversies.)
  • The Phineas Gage example (a much overused meme) illustrates – eg in the great book with the lousy title “Descarte’s Error” by Antonio Damasio – the reality of loss of socially acceptable and socially predictable behaviour eventually screwed up his otherwise normal life, when specific mental capability was physically destroyed.
  • Trolleyology or the “Trolley Problem” is a poster child of ethical theory and is another example of where accepted simplistic views of “emotions” getting in the way of “rationality” get it badly wrong. eg conclusions of the Josh Green and Peter Singer variants of the problem are ideological against the emotions, the passions, the virtues. (Michael Sandel’s effort to turn as many knobs as possible to vary the basic problem helps illustrate just how subtle the human value judgements in the trade-off really are in finding “the right thing” to do. Every situation is different, not simply a different example of some common fundamental situation. To judge is human.)

So – Charity! Believe it or not on the limited unscientific “evidence” presented here, charity (altrusim and empathy) are demonstrable and testable by science, and quite counter to science dogma.

The Q&A session kept returning to the know / believe distinction inherent in the faith that “the sun will rise tomorrow” example which – given the nature of the Philosophy Now audience – tended to come down to technical philosophical arguments about induction et al. However it remained clear the real targets of this distinction where the scientific heroes of humanism named earlier – claiming contingency in science itself, yet somehow certain, with dogmatic faith in their misguided and impoverished view of rationality itself.

Humanism needs to re-appropriate the virtues of faith, hope and charity and rehabilitate them in the otherwise science dominated realm of rationality. There can be good and bad examples of any of these so careful understanding of their real functioning was infinitely preferable to dismissing them as “used goods” from the other camp.



(*) First noted at this point, but also arising in the Q&A, there is so much other material on this topic. Daniel Kahneman “Thinking Fast & Slow”. Plato’s “rational human” charioteer in control of the “passionate animal” horses or the Buddhist “elephant and its driver” version. Nietzsche, Einstein and Iain McGilchrist’s “Master and Emissary” take on the proper relation between the immediately intuitively general feel and the considered rational specific reasoning.