About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Follow up article on Singer

I have a follow-up article on Peter Singer on the Cogito blog: "I Stand With Peter Singer". This deals with a misguided campaign for Singer's resignation or dismissal from Princeton University. More generally, it deals with illiberal attempts to punish and deter unwanted speech on issues of public importance, as opposed to meeting it with criticism.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Shakespeare, Science Fiction, and all that...

Gregory Benford has republished (with my permission) our exchange from 2000 on greatness in science fiction, what works might stand the test of time, and similar issues. As Greg notes, we are presenting the discussion as it happened, not updating our views. Still, the issues remain topical and what we wrote back then may have its ongoing merit and interest. Check it out!

Note: I wrote several media tie-in novels myself, not all that long after my contribution to this discussion was first published. As a result of that experience, I'd now be less snarky about media tie-in work. That said, I worked hard in my Terminator books in an attempt to achieve an equivalent of the movies' "knowingness and high production values". I don't always see this in media tie-in work, but I have a much better understanding of the exigencies of that kind of writing, especially of what can be involved in producing novelisations. Successful tie-in writers are highly skilled people. It remains the case that they are unlikely to produce work comparable to that of Milton, Shelley, or Shakespeare.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Monsters of Jurassic World (post at Cogito)

New post on the Cogito blog. This is also a small taste of the sort of thing that may get into the discussion in my book that I'm writing for Springer.

Edit (6 September): I have now republished my Cogito post on this blog.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

My work cut out for me!

The good, if slightly daunting, news today is that my proposal for a book on the tyranny of (public) opinion looks like it has been picked up by Bloomsbury's academic line. Right now, in fact, it seems that all four(!) book proposals that I've been discussing with publishers over the last year or so are going to come to fruition. Unless there's an unanticipated glitch, that means I am going to be very, very busy. Stay tuned for more on the details in forthcoming posts.

For now, here are the four books, that I have at various stages of discussion with publishers and various stages of work in progress.

1. A short monograph on fundamental moral theory for Palgrave Pivot. This is now written, but still has to go through the pipeline. It should, however, appear later this year.

2. A book on moral philosophy and science fiction - particularly about the representation of various moral themes in SF - for which I have signed a contract with Springer. This is not due with the publisher until late next year, so we're looking at a publication date no sooner than 2017.

3. An edited (with Damien Broderick) collection under discussion with Wiley-Blackwell, where the current situation is very positive. More about this another time.

4. The book mentioned above with Bloomsbury.

Again, the manuscript of the Palgrave Pivot book is already complete - so it is far ahead of the others in the process. In all cases, I am not starting entirely from scratch. Much effort has gone into each of  them already over a period of years, and fairly intensively in the past year during the development of proposals. All the same, there is much writing/editing/associated work to come.

With large projects coming to fruition here, or just getting off the ground, there will have to be some shuffling of other priorities. I have some book chapters and talks scheduled, and will go ahead with those. But for example, my pet, or boutique, project of reading much of the Hugo nominated material for 2015 - and commenting on it here - will probably be even less complete than I might have expected. I'd hoped to read all the nominees in the "Best Novel" category and to comment on them before the voting date, but that now looks unrealistic. I might have to restrict myself to discussing one or two of those books, and I may not even manage all the novellas in time to write about them before voting time.

Still, all these green lights that I seem to be getting of late add up to wonderful news for me. They are all exciting projects, and I think these books, when (all going well) they all eventually emerge, are going to constitute some of the best work I've done.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Matthew Beard on vigilante justice

In another post at Cogito, Matthew Beard discusses the philosophy of vigilante justice - using as his springboard the TV series Arrow (based on DC's character The Green Arrow). I'm looking forward to seeing more in the promised series of posts on this.

Post at Cogito re Peter Singer and disinvitations

This post was prompted by Peter Singer's disinvitation as a speaker at the Cologne Philosophy Festival. More generally, no one has a right to chosen as a conference speaker - but once invited (and having accepted) people do have a legitimate expectation of not being disinvited for controversial views and on the basis of pressure on the conference organisers.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jurassic World is a monster

Box Office Mojo reports that Jurassic World has broken records for the biggest ever box-office openings in the US (formerly held by the first Avengers movie) and worldwide (formerly held by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2).

