Tuesday, 29 December 2009
Thursday, 17 December 2009
I'm not sure (as with most of these rants) why I'm writing this. I'm sure many of you know or can predict what I'm going to say, and the rest doubtless dont care. I'm possibly writing this to myself, but if I am I would sure love to know what you guys reading this think. Because issues around religion are a staggeringly large part of world politics, and if my thinking on this is cock-eyed then I'm on the wrong side of a debate that has the capacity to be one of the defining arguments of this era... and that would suck. So more than normal I'm going to ask for responses to this.
Plan: I never plan essays but here's a rough idea for what I'm doing here, I'm going to try and analyse the atheist movement from the perspective of someone who hangs around the edges of the movement, occasionally explaining what I think to the 3 people who want to listen, but who none the less tries to keep up to date with big political movers and shakers. I'm going to try and focus on what I see as the misunderstandings of it that a lot of people in the mainstream media have, and to try and reflect the diversity of opinion within it. Part of this will be influenced by my own views inevitably, but I'll try and make it clear when I'm talking as an individual with opinions and when as an analyst of current affairs observing what people say.
- Is anyone interested in this? If not I'll just write it to myself, those I've tagged please feel free to de-tag yourself if this doesn't look like it's your cup of tea.
- Do any of you have any opinions about how atheism or atheists act in public? Do you find that atheism seems to come with a particular sort of attitude? Or that things done in the name of atheism invoke outrage/joy within you?
- What about the way atheism is portrayed in the media or on the internet? Is too much or too little time given to such issues? Too much attention on a small group of people? Is the coverage too supportive, too confrontational?
- What about atheism as a political movement? Do you see it as such? If not how would you define it? What do you see as a the goals of this movement? Do you think these goals or good? Or do you think that the idea of such a movement isn't sensible?
- Any other thoughts? Should I not be doing this? Do I as a person fall into anything above? Do I talk about this too much? If so should I shut up or is there something I should be talking about instead?
Monday, 14 December 2009
This word is used to mean someone who refuses to accept the clear line of the scientific community. It is quite common to hear people named as evolution denialists, anthropogenic global warming denialists, AIDs denialists etc etc. and it is common to hear these people being attacked for the reasons that make them a denialist. This is starting to scare me. I think a bit of separation might help here before we turn science into an unquestionable religious dogma and we start burning heretics.
The point of science is to subject every hypothesis to rigorous empirical testing, to trust no authority and to believe exactly what the evidence says. Science is the best, if not the only, possible way to understand the physical world and needs masses and masses of respect. But it needs respect as a process, not as a set of results.
When we attack someone or call them deluded for not believing that all organisms alive today share common ancestors whose offspring differentiated and changed by means of natural selection before becoming distinct non-interbreeding species, we are not (or at least shouldn't be) attacking the lack of belief itself. Many intelligent people lived before there was good evidence for, or a consistent theory of, evolution. They did not believe in evolution and this is no reason to dismiss them intellectually. What people need to be opposed to is wilful ignorance and refusal to accept fact. To fail to believe in the theory of evolution today means one of two things: Either that you haven't heard the endless arguments to support it, heard about the endless fossils, DNA analyses, geographical comparisons, real world real time examples etc etc which have been all over the TV, internet and bookshops ad nausiem, in which case you are wilfully ignorant and I would ask that you please never ever vote, not even for x-factor, your opinion really doesn't count, nobody cares what you think, because you dont think. OR you have looked at all the evidence and have said “…. nah, my 4000 year old book of Jewish fairytales is better than all this science rubbish”, in which case you simply are not connected to the physical world the rest of us share, this is genuinely a form of psychosis and again, please dont vote, for the sake of the rest of us, I'm begging you, seek medical help. In the case of evolution the evidence is so strong that no rational couter-arguments exist, we must be open the the possibility that they might, but the first person to find me such an argument can have my right leg as a prize.
It is important to distinguish these two cases, one is simply an act of laziness, which can be remedied by better public outreach from science and by simple effort on the part of the denier. The second case is someone who says “if all the evidence in the world is placed against my pre-existing belief I will not change my beliefs”. This second case is a really dangerous sort of person: their certainty in spite of, not because of, the evidence means they can very easily be made to believe very bad things, or when they do believe such things it is hard to correct them. Someone who doesn't accept that his senses and the evidence provided indirectly by them provide a real way of analysing the world are simply beyond rational discourse and persuasion, so if they get it into their heads that they want to do something stupid there is no easy way to talk them out of it.
