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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Islam and "Islamophobia" - a little manifesto

Let's accept - as I think we should - that some dislike of Islam, or impatience with Muslims and their spiritual leaders, has a quasi-racist character, grounded in parochialism and xenophobia, and perhaps a dislike of Arabs in particular. It is not coincidental that much of the public criticism of Islam as a religion, and of Muslims and their practices, emanates from European political parties and associated groups found on the extreme right, such as the Front National in France and the British National Party in the UK. These organisations typically promote an intense, even bigoted nationalism - combined with what they portray as a defence of Christian traditions and values, and an endangered "Christian identity". They thrive on a fear of strange cultures and a fear of change.

An obvious problem for critics of Islam who do not share the values of the extreme right is that they may find themselves painted with the same brush. Conversely, extreme-right critics of Islam have gained a degree of respectability by co-opting issues and adopting stances that many politicians and members of the public find compelling. E.g., extreme-right figures have attacked such practices as forced marriages, honour-killings, female genital mutilation, and highly conservative apparel for women such as the burqa and the chador.

At the same time, many Muslims in Western countries continue to suffer from suspicion, cultural and personal misunderstanding, discrimination, and outright intolerance that sometimes rises to the level of harassment and violence. The extreme right exploits and encourages an environment where all this is possible. In the circumstances, it is unsurprising when a phenomenon such as Islamophobia is identified by academics, political commentators, and public intellectuals... and steps are taken to combat it.

This situation creates a complex set of advantages, disadvantages, and risks. The extreme right benefits from the availability of politically respectable criticisms of Islamic thought and associated cultural practices. As this goes on, there is a risk that the word "Islamophobia" will be used to demonize and intimidate individuals whose hostility to Islam is genuinely based on what they perceive as its faults. In particular, we should remember that Islam contains ideas, and in a liberal democracy ideas are fair targets for criticism or repudiation. Religious doctrines influence the social and political attitudes of their adherents in ways that merit public comment (favorable or otherwise), and many religious leaders and organizations exert immense power or influence. It is in the public interest that all this be subjected to monitoring and criticism.

Even attacks on Islam that are made opportunistically - motivated by something like racist thinking, or by extreme kinds of national or cultural supremacism - cannot be dismissed out of hand as worthless.

After all, there are reasons why extreme-right organizations have borrowed arguments based on feminism and secularism. These arguments are useful precisely because they have an intellectual and emotional appeal independent of their convenience to extreme-right opportunists. Regardless of who uses these arguments, they plausibly apply to certain elements of Islam, or at least to attitudes and practices associated with it. Whether or not they are put in good faith by organizations such as the BNP, nothing precludes them being put sincerely, and perhaps cogently, by others who are genuinely passionate about the issues.

Thus, there are legitimate reasons for some people who are not racists, cultural supremacists, or anything of the sort, to criticize Islam, or certain forms of Islam, or to express hostility towards it. These relate to their disapproval of various doctrines, canons of conduct, associated cultural practices, and so on, and to the power wielded by Islamic leaders and organisational structures. In this situation, expressions of disapproval or repudiation cannot simply be dismissed, a priori, with the assumption that they are racially motivated. Such dismissals are, moreover, all-too-convenient for those who wish to stifle genuine criticism of Islam.

A number of lessons can be drawn from all this. One is that opponents of Islam, or some of its forms, cannot reasonably be expected to keep quiet when accused of racism or the quasi-racism of "Islamophobia." When these accusations are misdirected, they are likely to inflame passions even further, though they may intimidate some individuals into silence. This suggests that we understand that quasi-racism does not underlie all attacks on Islam. In particular, it would be wise to avoid painting critics of Islam as members or dupes of the extreme right without additional evidence.

There is also a lesson for critics of Islam, and associated practices, who do not identify with the extreme right. For a start, they need to understand the situation, including the extreme right's co-option of mainstream issues and arguments. This may lead to greater patience with opponents who make the charge of Islamophobia, though it hardly makes the charge more palatable (and I must say that I find it difficult to maintain my patience when I see people who are palpably not racists being maligned).

At a more practical level, opponents of Islam who do not wish to be seen as the extreme-right's sympathizers or dupes would be well-advised to take care in the impression that they convey. Where practical, they should explain their positions with as much nuance as possible, distance themselves from extreme-right figures making similar arguments, and avoid sharing platforms with them.

But these are all voluntary choices and there are limits. The words "where practical" are important, because what is practical in, say, a philosophical essay may not be practical in a satirical cartoon, or even in a polemical book aimed at a popular audience. We mustn't exclude the talents of people whose training or temperament does not suit hedged, half-apologetic communication. Nor must we always communicate in ways that most people find boring and bland. Beyond a certain point, there is too much disadvantage in walking on eggshells. We don't have to do it all our lives.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Manlier?

I'm reading C.S. Lewis's book, Miracles - a classic work of modern Christian apologetics. I think I dipped into this when I was much younger, but I don't believe I've ever read the whole thing.

Many of the arguments are what you'd expect, and they are put nicely, as you'd hope from an author of Lewis's standing... though with a lot of rhetorical flourishes.

All fine. I'm quite enjoying it, and I'm not entirely out of sympathy with Lewis. Well, maybe I am, but he did write some fiction that is still entertaining. At least up to a point.

Anyway... Lewis puts one of the most popular arguments against philosophical naturalism, and this merits a look (if only to sort out where it goes wrong). It's a classic of its kind. But one passage that leapt out at me early in the book included these sentences:

There is, then, a God who is not part of Nature. But nothing has been said yet to show that He must have created her. Might God and Nature be both self-existent and totally independent of each other? If you thought they were you would be a Dualist and would hold a view which I consider manlier and more reasonable than any form of Naturalism.

Which he considers what? I get that he thinks philosophical naturalism is unreasonable, based on his argument against it in the opening chapter, though really it's not a matter of reasonableness so much as truth or falsity - his argument is either persuasive against it or it's not. Or maybe the argument depends on imponderable premises and is difficult to assess. But whatever you make of that, what does manliness have to do with it? Does Lewis want to persusade us to abandon philosophical naturalism because it's - oh noes! - an effeminate philosophical position, a girlie one?

I mean, really, I know this was first published back in the 1940s, when social attitudes were different, and I'm sure this conveyed something to his imagined (presumably male) reader. But really, what is Lewis talking about? Does the idea of manliness have any actual content here, or is it just an otherwise-meaningless word of commendation? Does he mean something like "realistic" or "respectable" or "logical", or perhaps "hard-headed" or "rigorous"? Or what? What is going on here?

What exactly would it have conveyed in 1947, other than what it does now, i.e. that the book is written by a narrow-minded, sexist clown?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Talk about missing the point

If chaplains are there to give secular "advice" they don't need to be chaplains. They can be Youth Workers or something, if we assume that there is a level of giving advice to young people that falls short of "counselling"; so to talk about making sure that they are qualified as Youth Workers misses the point. People who are qualified in that way need not be ministers of religion or anything similar.

