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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday supervillainy: Thunderbolts - "Justice like lightning!"

I'm reinstating my regular "Sunday supervillainy" feature, starting with a shout out to the Thunderbolts from Marvel Comics, which is now into a new series (scripted by Jim Zub) with a familiar cast of characters.

The Thunderbolts, recall, were originally the Masters of Evil in disguise, pretending to be superheroes for their own complicated and nefarious purposes at a time when other heroes such as the Avengers were unavailable. Some of the Thunderbolts discovered that they actually enjoyed being heroes, though they were, and remain to varying extents, morally flawed individuals.

The new line-up includes the main stalwart of the team over the years, and one of my favourite Marvel villains: Moonstone (Dr. Karla Sofen). As always, Karla thinks that she should be leader, since she is arguably the most powerful. She is a brilliant psychologist and a (near?) psychopath, whose bonding with a cosmic gemstone gives her a wide range of super powers; these make her a competent and formidable opponent even for the likes of Captain Marvel or the Hulk.

Karla is backed up by Atlas (who was the original Power Man - though that title was usurped by Luke Cage a long time ago - and was known at one stage as Goliath), Mach-X (who was originally the Beetle), and the Fixer.

That's a classic and versatile set of Thunderbolts, though some fans will surely miss Songbird (originally Screaming Mimi).

In the new series, the Thunderbolts are now under the command of the Winter Soldier (a.k.a. James "Bucky" Barnes), who has the difficult job of keeping this villainous, headstrong crew under some semblance of control while leading them on missions for the greater good. He has also picked up the task of looking after (and likewise controlling, if he can) the insanely powerful and unpredictable Kobik - a set of Cosmic Cube fragments that has taken on the appearance and personality of a little girl.

When the Thunderbolts are well written, they're a lot of fun. They'd be worth reading for Moonstone's antics alone ... as she manipulates everyone else (with mixed success), tries to assert her superiority, sometimes does manage to pull off small coups, and occasionally connects with others on the team just enough not to look like a complete psychopath.

In fact, what makes the Thunderbolts likeable is the way this bunch of ex-crooks relate emotionally to each other. All of them originally chose to use their powers (or in the case of the Fixer and Mach-X, their inventive genius) for criminal gain. But none of them is all that evil. The Fixer and Mach-X are fairly decent guys when given a chance; Atlas is more unimaginative (and not terribly bright) than a truly nasty piece of work; and even Moonstone has at least developed some fondness and loyalty toward her teammates.

At this stage, just a couple of issues into the new series, the Thunderbolts have got themselves into a mess (as usual), with Kobik having just ripped out Moonstone's gem - nearly killing her - before being persuaded to put the gem back inside Karla's chest. Moonstone is now wandering around in a dreadful state trying to recover from the ordeal, but she and the others have managed to trash a nest of Inhumans' pods that hatched a whole bunch of giant humanoid ... monsters. Having killed all the "monsters" in an unnecessarily destructive brawl, the Thunderbolts now find themselves confronted by a powerful and angry team of Inhumans, led by Crystal. Grab the popcorn!

I'd love to see the Thunderbolts brought to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How about it, Disney?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Saturday self-promotion - "Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion"

For those who haven't already read it, today I'm drawing attention to my article from 2000, "Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion" - which you can find on my Academia.edu page or (if that doesn't suit) on my personal website.

When I wrote this piece in response to Gould's book, Rocks of Ages, I wasn't expecting that years later I would be deeply involved in a public debate about what we now call "accommodationism". At the time, it was just one more article among an infomal series that I was writing for Quadrant, which was then under the editorship of the late Paddy McGuinness. Paddy encouraged my work, so this give me a market to produce articles that might have been too controversial for the more left-leaning literary and political journals in Australia (which tend, for example, to be rather solicitous toward religion). I was writing for a largely conservative readership that would have found many of my views anathema (indeed, there was sometimes a bit of a backlash, especially when I got onto topics relating to bioethics). But in many ways, that was more useful and interesting than preaching (and signalling my moral virtue and political loyalties) to the converted.

I also found Paddy to be a good editor - he had a light hand with my work, but the small tweaks that he did make were invariably improvements.