So it is right that we complain long and hard at and generally disrespect this second type of person, it's bad enough to have one person who is disconnected from reality, it's a problem of a different order if people start listening to them. The pope himself is not all that dangerous, his legions of gay hating followers on the other hand are. The more a given proto-pope's arguments are refuted and their idiocies opposed the better for the rest of us.
I have a problem with how this is done in the liberal blogosphere, and it's climate change. I read blogs and newspaper columns from every respected scientist in the world and I hear unambiguously that the climate is changing and that human CO2 is responsible and we need massive cuts in everything to save our asses. And my soft-hearted liberal side says yeh, lets listen to the scientists, Sarah Palin disagrees so they must be right, people opposed to this are all doing it for the oil. And when people start disagreeing on blogs I think, well you're just running scared and you're using bad arguments to prop up your need for petrol. And then I see others on the same blogs wanting to shut these people up, or calling them denialists, and saying they have the blood of polar bears on their hands and other reckless stupid things. I see all criticism of the genuinely bad science of the guys at UEA ignored or shouted down by people assuming bad faith. I hear people arguing by presenting a list of names of scientists who agree, I hear people shouted at for asking to see the raw data. And it makes my blood chill.
Science is not a religion, you get no points at all by having the president of the royal society on your side, you get points for having evidence, evidence that others can see and examine, with clear methodology and error bars. The motto of the royal society, which I have adopted as my own, is nullius in verba, on no-one's word. When arguments in public go along the lines of “scientists say x, those who doubt x are evil and wrong” then something has gone very badly wrong.
And in climate change this isn't just a matter of pedantry about exactly what we are attacking. I have no reason at all to doubt that all the competent scientist studying the climate have good evidence to suggest that CO2 humans put in the atmosphere has caused a raise in global average temperature. I have no reason at all to doubt this evidence is complex and detailed, and very compelling. But yet, when I go looking around for it, can I find it? Damned if I can. A good proxy of what the public knows is wikipedia, for many people no other source of information exists. If I go on wikipedia and look for evidence of climate change, what do I find? Stupid Al Gore style graphs. Charts of CO2 and temperature which prove nothing about climate change because correlation does not imply causality, but which do prove that the various proxy measurements we have of past temperature disagree with each other by huge amounts, often more than the range of temperature. We learn from wikipedia then that the science behind global warming is not only shockingly inaccurate, it also uses logical fallacies, all the time.
I say again, my liberal conscience compels me to say that scientists say the evidence is good, and anything that gets through peer review must be good, peer review is tough. But it's really not right to attack people for doubting the word of the all high science. If they doubt you, and they are playing by the rules of only looking at what the evidence says and they aren't purely driven by an ideological agenda, then the problem might not be with them. The problem might be that the way the evidence is presented to the public on this is shockingly bad, really awful. And if that is the evidence in the public conciousness I'm glad the public dont believe in global warming, I'm glad they dont just take the word of science as revealed unquestionable truth. Let's have some of the vast body of evidence (which really does exist and is of good quality) out in the public domain and more importantly in the public conciousness and in a language people can understand without having to struggle. And even more importantly, let's have a differentiation between people who reject the scientific method and who must be attacked and opposed, and those who reject some common belief without being shown some good evidence for it, such people are quite the opposite of a denialist.
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
A question was raised on a video I was watching today, and has been raised endlessly in religious debates for time immemorial. “Without god, on what basis can you criticise another's morals?” This question and variants are as old as the sea, “without god all is permitted”, “the ten commandments are the only true basis for morality”, “morality is only an opinion, it's not valid to criticise anyone else” etc. This is such a common idea I think it warrants a look at.
Let us start by dismissing the religious part of this question, then we can think about the far more interesting question lying under it. The religious aspect of this is removed by unpacking the question, it runs like this: my religion provides objective moral values, without such objective morals there is no absolute truth in any moral statement, and without that people could do any immoral thing they liked. The problem is in the first premise, no religion gives objective standards for morality to a person approaching that religion for the first time. If someone who has never done so before reads the bible and produces a moral code from it they have a problem. Do they go with a a literal interpretation of all commands as morally valid and so condemn tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), throw Derek Acorah out of town (Deuteronomy 18:10-11), destroy entire towns if there are people advocating other religions (Deuteronomy 13:12-18), reject forward planning (Matthew 6:34) etc. or do they pick and choose which parts of the bible are relevant or which are metaphorical. I cant of course judge any of these things before I have a basis for doing so (and am personally fine with the Derek Acorah thing =p ) the point is simply that almost none of the people who make questions of this kind would accept as objectively morally true all of these things.