No matter how you cut it, even if there is a role for this kind of youth work in schools (which there may be for all I know), there is no reason for it to be performed by "chaplains". The government has got to stop trying to have this both ways.

Monday, June 27, 2011

School Chaplaincy program - government can't have it both ways

I really don't know why this is so hard. The federal government says that the chaplains that it is funding for schools are not there to preach their religious beliefs and nor are they there to give counselling to students. So, what does that leave?

Apparently, according to the interview with Peter Garrett tonight on The 7.30 Report, they are there to give some kind of "advice" to students that is somehow of a secular nature and somehow falls short of "counselling". Really? If such a category of advice exists (which is doubtful), and if that's what they're supposed to do, why do they need to be chaplains? The government can't have this both ways. It either provides chaplains, which John Howard told us was something the electorate understood, or it doesn't. If it is providing genuine chaplains, it is using public money to subsidise religious indoctrination in public as well as private schools. If it is not ... then what is the point of the scheme? If teachers need some help for this aspect of their job, it can be done by putting more money into providing people with the appropriate secular qualifications.

Charles Stross on the Singularity

There seems to me to be a lot of good sense here.

I haven't written much about this subject, though I do have an essay published about 12 years ago before the topic became so trendy. Some of my conclusions - not all - are similar to Stross's. (I also wrote a small body of short fiction around the subject, mostly published about 10 years ago. I'm not sure that it's really something I'd want to explore in fiction at the moment, but never say never.)

Silly bishop manages to say something right

According to The New York Daily News, church leaders have (predictably) bashed the provision for same-sex marriage recently made by the State of New York.

Amongst their nonsense is a statement by Bishop DiMarzio, who apparently told the Daily News: "The state should not be concerned about regulating affection."

Well, fine. From a purist viewpoint I'd go along with that. It seems quite right to me. So let the state stop regarding some relationships as "marriages" and others not. Stop registering marriages altogether, and simply let people get on with having whatever "affection" for others they like. It will still be necessary to keep track of births and to oversee the welfare of children.

Until that's done, though, how is recognising heterosexual couples as "married" but not recognising homosexual couples as "married" - when both have the same desire for official recognition - an example of not regulating affection?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Paul Kincaid on literary quality

As you might expect, I think that judgments of literary quality are not necessarily just arbitrary. I don't think these judgments are binding on all rational beings, irrespective of their desires, interests, etc., but it's not as if we have no criteria at all or as if our criteria are totally divorced from what make novels, poems, plays, and so on, interesting and enjoyable for those who do in fact find them so. It's a messy situation, much messier than my pet example of judgments of the quality of motor vehicles. Still, it is possible to have rational discussions about literary quality, much as it is possible to have rational discussions about what is or is not a good motor car.

But this post by British literary critic Paul Kincaid can make you wonder. I know a lot of the books on the list of dystopian novels that he discusses, and I've got to say that he's right - the judgments of quality that this particular list makes do look rather arbitrary. All very puzzling.

Review of Vanuatu

As some of y'all are aware, Jenny and I have just recently spent a week and a bit having a holiday break in Vanuatu. I'll eventually get around to posting some photographs, but thought I might just say a few words about the place.

In brief, we loved Vanuatu. Although it was technically winter, the maximum temperatures were uniformly in the high 20s Celsius. We had some rainy days, but also enough sunshine to have come home very slightly tanned - which is all anyone wants these days, right? If the country has a dark side to it, we didn't see it during our time there. The water was warm for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking (none of these being activities that we claim to be especially good at, but we enjoyed them), the quality of the food on offer was high, and the water in Port Vila is fine to drink. Vanuatu may be a tiny developing country, but the standard of living is relatively high, and everyone we encountered appeared healthy and happy. Once again, there may be misery somewhere on the islands, but if so we didn't see any sign of it from our (admittedly privileged) vantage as Australian tourists.

One highlight was visiting the volcano (Mt Yasur) on Tanna island (quite a rigorous trek that is not for the frail or faint-hearted, though it's fine if you have even a basic level of physical fitness). At the time, Mt. Yasur was at level 2 in activity, allowing us to approach quite close to the crater and get a good look at the ash and lava bombs blasting up into the air almost continuously (at level 3, they would have been falling on our heads if we'd been standing in the same position).

We stayed at this place, Tropicana Lagoon Apartments, which I can only say nice things about. The hosts and staff were friendly and helpful way beyond the call of duty. So this para here can stand as a free plug for them.

I've gotta say that it was a bit of a wrench coming home, where it is a cold winter by Sydney/Newcastle standards, and where a whole lot of work awaits me. Photos are still to come, but meanwhile if any of my beloved readers are contemplating a trip to Vanuatu ... absolutely do not hesitate. For us, it was a slice of paradise.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Review of X-Men Legacy #250

X-Men Legacy is still exploring the consequences of the recent Age of X story that occupied its pages (and those of New Mutants) earlier this year.

The events of issue #250 seem to take place the day after the dramatic #249, which ended with Rogue finally jumping Magneto's bones, leaving us to wonder where the love lives of those two characters and Rogue's main love interest, Gambit, will go to next. For various reasons, I was pleased with that ending, though it generated much controversy across the internet, with some fans hating it. At the very least, it gives author Mike Carey the opportunity to move the characters on, and I'm not all that impressed by the arguments that it was somehow out of character for Rogue to do this. Actually, it seemed perfectly in character to me, based on everything we've seen of Rogue's personality over the past 30 years. (And the series of character beats that eventually led to it was immaculately handled; if anything, there was perhaps a bit of over-complexity about Rogue's possible motivations.)

But I don't want to rehash those arguments, since that plot point arises only very briefly in #250. I'm more interested today in asking questions about what Magneto, a largely-unreformed supervillain, is doing as a member of the X-Men anyway. Does it make sense, and is the current situation good for the viability of one of Marvel's most iconic characters?

First, an overview of issue #250. It's a giant issue containing three stories. The main story involves a group of X-Men, put together by Professor X, to track down six of his son Legion's thousand personalities. These six, each with their own super powers, have escaped and assumed separate corporeal form, as a result of the events of Age of X. They are all very dangerous, so it's imperative that they be found and reincorporated into Legion.

Professor X's team consists of himself, Legion, Rogue, and Gambit. However, the supervillainess Frenzy, who is currently seeking redemption, invites herself along and the Professor eventually allows it. Magneto also turns up to join the group, claiming that he has been instructed to do so by Cyclops (who currently runs the whole show on the X-Men's island) to add to the team's firepower. After a certain amount of bickering, Frenzy and Magneto both join the team - creating a powerful line-up of X-Men - and Magneto, being his usual arrogant and domineering self, soon starts trying to run things.