Although there was some buzz about Jurassic World as its release date approached, I don't think anyone, including the studio bosses, foresaw success on this astonishing scale. There's also reason to think it can hold on well - reviews (including my own) have been positive, even if not overwhelmingly so. The general idea from reviewers and from people I've talked to seems to be that the movie does a good job of following the formula that made the original Jurassic Park a record smasher in its own day, that it injects enough original ideas to breathe new life into the franchise, and that, above all, it is simply (though scarily) fun. Perhaps that last is underappreciated at a time when even superhero movies are often dark, troubling, and morally ambiguous.

It seems that there was a hunger for this kind of movie. It was probably helped by circumstances, with no serious blockbuster competition around its June opening date - furthermore, there is no serious competition coming up over the next two weeks. It's also the sort of movie that is inherently more likely to hold at the box office than a superhero flick (these tend to be very front-end loaded).

At the start of July, we'll see the newest instalment from the Terminator franchise, Terminator: Genisys. This also looks like an effort to breathe new life into a flagging franchise - the last two movies never attained the commercial success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or anything like the critical acclaim and iconic status of the first two movies. The creators of Terminator Salvation made a brave decision to deal with the future post-Judgment Day, which could have set in train a new line of movies, but they failed to capture the public's imagination. Terminator Salvation was a relative flop by Hollywood blockbuster standards, especially in the US market. Terminator: Genisys is clearly designed to get back to basics, but with new twists. We'll see whether that appeals.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Seth Baum's movie review of Transcendence

For a change, I'm linking to a movie review by someone else: Seth Baum's review of Transcendence, which we published in the Journal of Evolution and Technology last year. Warning: This is (a bit) more like a full-scale academic discussion than an ordinary review, so it gives away the plot. Don't read it unless you've seen the movie or don't mind spoilers for it.

Transcendence flopped at the box office, which may be understandable for such a cerebral movie (even if the ideas were slightly dumbed down, and, indeed, could not have been dumbed down much further without becoming risible). It was never going to make the same kind of profit as an action blockbuster or even an SF movie - like Gravity or Interstellar - that combines a certain amount of genuine science with relentless scenes of intense danger and trauma.

More worryingly, Transcendence was also a failure with the critics; only a minority praised it. I can pick fault with it myself, but it's an involving, intelligent, thought provoking piece of cinema that deserved more sympathy and attention. Its failure with the critics and at the box office has to be a disincentive to others who might try something similar. If you're among those who are fond of Transcendence, you'll be interested in what Baum has to say.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Concluding comments on "Best novelette" category - Hugo Awards voting 2015

The nominated works in this category are (in no particular order):

1. "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium" by Gray Rinehart (which I reviewed briefly here).

2. "Championship B'tok" by Edward M. Lerner

3. "The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale" by Rajnar Vajra (I reviewed this and the Lerner story here; I thought Vajra's story was the stronger of the two).

4. "The Journeyman: In the Stone House" by Michael F. Flynn (one of the best-written of the nominated stories; perhaps my number two choice, though again with the feel of being an episode in something larger).

5. "The Day the World Turned Upside Down" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt.

And the winner is...

well, I don't know who will win this award. I will not be voting "no award" ahead of any of them. However, the standout is Heuvelt's surrealistic fantasy story, "The Day the World Turned Upside Down". This has enormous energy, wit, and emotional kick. It can be seen as one long metaphor for the shock and pain of a breakup. It would be a worthy winner in any year, and I recommend that you read it, if you have access to the Voter Packet, and give it serious consideration.

It's also the only story of the five that was not on the Sad Puppies slate. Make of that what you will - it did not influence my choice, since I really do think it's a much stronger, more distinguished, story than any of the others. But I'm sure, in current circumstances when assuming good faith is fairly uncommon, there'll be people who won't believe me about that.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

"Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium" by Gray Rinehart - Hugo Award voting 2015

This is another work nominated in "Best Novelette", and again we have a competent, thoughtful, but not especially distinguished, space adventure. The underlying theme involves conflict between humans and technologically advanced aliens, in this case the Peshari, a lizard-like bunch with a taste for open skies and a morbid distaste (or more than that) for anything to do with digging into the ground.

By my standards, which are not binding on anybody else, "Ashes to Ashes" suffers from being far too talky.