We conclude from these examples then, that people do not accept as totally valid all statements that come from a religion or from a teacher of any other kind. They use some sort of standard to judge what commands they accept and which they reject, not the religion itself. This is a factual not a moral observation so without having yet any basis for morals I feel happy in removing mention of god from the original question as an irrelevance. (Feel free to oppose this in comments below). So we now have a new more general question: “what is the basis for moral criticism?”
A few observations: there is, in any one culture and time, a widely accepted moral opinion on a large number of basic things. The number of people in the 21st century west who when pressed would not say they believe “what Joseph Fritzel did was wrong” to be 'true' could probably be counted without having to take your socks off. The are a number of arguments near these obvious basic things where there is little to no consensus (is it right to eat meat, what is the appropriate way to treat groups of historically oppressed people etc). We also notice that these things are not fixed. Many centuries ago many things which are now in the latter category were once in the former and vice versa, and things that were firmly decided one way or the other are now decided in the contrary way. It was widely acknowledged in the ancient world that slavery is not only acceptable but the only way to make a successful society work, today there is a very real debate over the morality of abortion, in classical Greece it was universally accepted that not only was abortion moral, infanticide was quite acceptable.
Moving away from the community for a moment and onto the person. How does the individual develop his moral opinions? I fear some may turn away in disgust at this but: we have to start in evolutionary biology. It is inevitable that any creature with a nervous system that can detect things closely related to it will act to the benefit of those things, this gets its genes into the next generation. There are countless examples of altruism in just about any class of animal (and even some plants) that you may care to think of. So we should expect humans to be fundamentally kind to those closely related. We should also expect children to follow commands from their parents, be they “dont touch that it's hot” or “dont eat that it's unclean”, not following these puts the baby at a risk of death and so is selected out of the gene-pool. (For a far better and more detailed analysis of this please see the truly excellent and badly-titled book “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins). So we have an instinctive morality of clan loyalty, looking out for your own, sacrificing yourself to save two brothers etc. Notice that these rules are fairly constant, the many genes responsible for all this stuff will probably not have altered significantly in the million years people have been people. So we should expect these things to be roughly the same in all times and places.
Overlaid on that we have cultural morality, re-enforced by peer-pressure, this gives us what a lot of people mean by the “true moral message” of one religion or another, this is why people feel they should eat their greens and get some education, people aren't born feeling this, but at a later age they feel this like it's an instinct. In this category comes moral messages in common expressions, nobody can argue with “forgive and forget”, it is a moral axiom of our culture, not so in another time or in another place. Notice that these change with the society, I know the morals my parents and others gave me are different from the morals of someone from a deeply conservative family in the middle east, or from a Spartan. I could go on about this for hours but your political view is a real factor here (Take the test at http://www.yourmorals.org - then watch the TEDTalk that explains why: http://on.ted.com/255P it's a really interesting phenomenon). This changes and evolves, it will change in a way that convinces the most people in the next generation to stick with the same moral framework as the last (I vote labour because my father did etc).
Later we become sophisticated and think about these basic impressions. We develop the vague impression of happiness when animals are cared for into vegetarianism or supporting dog's trust. We take a feeling of unhappiness at domineering and unfair people we encounter in our early life and become trade unionists or members of amnesty international. This is where the criticism enters discussion at last. Levels below this we can analyse where the impressions come from, much like trying to work out where a fear of spiders comes from, but the impression itself isn't based on any argument so no argument is going to change that. However arguments and reasoning do produce these later sophistications. So arguments and reasoning can change them.
Assertion moral criticism is based not on absolutes, but on the best way to enact in practice an approximately equal basic moral assumptions, moral criticism of those outside ones own culture can either be based how to enact on their basic moral assumptions or to appeal that their higher level culture based instincts are not compatible with deeper biological instincts.
What we observe from our considerations of society is that if there are moral absolutes to be had anywhere then societies aren't good at finding them, morals change too much to have included anything like a truth of objective reality. We note that revelation or commandments from some outside source are arguments for ones own moral opinions only after they have been formed and are in no sense an objective moral framework. The holy books are not where religious people get their morality any more than people get it from leaders of personality cults or from superstars. Moral codes come first, then arguments from outside back them up. One always has the choice to reject or accept any command written in stone, one does this because of ones own pre-existing morals.