The second story takes place within the first, at a point when Rogue briefly steps offstage. It involves her contact with a telepathic projection of Rachel Grey, who is currently in trouble somewhere in outer space, accompanied by the other two space-faring X-Men: Magneto's supposed daughter Polaris and her boyfriend Havok (who is Cyclops' brother - you've got to love the family soap-opera aspect of X-Men). The third story is a reprint of a classic New Mutants story that portrays Professor X's first encounter with his illegitimate son, Legion.

It's the second story that I really love: it foreshadows the return of the space X-Men, who are favourite characters of mine (especially Polaris, who can be a lot of fun with her outspoken honesty, unconventional viewpoint, and general craziness); and it's beautifully told. As Rogue uses her powers to penetrate the depths of Rachel's mind, we are shown a sequence of episodes involving Rachel. For Rogue, and as presented to us, these occur in reverse order - starting from "now", as the characters' minds touch, and going back into the past until we see when Rachel first tried contacting the X-Men back on Earth. The whole sequence is visually stunning, and shows writer and artist working creatively with the medium to give us something a bit special.

The first and main story is also well told and illustrated, but it starts to raise issues about the use of Magneto in X-Men Legacy. The X-Men team is tracking down a character called Time-Sink, one of Legion's dangerous personas, who has a vaguely defined but extremely formidable power to manipulate time itself. He easily defeats Frenzy, then Magneto, then Gambit, before finally being taken down by the combination of Professor X, Rogue, and Legion, whereupon he is absorbed back into Legion. One down, and five to go! Ironically enough, since he was supposed to add heavy firepower, Magneto proves to be fairly useless: he is first to spot Time-Sink, and he begins the chase, but he's then quickly taken down (though he's evidently not seriously hurt, since he's back on his feet and giving orders again a couple of minutes later - that armoured costume he wears apparently works to some extent).
 
This raises a question in my mind about Magneto's role. I like the fact that the X-Men have expanded their numbers to include any mutants who want to live on their island, including supervillains. This creates an interesting political dynamic, with the old Xavier/Magneto conflict internalised into the family, as it were. Some online fans complain that Magneto has been accepted too easily, given their past conflicts and his many crimes. He's not only been allowed to join, but has ended up as a kind of elder statesman and a senior advisor to Cyclops. He's been renewing strained friendships and making new ones, building a network of relationships on the island (not to mention spending a night with Rogue).

Still, unlike other mutants who have gone to the X-Men seeking help from time to time - Rogue being the most obvious example - Magneto went to them offering peace with them, including his personal allegiance to Cyclops, and placing all his power, intellect, and experience at their disposal. I.e., he offered to help them. After being allowed to live on the island, he soon contributed in big and impressive ways that have put the X-Men considerably in his debt.

I'm also mindful that the bad blood between them is as much the X-Men's fault as Magneto's: if we track back to early 1990s stories, we soon discover that the X-Men attacked him on occasions when they had dubious justification, setting in train events that led to his death (but, of course, Magneto never dies permanently) in Mutant Genesis and his temporary brainwiping at the end of Fatal Attractions. This, in turn, led to some of his most destructive and vengeful acts during later 1990s storylines. There's a lot of blame to go around.

Since Magneto has been allied with the X-Men and freely walking among them, several of Marvel's writers have done fascinating work with the character and the rather uncomfortable situation. Mike Carey has been foremost among them portraying the character, for my money, as well as the great Chris Claremont at his best. I hope this continues.

I do wonder, though, whether the situation can be sustained indefinitely. Magneto is a sympathetic and pragmatic villain, and Marvel should be long past portraying him as merely a villain, or using him as a punching bag for its heroes. He makes more sense as an anti-hero and a game-changing wild card, pursuing his own agenda, and either allying with the heroes or coming into conflict with them as circumstances warrant.

Nonetheless, he was built up over the decades as an uber-powerful and competent supervillain who can defeat entire teams of superheroes. If you put someone like that within a team of superheroes, you run some risks. He can overshadow the rest of the team, which is okay for an occasional issue but can't be allowed to go on too long, or else he has to be underwritten so that he is seen to be endangered by threats that he'd normally (in full supervillain mode) treat with contempt.

So far, the Marvel writers seem aware of this problem - something like it happened before when Magneto ran the School for Gifted Youngsters back in the 1980s, and it wasn't handled especially well -  and they've found creative ways to work around it. Keeping him largely unreformed in his way of thinking was one very smart move.

Carey handles the problem neatly in the book we're discussing, X-Men Legacy #250: although Magneto loses his encounter with Time-Sink, Time-Sink is very plausible as a bad match-up for him. In fact, Time-Sink is a tricky customer for anybody, and the way he is finally disposed of by Professor X, Rogue, and Legion, all working cooperatively, is very solid, old-school X-Men writing.

Still you can't find someone who is a bad match-up for Magneto in every issue of the book ... or if you do the effect will be to suggest that there are actually many ways of getting around Magneto's powers, and that he is not so formidable after all. That then creates a problem, in that it diminishes a character who is supposed to be an awe-inspiring and menacing figure whenever he appears. I've got a feeling that we're going to see some of this happening in the next issue (which has already been published, although I haven't yet read it).

I think this is a deeper problem with how you use a menacing, yet sympathetic, supervillain than whether or not he can be placed in a one-night stand (or even a longer-term love affair) with a somewhat-likeminded superheroine with her own supervillainous past. I'll be interested to see how Marvel handles it as the current situation with the X-Men plays out.

(Oh, and let this stand as "Sunday Supervillainy" a day early.)

The Australian on the Wilders outcome

Story over yonder.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The BBC's strange analysis of the Wilders outcome

Accompanying the BBC news story is a strange little "analysis" column by Lauren Comiteau, which concludes:
With the acquittal, it appears the radical views of Mr Wilders are now more mainstream in a country that for decades was viewed as one of the most liberal and tolerant in the world.

Ophelia has already noted how odd this is. Comiteau apparently does not understand that the courts are not there to decide how "mainstream" a view is or is not, but to interpret the law and apply it to the facts. Moreover, it is very odd hinting that a country is somehow less liberal and tolerant because it refuses to use the coercive power of the state to suppress the expression of a particular viewpoint. If Wilders had been convicted, we would be able to talk about an outcome that goes against ordinary standards of liberalism and toleration, which require that even ugly speech and ideas not be censored.

It appears that Comiteau does not understand even the fundamentals of liberalism, freedom of speech, and the rule of law. Where did the BBC find this person?

I still have that post on free will coming

... but I have a feeling it won't be a short one. lol What should we talk about meanwhile?