Be that as it may, having now read three (out of five) of the stories nominated in the "Best Novelette" category, I can't say that its list looks especially strong this year. Notably, all three nominees that I've read appear on both the "Sad Puppies" slate and the "Rabid Puppies" slate, and they give me no confidence that the people running the respective "puppies" campaigns looked very far to find high-quality alternatives to work by whomever they think are the well-networked, much-promoted usual suspects. I have not yet found a plausible winner in this category, but perhaps I'll be blown away by one of the remaining two novelettes on the Hugo ballot.

Thursday night success for Jurassic World

As a footnote to my review of Jurassic World, it appears from the Thursday-night sessions in the US that the movie is headed for sit-up-and-take-notice success at the box office - see this article at Box Office Mojo. An estimate of US$18.5 million for a Thursday night is appropriately monstrous, especially if this fourth instalment of the Jurassic Park franchise turns out to have staying power.

Perhaps all those years in development hell were helpful to Jurassic World. The franchise was declining at the time of the previous movie, and a fourth outing for the dinosaurs might have done badly around, say, 2005. Instead, the passage of time has made Jurassic World something special, allowed a few reinvigorating ideas to bubble up, and opened the way for a new cast of characters/actors. There's a buzz that I can't imagine would have been the case a decade ago, when the formula was getting tired.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Jurassic World review

Warning: Some basic spoilers

It's been a long time since the last Jurassic Park movie, as this one was stuck in development hell for years. As usual when I review new movies, what follows will not reveal much in the way of plot twists, etc., but nor will it be entirely clear of spoilers.

What you most need to know is that Jurassic World is fun, exciting, and scary. The special effects are, as we were promised, a level above those in its predecessors - and at one point they made me jump out of my seat. There's a slightly old-fashioned aspect to the general tone and feeling, and not least to the movie's family, gender, and sexual politics. At one level it's an unabashed paean of praise to competent, rugged, under-appreciated he-men - to the sort of bloke who can ride a motorbike, shoot a gun, and wrangle a velociraptor.

That aside, it sticks closely to the formula I described in my previous post, though with a few noteworthy tweaks. The events take place twenty-something years after those shown in the original Jurassic Park, and the new owners of Isla Nublar and its inventory have finally managed to establish a huge theme park stocked with scientifically recreated dinosaurs. Inevitably - given the Murphy's-law logic of the Jurassic Park franchise - all hell breaks loose.

The big, scary monster of Jurassic World - "Indominus rex" - is not a genetically reconstructed beast from the Mesozoic era, such as we saw in the earlier movies, but an engineered monstrosity based primarily on T-Rex DNA... with additions to its genome to make it even more impressive (and hence dangerous). Thus, Jurassic World adds an additional coating of unnatural evil to its representation of genetic technology. While the more authentic (within the movie's reality) dinosaurs are amazing, wonderful, even sublime, Indominus rex is depicted as something closer to pure evil: a product of science gone mad, of human ingenuity corrupted by greed and hubris. Indominus rex is cunning, calculating, sinister, uncannily stealthy, and just plain cruel; she sets traps for human prey, and she kills other dinosaurs for sport even when she's not hungry.

The morality-play element is familiar, with some characters acting more or less as dinosaur fodder, some suffering fates that look exactly like karmic punishments, some enduring stoically, and one or two obtaining wisdom and redemption. As usual, there are children (a teenage boy and his younger brother) placed in harm's way, and (surprise!) these youngsters show moments of unexpected courage and ingenuity.

If you're a big kid at heart, love monster movies, or are any sort of fan of the franchise, do go and see Jurassic World, and don't forget your popcorn! Sure, it's formulaic. It won't change your life, and it has some hokey aspects. In other ways, though, it's the most frightening and creative instalment of the franchise since the 1993 original. Indominus rex is terrifying. You're in for a wild ride, and the two hours will rush past on a wave of adrenaline.

Jurassic Park I, 2, and 3

With Jurassic World being released more or less as I write, I've been watching the first three movies in the franchise, released in 1993, 1997, and 2001 respectively. Commercially speaking, these were immensely successful, although this gradually declined after the original Jurassic Park, which set box-office records in its day and still ranks highly among the biggest cinematic drawcards of all time. Even a 3-D re-release in 2013 made significant money for the Jurassic Park franchise.