The sophistications I talked about before (I mean that word in the most positive way, not with the slightly sneering tone it has acquired) are quite literally rules or rather sets of rules about how to act. We follow these rules because they help us to satisfy those desires which our instincts give us. One can argue about these very effectively and with a strong basis. If you have a friend raised in the same time and place then generally his instincts will be much the same as yours. So when one argues about his sophistications as opposed to yours, one is not arguing which is more pleasing to god, or which accords better with the absolute morals that are stored somewhere. I argue with my friend about whether it is moral for such and such a law to be passed, we aren't arguing as to whether it fits into an external moral framework (as we would if we were asking “is it constitutional”) but whether the moral instincts that we both share fit well with it. If I argue with a Kantian about the problem of lying (see footnote*) the question is not whether the ban on lying is really a logical part of Kant's system (it is) but whether that fits with our shared instincts.
Outside of our culture here means outside of those people who we should expect to have the same instincts as us. Notice this is only a change in the learnt part of our instinctive morality, all humans at all times have approximately the same level of altruism etc at birth because it's genetic and not very variable (again see selfish gene). What does change over time and place is the stuff your parents and others around you re-enforce in your behaviour. So for me today in the classic Oxford Union debate “this house would never fight for queen and country” my instinct is to agree, because my loyalties are to myself, my close friends and to the whole of humanity, and are really not attached to queen or country. A Spartan would have immense loyalty to his country. How can the two of us argue?
I can argue that fighting for his country is not the best way to be loyal to it, that supporting your country means sacrificing your own glory and working for peace and prosperity. He can argue that the best way to protect my friends and those I am loyal to is to fight. We are arguing here not that the other's intuition is wrong, but that we have not chosen the right way to promote it. This seems to me to be a valid way of arguing that might actually change people's minds. This is the same sort of reasoning that gives us “would you like it if everyone did that?” and arguments about logical consistency of ones morals. Here we can have real logical discussions that get us places, this is the most firm ground for a discussion of someone else's morals.
We have a second way of arguing outside our own culture: our genetic instincts are obviously more deep-rooted than our cultural ones. (This does not of course mean stronger, ask anyone who has committed suicide in the name of honour). It is sometimes possible to argue that the instincts a person's culture has given them do not fit well with itself or the other instincts they have. People can be shocked by the things they have been lead to believe, ask anyone who's been freed from a cult, we can argue that the morals that such societies deeply ingrain into people are bad simply because when they are properly thought about they disagree with a much deeper form of morality. This idea of really coming to grips with your morals and understanding what it is you really think is the point of many reconciliation panels after terrible conflicts and atrocities. This is harder to make rigorous, the basis is our genetic predispositions towards some particular kind of morality. Whilst it is true that we will all share that predisposition it is often weak compared to some ingrained cultural belief.
I am a scientist and a mathematician, so I am pre-disposed to think about morals in terms of maximising the function happiness. This leads inevitably to utilitarianism (the idea that the best thing to do is to add up all the happiness that results from a given action and go with the action that gives you the biggest number). However inevitable this idea is given my upbringing and culture it can be killed outright (along with my belief in democracy) by the classic example of the terrorist's son. There is a bomb about to go off and kill a thousand people, the terrorist is under arrest, and his son is there, you know the only way to save those thousand people is to torture that young child. Simply adding up happiness and suffering will tell you that torturing that boy is moral, but our deeper genetic instincts tell us this is a really bad idea. One can have an argument based on this moral code or that and get a good resolution, or one can appeal far less logically to our genetic inheritance. This is not guaranteed to get us a resolution or to even be accepted as an argument and is by far the weakest form of moral criticism, but it does get resolution enough of the time to be worthwhile. Nazis such as Speer have said sorry, people have rejected barbaric cults they have been brainwashed into.
It's not much of a basis for morality, but it is enough I think for me to criticise Hitler without having relativists jumping up and down at me. I dont claim to have objective truths, but I do claim that dispute is possible and that it can be resolved one way or the other. As with science things cannot ever be decided one way or the other, but a consensus can be reached and discussion is not futile.
*basically Kant sets out a great long incomprehensible framework for all of morality and one of the logical consequences of this is that it is never right to lie, even if a murderer is at the door who wants to know where your mother is so he can kill her. This is obviously regarded as a flaw in Kant's system by many people.
Comments as ever wanted, this one especially, I'm sure it's half drivel.
Monday, 7 December 2009
continued at http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm
The Relativity of Wrong
The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.
My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.However, I don't think that's so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so.