Ophelia's thread on Wilders

Nice thread, and I think that Ophelia's own comments as the thread goes on are especially apposite. We do have to distinguish ourselves from opportunistic racists or quasi-racists ... and it can indeed sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between those people and people who have legitimate criticisms of Islam or of cultural practices associated with it. None of this is straightforward. On the other hand, it cuts both ways. People who want to go around accusing others of racism or "Islamophobia" would do well to bear in mind that it's not so easy to be sure that they are dealing with opportunistic racists or quasi-racists, as opposed to people with legitimate and sincere criticisms, etc. In some cases, there will be independent evidence, as with BNP figures. But in other cases there won't be, and a certain reticence about smearing opponents as racists (a very damaging accusation in our society) is in order.

This is why I have no respect for someone like Jeff Sparrow who is reckless about who gets smeared, and seems to be too driven by ideology to understand any of this.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wilders acquitted

The BBC reports that Geert Wilders has been acquitted in his trial for crimes relating to hate speech:

Amsterdam judge Marcel van Oosten accepted the Freedom Party leader's statements were directed at Islam and not at Muslim believers.

They were, the judge ruled, "acceptable within the context of public debate".

It is believed the plaintiffs may attempt to make their case before a European court or the UN.

This is an important victory for freedom of speech in Europe. However ugly some of Wilders' ideas and policies may be, they should be opposed with arguments for better ones, not by suppressing them as an exercise of state power.

I have a post on free will coming

Okay, this is my first day back from a holiday and it's a bit chaotic here, but the discussion on my most recent "true self" post has largely turned into a debate about fatalism, determinism, and free will. Quite a few misconceptions - at least as I see them - are being thrown around, so I think I need to write a separate post setting out my position. This is not that post.

I'm still wondering why so many people are confident as to what the folk think about this issue. It's not a subject that comes up from day to day in my experience, so if I didn't have a fair bit of experience teaching this stuff I wouldn't have a clue what the folk think. As to my teaching experience, I taught a first-year university subject largely about this topic for several years - in fact, for maybe three of those years I was in charge of running the subject on one of Monash's campuses.

I lectured on this material, with a fair bit of interaction in lectures, and also ran a large number of tutorials over the period concerned. I've specifically discussed the issues with hundreds of students coming into university from high school, and marked numerous essays and other papers on the subject, in which students have had the freedom (!) to express their own views.

I've also discussed the issues with colleagues with far more teaching experience in this area than what I've just described, and I've listened to their advice and heard about their experiences. In all that time, I encountered exactly one student who insisted strongly that "free will" means libertarian free will and cannot be what is known as compatibilism ... that compatibilism just doesn't give us what we really want.

That student was one of my best; he was quite a brilliant young man. But I must observe that he came from a religious background. I'm not saying he was the only student who took the libertarian position, but most were not attracted to it, and even those who were were usually not attracted to it strongly. He was the only clear exception that I can recall.

My overwhelming impression is that the bright young people who entered the philosophy program at Monash University had rather vague, inchoate concepts of free will, which they were happy to clarify by engaging with the readings and the arguments - philosophy is largely about the clarification of vague concepts - and which the majority tended to clarify in the direction of a compatibilist conception of free will. I was told by the person who designed the course and had cross-campus responsibility for it for many years, and probably taught thousands of students in that time, that the pedagogical problem was getting students to take libertarian free will as a serious possibility. Students were not pushed towards compatibilism. If anything, the contrary.

All of my own experience teaching the course was consistent with this.

I don't think the people who took this subject were wildly divergent from the typical bright young people entering into Monash's arts and humanities program from high school. They were not a massively self-selecting bunch, as the subject was a bit hard to avoid for anyone who was interested in philosophy, especially on the campus where I did most of my relevant teaching.

Now, maybe my experience is not even typical of other teachers in the same subject, or in similar subjects even in Australia, though as I say it matches that of the person who designed the subject at Monash.

Perhaps someone who has taught this stuff at other universities in Australia will have different experiences - I know some of y'all read this blog, so speak up. Maybe there is something special about Monash (though I can't imagine what in this case).

I don't claim that my anecdotal evidence proves much, but then again neither does the anecdotal evidence of other individuals. We'd really need a proper survey to get an idea of what the folk think, and it would need to be designed very carefully to take into account the fact that a lot of this stuff is very difficult conceptually, that a lot of it goes over people's heads when they first hear it, and that the folk may actually have very vague concepts indeed. At a minimum it would need an "I don't know" option of some kind.

As I say, this post is not meant to set out my position on the "free will" debate. It does, however, set out why I think I know as much as most people do how bright young members of the folk think when confronted with the issues. And it says why I am continually puzzled when I see people claim confidently, even dogmatically, that the folk conception of free will is some kind of libertarian free will in which, when we make choices, we somehow step outside the causal order of nature. It puzzles me when I see the claim that any other conception of free will, however long and respectable its philosophical pedigree, is a redefinition of the concept, by fiat as it were, rather than a legitimate attempt at clarification.

Where does this confidence come from? I'm really very puzzled by it. Even if you have some basis for confidence relating to your experiences in your own locality or country, does it generalise to the rest of the world? I'm starting to hypothesise that there may, indeed, be a difference between Americans and others with this, and that it has to do with the far greater religiosity in America than in most other Western countries. Maybe it also has to do with a more general American cultural ethos. But in any event, I just want to get a handle on why so many people are so confident about what the folk think.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ah iz home!

And after a very straightforward flight it was. Can't believe how efficiently Sydney Airport operated on the way in - we cleared customs and immigration in no time, which is not my usual experience when returning to Australia from overseas. Kudos!

Flying back to Sydney today

At this stage it seems that all is well, despite that pesky cloud of volcanic ash that's blown over from South America and has been disrupting air services in Australia. So I expect to be home tonight. I'm looking forward to it, though it's been lovely taking a bit of a break - and I can't think of a better place at this time of year than Vanuatu, which really is something of a tropical paradise.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Draft program for AAP conference

Available here.

More on the "true self"

Tony Newell nails it, I think, in a comment on the earlier thread:

There seem to be many a folk who despise the irrationality of the soul mechanism—I suppose because of the religious associations it entails—yet absolutely lap up the idea that there is some kind of pure, quintessential self trapped inside their personal shells of conflict and imperfection. They appear to regard strife, confusion, and vexing ambivalence as something too imperfect for themselves, and, therefore, something that should be exempted from their genuine identities.

Certainly, we can do without the false choice and accept that Pierpont’s true self is, in fact, homosexual, self-loathing, and confused.

The thing is, I am constituted by, among other things, all of my desires. There is no sub-set that is my "true" self. If I have a desire to have sex while wearing a rubber wetsuit, while also thinking that there is something depraved about having sex in a rubber wetsuit, while also wondering whether my judgments about what is or is not "depraved" are justifiable, then all of the above is part of me.