Over time, it became apparent that Gould's views, though deeply flawed in my opinion, were very influential. Indeed, similar views - insisting on a total compatibility of science and religion - have a long history in the US, and they are almost an orthodoxy with many official science bodies. Opposition to such views requires more than a single article picking apart what is wrong with a particular book. Still, this article does say much of what needs to be said, and I'll go on trying to get people to look at it and consider my arguments.

I've also recently discussed the issues at some length in a piece published at The Conversation: "Against Accommodationism: How science undermines religion." This has a different emphasis - not surprisingly since it was written some 15 years later and after further reading and thought - but the  arguments are overlapping and complementary. Check it out if you haven't done so, though I assume that most readers of this blog will have already done so, as this particular piece attracted a fair bit of controversy earlier this year.

A note on freedom of speech and its enemies

The following is based on something that I wrote on my Facebook wall a couple of years ago - and still seems pretty much right to me.

I'm sick of people who think that freedom of speech is only about freedom from state censorship. That is a very narrow and legalistic view of it (often distorted by thinking that freedom of speech is just what is in the First Amendment to the US Constitution). Yes, resistance to state censorship is at the core of the concept, and perhaps it's the only part that can, in practice, be protected by constitutional arrangements, legal provisions, etc. But the deeper foundations for the idea also apply to attempts to suppress/deter/punish unwanted views through the power of popular opinion and feeling. If you are trying to deter/suppress certain views by organising with others to punish people for expressing them - even if you're trying to do this in informal ways that do not involve the exercise of government power - then you have not grasped the essence of what the concept is all about. If you attempt, e.g. through collective boycott action, to pressure a body such as an employer to enforce restrictions on what can be said on topics of general interest, then you don't get the essential idea of free speech.

On one hand, it's the ability to speak our minds and express ourselves relatively fearlessly, subject only to the risk being criticised (or of losing the friendship of individuals who deeply disagree, since no one has to engage socially with people with whom they are deeply out of sympathy), and even if what we end up saying is abhorrent, ugly, or plain wrong.

It's also about the availability of unpopular views for consideration, even if they are abhorrent, ugly, or wrong.

Please go back and re-read Mill's On Liberty if you think the liberal concern with freedom of speech and individual liberty is only about restricting the coercive power of the state. If you're motivated to use whatever power you can collectively organise to punish, deter, or suppress certain disliked viewpoints, you can't legitimately claim to be a free speech advocate merely because you're not supporting state censorship.

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Tale of Two Tribes (on tribalism, morality, the role of philosophy, the meaning of liberalism, and the problem of free will)

Hey folks, I did a long interview with Steven Gonder from the Mediasplainers podcast. We talked about moral-political tribalism, the role of philsophy as an academic discipline or profession, left-wing authoritarians (and the cultural Left's retreat from values that it once prized such as science and reason, freedom of thought and discussion, and sexual liberation); the meaning of liberalism (and why I think left-wing authoritarians should not be referred to as liberals); the concept of "objective morality" (which led to some debate and confusion about the meaning of the word "objective"); and the ongoing issue of whether human beings have free will (whatever "free will" even means!).

A recurrent theme was the slipperiness of language, and I emphasized toward the end the way that ordinary language can be complex in its literal semantic content but even more so in what it pragmatically, non-literally conveys. Tiresome and alienating as it may be for some, philosophers are rightly committed to analysing the vagueness, ambiguity, and frequent incoherence of the language of ordinary people when they talk about large issues that cause them anxiety: issues such as whether or not human beings have free will.

I can never bear to listen to the sound of my own voice in these sorts of recorded discussions, but there's no reason why you can't check it out.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Jenny Blackford and Russell Blackford - power couple!

Okay, my title for this post is a bit facetious, but a couple of nice photos.

Jenny Blackford reading at a recent Poetry at the Pub gig in Newcastle, NSW (reading "Sweet Intertidal Flesh", which won first place in the poetry contest held by the 2016 Connemara Mussel Festival in Ireland). Photo by Martin Kent.

And Russell Blackford, speaking at TAM, in Las Vegas, back in 2013. A great convention that I treasure in my memory. Photo by Jerry Coyne.