Normally, I may not reveal this desire - I may be ashamed of it, embarrassed for others to know of it, and so on. But if I get drunk and reveal my desire for sex in a rubber wetsuit I am indeed revealing something true about myself. In that sense, people who hear me say (positive) things about having sex in a rubber wetsuit really are learning something about me that they otherwise would not know - drunkenness can, indeed, be revealing. But it doesn't follow that my desire for sex in a rubber wetsuit is my "true" self and that my belief that sex in a rubber wetsuit is depraved, my desire not to act on my sexual desire, and my desire not even to mention it, are not my "true" self. All of these are components or aspects of the complex thing that is me.

There is still a question as to whether someone with the combination of beliefs and desires that I specified above should actually find one or more like-minded partners for the purpose of rubber-websuit sex. Is it or is not most rational for this person to do so? That may mean trying to sort out whether rubber-wetsuit sex really is "depraved", and a lot of other soul-searching.

It is not obvious that, if I have this desire for rubber-wetsuit sex, I should simply act on it. But nor is it obvious that I should simply refuse to act on the desire in accordance with my current inhibitions or concerns about it. But whatever I decide, it won't be a matter of finding my "true" self while the rest of my desires and beliefs are somehow outside of and alien to what is "truly" me. That may be one way to look at it, as a simplified model, but it's not what is really going on. All my beliefs and desires are truly me, even if some are stronger or "deeper" or less revisable than others.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Joshua Knobe on the "true self"

This is a fascinating article over in the NYT. First, a H/T to Ophelia Benson. I want to say more about the article, but for the moment I just want to bookmark it and maybe encourage some preliminary discussion. Personally, I doubt that there is such a thing as the "true self" in the sense meant. There are only questions about what we most want when we really think about it. That may suggest that I favour the philosophers' answer discussed by Knobe, but I don't think it's quite that simple. There may also be some merit in the other answer that he discusses. But these answers are not answers about a "true self", implying that there is something false about other aspects of us: they are answers about what we really most want - and even a lot of reflection can leave us confused or deceived about that.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - will DC end Superman's marriage?

Marvel notoriously did it with Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson. Will DC go through with ending Superman's marriage to Lois Lane as part of its impending reboot of its whole line?

One might question whether the marriage made sense in the first place. That could be discussed at a number of levels. But expect a lot of fans who liked it or even grew up with it to be expressing their dismay. Marvel is still copping flak years later over the Spider-Man/MJ thing.

Meanwhile, to make sure this post has something to do with supervillainy, it would sure be something (though I can't see it happening) if Marvel went through with getting Doctor Doom married to the Scarlet Witch.

Now that's a marriage initiative to support!

(Yes, I'm kidding with my last comment... but only kinda half kidding.)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Jimmy Carter talks sense about the "War Against Drugs"

Good for Carter. The whole situation is ridiculous, no matter how you look at it.

"Spirituality" - a word that we don't need

Jerry has an interesting post on whether we need a new word to replace "spirituality" - and this has led to a long thread on the subject, to which I made a couple of brief contributions.

I've got to say that I find all this bemusing. Maybe it's one of those specifically American things that I just don't "get". But the word "spirituality" conveys almost nothing to me. It's not a word that I ever use from day to day or that I ever even hear from day to day.

That doesn't mean I literally never use it - I just checked the manuscript of my forthcoming book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, and I found that the word appears twice. Still, let's look at those two appearances. The first is: "Though otherworldly powers and agents were invoked, it [the invocation of these powers in Roman religion] was for communal purposes, rather than to enhance the spirituality of the individual." Here I am elaborating the views of Jonathan Kirsch, and I at least (I can't be quite so sure about Kirsch) am talking about individual religious experience, not some other kind of experience involving a sense of the sublime, or of joy, or ecstasy, or tranquility, or unselfconscious absorption in beauty - or anything of the sort.

The second is, "The case concerned Santeria, a syncretic religion that contains elements of Roman Catholicism mixed with traditional African spirituality." So here I am talking about traditional beliefs and practices that we would normally regard as religious.

I do use the word "spiritual" a lot throughout the book, but to mean something more like "otherworldly" - as in the phrase "spiritual salvation"; I do not use it to mean anything like "involving the peaks and depths of human psychological experience" or "pertaining to values that contrast with those of material wealth" (if this is what the word "spiritual" connotes for some people). I suppose I have sometimes encountered such usages in everyday life, and I can get the point. 

But usually we want to talk about much more specific things, and we have a rich vocabulary with which to do so. Even my most "spiritual" friends - those who may be deeply involved in the non-literary arts, or in love of nature, or who are sympathetic to New Age thinking - don't throw around the word "spirituality", at least not in my presence. Nor do hear them describe themselves as "spiritual" (which sounds kind of weird and pretentious).

We can get along just fine without these words as far as I can see - except when we are talking about what purport to be experiences of some kind of "otherworld" or supernatural realm, or about associated beliefs and practices.

There is usually something more specific to be said, and, as I mentioned, a rich vocabulary to employ. We can, for example, talk about the glory, or sublimity, or majesty, or just the beauty of nature ... and we can go on to elaborate. We can discuss having extraordinary experiences of ecstasy or awe or flow or numinosity (a word that seems to me to have lost any specifically religious meaning in common parlance, but we can avoid that word, too, if it bothers anyone). And we can employ the well-known phrase bequeathed to us by Maslow, "peak experiences", for those moments when we seem to transcend or escape or set aside or feel lifted above - not this world, but, rather, our everyday doubts, hesitations, anxieties, inner conflicts, and cares - becoming absorbed in the sheer beauty or joy (or whatever it may be) that we are experiencing, or simply in our own task or activity.

I could go on with this ... the English language is quite capable of conveying many detailed and varied ideas that come within this ballpark. So why on earth is there supposed to be a problem?

Friday, June 17, 2011

X-Men ReGenesis

We were talking the other day about the incipient cancellation of Uncanny X-Men. Now it's announced that it will split into two titles, both starting (back) at #1.

There will be a new series of Uncanny X-Men, which is fine and not unexpected. There will also be a new Wolverine and the X-Men book for the adventures of those X-Men who decide to leave Utopia under Logan's leadership. All fine with me, except that "Wolverine and the X-Men" is such a lame title. It's too much of a mouthful; it sounds (for good reason) kind of childish and cartoony; it's not accurate, as many or most of the X-Men will mainly appear in the other book; and it tends to demean everybody else who'll be in the book (i.e. other than Wolverine). Couldn't the powers that be have come up with something punchier like, I dunno, "Rebel X-Men" ... or whatever else might actually fit the situation?

Still, the political split in the just-starting Schism storyline, leading up to this situation, should be interesting. I've been waiting for the politics of the current huge, all-embracing nation of X-Men led by Scott Summers to play out, and it could be interesting ... even if Wolverine isn't exactly the most obvious person to lead a rebel/breakaway group. That seems more like a marketing ploy than a logical progression, when there are several characters who'd normally put themselves forward as leaders of mutantkind long before Wolverine - and they all seem better qualified. Wolverine has never been portrayed as a would-be leader or as particularly capable of leading more than a field team.

All the same, perhaps the fact that the rebellion, or splintering, or whatever it will be, is going to be led by him (rather than, say, the much-put-upon Professor X himself) can be made to work as a story. I don't want to be a negative Nancy about this - let's see if the X-office can make it all appear plausible and interesting.

Edit: There's stuff about this all over the net today, but go here for some thoughts from the editors involved.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Flooding back home

This is too close for comfort. My family and friends aren't quite in the actual flood zone, and neither is our house, but all the same...

That's a spectacular view of Sydney, though.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A nice thread about Gould at Jerry's place

This thread over at Why Evolution is True has some fascinating discussion pro and con Stephen Jay Gould in the light of the newest evidence that Gould cheated (or at least did shoddy work) in The Mismeasure of Man, which is largely about the cheating done by earlier scientists involved in debates about human intelligence.

Read the whole thread - there are some interesting engagements between various commenters who seem to know a great deal of relevant stuff.

For my own part, I used to love Gould's popular books, and probably still would if I went back to them. He only really lost me with Rocks of Ages, where I had enough expertise of my own to tell that it was all smoke and mirrors. I like to think that the more narrowly science-based popularisations are more accurate, but we've long known that aspects of The Mismeasure of Man were scientifically suspect. This latest study appears to be a large nail in the coffin for that particular book.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Currently reading (in between swimming, kayaking,etc) - Einstein and Religion by Max Jammer

I've been enjoying this book, which is very clearly written until we get deep into physics near the end (and even then it's more that the subject matter is inherently difficult for those of us who are not physicists ... or even scientists).

However, it wanders far from Einstein's actual views to explore the pros and cons of various theological implications of relativity theory. If you're more interested in getting straight what Einstein may have thought, you could do better to read his original writings, although the first half of this book makes a nice supplement. Two things that are absolutely clear are: (1) Einstein did not believe in (and forcefully denied the existence of) a personal God; and (2) Einstein did not believe in personal immortality. He was at some pains to explain the former (and copped much flak for it).

The only real isssue is whether Einstein believed in some kind of transcendent impersonal force that could be called "God" in some sense or whether he was always speaking purely metaphorically when he spoke (as he often did) of "God". Just when you think you that clear and settled in your mind, you can come across a passage that makes you wonder. But he certainly did not believe in a God or gods as we ordinarily think of them: as things with feelings and personality. He denied the existence of anything like that, and did so in straightforward and pretty strong terms.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Ah iz in Vanuatu!

And you're (very probably) not! Muahahahahaha!! :)

New Ruse article - on theology and science

Michael Ruse discusses science and theology over here.

Jerry Coyne already has a bit to say about this piece, but let me quote just a few sentences from Ruse: "What should be the attitude of the Christian faced with clear evidence that some part of the Bible cannot be taken literally and that this must have consequences for hitherto-accepted theology? Clearly, some alternative theology must be sought. This is not giving up or mere ad hoc responding."

Well, it's not giving up. But it sure looks like ad hoc responding. If successive responses are made solely to protect what is considered a non-negotiable core of beliefs, that is exactly ad hoc, and it's a reason to think the whole theological enterprise was misguided in the first place. We wouldn't be impressed with this method of inquiry in any other enterprise.

And why should an omniscient God give such poor guidance to prophets, inspired authors, and so on, as to make such a process even necessary? Yes, I realise that some kind of theological answer can be given (based on the Fallen state of the world, for example), but the simplest answer is that the whole enterprise is not divinely inspired but a merely human construction.

Thus, theology can adapt itself at any given time to whatever is the current state of play with science. You can always hold on to a small set of non-negotiable beliefs if you are prepared to believe whatever is required in order to do so. But theology is forced to adapt. Theology is conspicuously not in a position where, by divine guidance, it anticipates scientific findings in advance. To call this compatibility between science and theology is a joke. It's like someone trying to sell you a very handsome alligator while calling it a Labrador retriever.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ah iz on vacation

I'm headed for a week-and-a-half holiday in Vanuatu - just to get away from the winter for a bit, and from work. I don't consider this a blog break: I'll report in. I'll be contactable by email, but not able to do a lot of work on anything.

I'm looking forward to some glorious sunshine and relaxation.

Adam Brereton replies to Jeff Sparrow

Oh well, at least someone wrote a reply. It seems a bit all over the place, but what the hey.

Sunday supervillainy - now this is what I call a cover

Doctor Doom allied with Magneto (both of them currently allied with the good guys).

(The link goes to Jorge Molina's fancy website - not sure why I can't get it to go straight to the image.)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Update on Freedom of Religion and the Secular State

My next book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, will be published by Wiley-Blackwell late this year or early next year (either way, its "official" year of publication will be 2012 for marketing reasons).

At the moment, I'm working with the copyeditor, so the book is coming along. Page proofs are still some way down the track. We have, however, already chosen a cover design; it's one that I think will look brilliant on the shelves. I'm expecting the book to generate a fair bit of controversy - it takes a very distinctive, but I think principled and defensible, line. I don't claim that my views are entirely original, unprecedented, or what have you, but I draw something of a line in the sand. Whether anyone else is prepared to draw it in exactly the same place remains to be seen.

What else do I need to say? Buy the frakking book when it's available! :)

More news coming your way as the year rolls on.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Penn Jillette's new book

I've been asked if I could draw attention to Penn Jillette's book and some public appearances associated with it. Jillette does few performances outside of Las Vegas, so if you live in the places mentioned below this may be of special interest. I can't comment on the book itself, although the title sounds interesting: God, No! Signs You May Already be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales.

Appearances:
August 16 - Washington, DC - Lisner Auditorium - sponsored by CFI DC: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/DC/events/penn_jillette_god_no/
August 18 - Los Angeles, CA -
Writer's Guild Theater http://www.wga.org/theater/theater_contact.html
Tickets $20- sponsored by Writers Bloc: http://writersblocpresents.com/main/?cat=5

Flashback - what Hitchens actually said

The piece that I linked to by Jeff Sparrow complains about a short passage in a 2002 article by Christopher Hitchens. Now, I don't entirely support Hitchens' views on foreign policy (indeed, I tend to be opposed to them) or his sometimes hardline rhetoric. In particular, I have always opposed the invasion of Iraq in the circumstances that arose last decade. But let's get in context what Hitchens is really saying in this passage, quoted by Sparrow:

It is … impossible to compromise with the stone-faced propagandists for Bronze Age morality: morons and philistines who hate Darwin and Einstein and managed, during their brief rule in Afghanistan, to ban and erase music and art while cultivating the skills of germ warfare. If they could do that to Afghans, what might they not have in mind for us? In confronting such people, the crucial thing is to be willing and able, if not in fact eager, to kill them without pity before they get started.

I really don't like the phrase "kill them without pity" - I don't like the idea of being either able or eager to kill anyone without pity, which is not to say that I dispute the need in some cases to kill, however regretfully.

But as even the quoted passage shows, Hitchens is talking about the need to fight against Islamist fanatics such as the Taliban. Sparrow does not even seem to consider the possibility that this kind of religious fanaticism, with its very prominent totalitarian and apocalyptic elements, is similar in its malevolence and destructiveness to Nazism. Would Sparrow have complained if Hitchens had advocated warfare against the Nazis in the late 1930s?

Well, yes, he probably would have. Sparrow evidently belongs to the Neville Chamberlain school of political commentary.

It wouldn't hurt to read the entirety of the Hitchens piece, with its detail and its qualifications, before dismissing Hitchens as, in effect, a mere right-wing warmonger. I have my own criticisms of the article, but let's play fair.

OMG, Uncanny X-Men coming to an end!

Really!

(I mean, it'll doubtless be replaced with something else ... but really!)

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Jeff Sparrow on the New Atheists

This article by left-wing journalist Jeff Sparrow is so appalling that I'm not going to bother commenting on it beyond two short paragraphs. There is a logical fallacy in just about every line. For now, at least, have at it yourselves.

None of which means that I support Hitchens' views on foreign policy - I don't. Nor do I agree with everything that has ever been said by Sam Harris. But Hitchens and Harris deserve much better treatment than Sparrow's irrational, over-the-top diatribe.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Thank Zeus for the X-Men franchise

It's given me something to post about when I'm feeling a bit burnt out from working 12 hours a day of late, and 7 days a week on the 50 Myths book. I am almost at the end of a huge batch of intense work over the past five weeks getting down my initial thoughts on the Myths. I will be disappearing to Vanuatu for 10 days of total relaxation very soon (leaving the Myths in Udo's capable hands). At the moment, my batteries need a lot of recharging.

I'm still excited about the First Class movie. If there's a franchise I'd kill to write for, other than Terminator, it's X-Men. The way my career has worked out, that won't happen. But at least I can enjoy, pontificate, etc.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Sunday supervillainy - some more stuff on X-Men: First Class

Some stuff from Collider.com - a review, an interview with James McAvoy (who plays Professor X), and an interview with director Matthew Vaughn. Both interviews discuss the possibilities for a sequel. McAvoy in particular shows an impressive understanding of the dramatic core of the franchise as a whole.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Back from X-Men: First Class

No time at the moment to write a proper, considered review - but the bottom line is, ya gotta go and see this movie. I totally loved it. I give it, um, four and half stars. I can think of areas for improvement. One is that January Jones was mediocre as Emma Frost. Maybe we can discuss others if we get a thread going. Overall, though, this movie kicks human and mutant butt. Michael Fassbender totally frakking dominates as a young, angry, and badass version of Magneto, just as Sir Ian McKellen did as a more Silver Age (and badass) version of the character.

The movie, as predicted by all, is very much the story of how Erik became Magneto. But it's much better, IMHO, than the nearest equivalent story you could think of - i.e., how Anakin became Darth Vader (and I'm not especially a hater of the Star Wars prequels).

Setting it at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis turned out to be a stroke of genius, as did the general James Bond look and feel that the makers went for. Some of the sets are just gorgeous. And if you have any reservations about the radically different continuity from the comics, forget it. Go with the flow and enjoy these versions of the characters.

Unless you're totally out of sympathy with this sort of movie ... grab your popcorn and your ticket with both hands and see it soon.

Conquilt

This quilt signed by lots of authors and all-round, ahem, important people will be auctioned off to raise funds for future SF conventions in Melbourne. The signatories are:

Alan Baxter    Alastair Reynolds    Alisa Krasnostein    Alison Croggon    Amanda Pillar
Andrew J. McKiernan    Angie Rega    Bill Congreve    Bob Eggleton
Carrie Vaughn    Cat Sparks    Catherynne M. Valente    Charles Stross
China Mieville    Chris Miles (an associate of H. I. Larry)    Chuck McKenzie
Cory Doctorow    Deborah Biancotti    Delia Sherman    Dirk Flinthart
Duncan Lay    Fiona McIntosh    Foz Meadows    Gail Carriger
Garth Nix    George Ivanoff    George R. R. Martin    Gillian Polack
Glenda Larke    Grace Duggan    Howard Tayler    Ian Irvine    Ian Nichols
Jane Routley    Jason Nahrung    Jay Lake    Jean Johnson    Jenner
Jennifer Fallon    Jetse de Vries    John Scalzi    Jonathan Strahan    Juliet Marillier
K. A. Bedford    K. J. Taylor    Kaaron Warren    Kaja Foglio    Karen Haber
Karen Healey     Kate Elliot    Kate Paulk    Kathleen Jennings    Keith Stevenson
Kim Stanley Robinson    Kirstyn McDermott    Kyla Ward    Lara Morgan
Leanne Hall    Lisa L. Hannett    Lucy Sussex    Marianne de Pierres
Mary Victoria    Matthew Hughes    Michael Pryor    Michelle Marquardt
Narrelle M. Harris    Nick Stathopoulos    Nicole R. Murphy    Paul Collins
Paul Cornell    Paul Haines    Peter M. Ball    Peter V. Brett    Phil Foglio
Richard Harland    Rjurik Davidson    Rob Shearman    Robert Hood    Robert Silverberg
Russell B. Farr    Russell Blackford    Russell Kirkpatrick    Seanan McGuire
Shane Jiraya Cummings    Shaun Tan    Sue Bursztynski    Tansy Rayner Roberts
Tehani Wessely    Tracey O’Hara    Trent Jamieson    Trudi Canavan

Thursday, June 02, 2011

And a bad review over at Salon

Here's a bad review of X-Men: First Class to go with all the good ones. It's not very compelling because the reviewer is, or seems, totally out of sympathy with movies like this. Still, it's clear that not everybody likes it.

Still trying to find myself a free afternoon or evening to go and see it. It began screenings in Australia today, so we'll soon be starting to get the word of mouth.

Yet another X-Men: First Class rave review

I was actually thinking of going and seeing X-Men: First Class today, but that's not going to work out. I continue to be amazed at how much the critics love it, as in this review at Badass Reviews. Surely it can't be that good. Well, I'm hoping it is. Anyone seen it yet?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Is cinematic "greatness" objective? If so, in what sense?

I warmed us up for this the other day. Here's an interesting (but I think interestingly wrong) passage in the Aikin and Talisse book, Reasonable Atheism:

Although we, the authors, certainly agree that each is entitled to his or her own opinion, we also contend that with respect to paintings, quarterbacks, and filmmakers, some views are better - better supported, more defensible, closer to truth - than others. We think that there are truths about these matters. We believe, for example, that Scorcese is in fact a better filmmaker than Allen, and that the belief that Scorcese is better than Allen is objectively true. Hence we think it is not a waste of time to argue with others about these topics.

In this quote they talk about "a better filmmaker" whereas earlier in the discussion they have it as "a greater filmmaker" - those are not the same thing, or at least they don't look like the same thing to me. But regardless of whether we are arguing about whether or not Scorcese is "greater" than Allen or "better" than Allen we have a similar problem. Are judgments of cinematic merit or cinematic goodness or greatness objective? If so, in what sense?

I suggest that there is an important sense in which such judgments are not objective. But it does not follow that it's a waste of time arguing with others about the topic. The claim, "It is not a waste of time arguing about the topic" does not need to be supported by claims as strong as: "[...] Scorcese is in fact a better filmmaker than Allen, and ... the belief that Scorcese is better than Allen is objectively true."

When we judge cinematic merit, we are judging whether a film or a filmmaker has qualities of the kind that we want from films and filmmakers. There are facts about that. Nothing is added by calling them "objective" facts. They are simply facts.

Furthermore, what "we" want from films and filmmakers is somewhat determinate. People who are actually interested in films and filmmakers, which will probably include most readers of this blog - but not necessarily most people in the world - probably want similar things from films and filmmakers. Since there are facts about which of those things actually apply to particular films and filmmakers, it is quite possible to have a rational discussion. Does Scorcese possess these characteristics, whatever they are, more than Allen does?

We can ask analogous things about paintings, novels, novelists, sunsets, biological specimens, cars, tools, meals, and all the other things that we evaluate. As long as we are clear in a particular case as to what characteristics we are looking for, we can have a perfectly rational discussion - and perhaps an illuminating one - as to who or what possesses the relevant characteristics, or possesses them to a greater degree than who or what else.  As long as that's the case - and sometimes it will be - there can be determinate answers to our questions.

Here's the problem. The "we" involved is always to some extent an illusion or a fiction. In a small enough group, we may all want the same things from, say, filmmakers. However, we will delude ourselves if we think that everyone in the world (let alone all rational beings in the universe) wants the same thing. In a larger group, it is at best a fiction that we all want the same things. The fiction may be a convenient one, like many other fictions that we adopt when we talk and interact, but it is still a fiction, and I think we (again that word!) go wrong if, in a moment of critical reflection, we (!) insist that everyone wants exactly the same things.

This produces some fuzziness, or as I sometimes put it, some slippage. There is no doubt that Martin Scorcese is a better filmmaker than I am - or, rather, we can safely assume that no one who is interested in the matter can make any other judgment without having some weird false beliefs. Scorcese exceeds me on all possible criteria that anyone could ever conceivably use except in the most bizarre fantasy or science-fictional scenario. Scorcese's superiority to me is about as close to an "objective" fact as anyone will ever find in the field of evaluations.

But whether or not Scorcese is "better" (which I think is probably a component of "greater") than Allen is another thing. What "we" want from filmmakers is pretty damn fuzzy; there is not any full agreement on the characteristics "we" are after in a filmmaker. Moreover, even if "we" came up with a relevant list of agreed characteristics, we would not all place the same weight on the various characteristics. The result is that we can each be provided with all the relevant facts of the matter, and we can still disagree. No one need be making any mistakes about the world.

It's conceivable in any given context that there's enough underlying agreement on what we really want that, after exhaustively obtaining all the facts, and after exhaustive rational reflection on what we want, as individuals, from filmmakers, we will converge on the same evaluation. The smaller and more like-minded a group of people, the more that is likely to happen. But convergence can never be guaranteed, and the failure to achieve full convergence need not be because anyone has failed to engage adequately in rational reflection. Nor is it necessarily because anyone is making a mistake about the facts. It may well be, instead, that there are real underlying differences among what Persons 1 to n actually value in filmmakers. And if that's the case, the judgment made by Person 1 is not binding on Person n on pain of making some sort of empirical mistake or some sort of logical error.

In that sense, judgments about the merits of filmmakers are neither just arbitrary nor strictly objective. That's a false dilemma.

There are facts about filmmakers. There are facts about what people who are interested in cinema tend to want from filmmakers. There are facts about what individual people want. All of this enables us to have rational discussions of the respective merits of, say, Martin Scorcese and Woody Allen. But there are also facts about circumstances in which we can make different evaluations without anyone simply being illogical or mistaken about reality. In that sense, judgments of cinematic merit are not objectively binding on all rational parties.

That's all we mean - whoops, it's all that I mean - when saying that the claim "Scorcese is better than Allen" is not an objective one. It may be objective in other senses - e.g. I may make that judgment without being biased by any particular liking or dislike for either auteur as a person. Judgments of cinematic merit can be, or at least approach being, unbiased or disinterested. But a judgment of the kind we're talking about is not going to be objectively binding on all others.

I can imagine someone with a post-structuralist bent claiming that no propositions are ever objectively binding on all others. Perhaps; but I see no reason to think this, and it creates a logical paradox which nothing I've said above creates. I am not claiming that there are no facts about, say, what awards Scorcese has won ... as opposed to what awards Allen has won. There are plenty of determinate facts in the vicinity, as far as I can see. The point is that, even if we have these sorts of facts about the world, evaluations are not the same thing. There is an extra layer of difficulty about evaluations. Something more is going on.

None of this need be a huge problem. We are fluent in evaluating. We all negotiate the dangers of life every day making all sorts of perfectly rational, non-arbitrary evaluations. But we don't all make the same ones, and that need not (always) be because someone is mistaken. No doubt we have reasons to gather as many facts as is practical when we make evaluations and to engage in as much rational reflection as we can. That will produce more informed evaluations. But it won't produce evaluations that are binding on everyone else, irrespective of their more general desires, values, and attitudes. If we think it does, we are making an error about what it is to evaluate something.

Aikin and Talisse go on to claim that there are objective facts about moral goodness and rightness, but they are unable to tell us what makes such evaluations objectively true or false. The relevant discussion later in the book is almost embarrassing. But they needn't go down that path. Evaluations can be biased or otherwise, they can be well-informed or otherwise ... they can be many things, and they need not be arbitrary or beyond rational discussion. That is all we need if, for example, we wish to engage in cinema criticism. What evaluations cannot be is objective in the strongest sense.

But we don't need them to be. No one who gets to this point need be embarrassed about that aspect of human life.

You really have to worry about Egypt's future

This is pretty bad.