Watching them again, I was struck by these movies as morality plays. Good guys (of both sexes) and children are menaced by the dinosaurs, but invariably escape. The dislikeable characters come to humiliating ends (this is especially obvious in the first movie), and there's the all-too-common element of "black guys die first" - doubtless shaped by various social pressures to do with casting, etc., rather than by any conscious racist intent, but still prominent, illusion-breaking, and a source of annoyance.

Leaving aside the minor characters - often non-white - who are merely dinosaur fodder, there's a sense that the dinosaurs act as instruments of fate to give characters whatever they deserve, even if some must suffer for flaws and wrongdoings before they can be rewarded. Children are most likely to get out of the movies okay, but not before being terrorised and endangered to manipulate our emotions.

This gives the dinosaurs three aspects, and the movies seem quite knowing about all three, and about the tensions involved: the dinos are the products of an advanced genetic science that is almost always represented as evil (and associated with venal motives); yet at the same time, they evoke awe and wonder; and they also act as instruments of karma - of a sort of impersonal, fatalistic justice.

Some of this probably sounds cynical (some of it is!), but I love these movies, whatever their flaws. In many ways they are masterpieces of the cinematic art (though again, this probably declined after the original Jurassic Park). The complex, perhaps unstable, dramatic meaning of the dinosaurs makes the movies richer rather than undermining their impact. This aspect is well controlled, surely deliberate to some extent, and leaves the experience open to interpretation each time. There are technophobic, technophilic, and karmic elements in movies that look damn good (though the special effects are getting dated) and are always emotionally engrossing.

Jurassic World employs a new generation of SFX technology to make the dinosaurs come alive on screen, and from what I've heard it's successful. I have high hopes that it will, at the very least, look magnificent. I wonder how far the narrative will break the mould we've seen to date.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

"Best Novelette" category - Hugo Awards voting 2015

I'm now reading the stories in the "best novelette" category, applying to work between 7,500 and 17,500 words. That's a good length for a science fiction story, in particular: it provides room for the revelation and development of character and the exploration of an idea... without having to build a complicated plot or establish a large cast of characters. Stories in the upper range of novelette - or in the next range up, of novella - may be ideal for even moderately serious SF. From my point of view, then, it's unfortunate that there are commercial pressures for large publishers of SF and fantasy to favour long novels. These can certainly be engrossing, but they can also push out a lot of potentially interesting, innovative work.

At this stage, I've read only two stories in the category: "Championship B'tok" by Edward M. Lerner, and "The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale" by Rajnar Vajra. For my money, "The Triple Sun" was the stronger of the two, though both were competent stories of adventure in space (with elements of hard science fiction). Whether either is strong enough to be worth a major international award is another question. Again, I'd be happier to see "The Triple Sun" win the award, partly because it simply has better shape as a standalone story ("Championship B'tok" seems more like an instalment of something much longer; the problem isn't that it is, but that it seems like it is).

I'll get to the other nominees in this category soon, and we'll see if one of them is more a standout.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

My introductory post at Cogito

I have just published my first - introductory - post at Cogito, a multi-author philosophy blog based at The Conversation. I'm pleased to have been invited to join this blog, as part of a diverse group of publicly visible Australian philosophers.

Check it out!

Monday, June 08, 2015

We have the extraordinary evidence! Science, skepticism, and denialism

The following was originally published at Talking Philosophy in July 2013. It was a reconstruction (based on memory and my speaking notes) of my presentation, "We have the extraordinary evidence! Science, skepticism, and denialism", at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas. This was the 2013 iteration of the James Randi Educational Foundation's (JREF's) annual conference devoted to scientific skepticism.

Note that I cannot provide a transcript of exactly what I said, and nor had I prepared the talk in a form that could simply be read out. As usual in my presentations, I extemporised to a considerable extent.

My thanks for the photos to Miranda Hale (pic of the large screen), Jerry Coyne (pic taken from the audience) and Peter Boghossian (pic taken from backstage).

I discuss how our modern, scientific picture of the world did not come intuitively to individuals and cultures, but was hard won over hundreds of years. I go on to relate this to contemporary scientific skepticism and the concept of denialism.

Read on...

Indulge me while I say how pleased and privileged I feel to be at this great event. Though I’ve flown nearly 8000 miles to attend, I feel very much at home among all you welcoming, friendly, and refreshingly rational and reasonable people. When DJ Grothe invited me to speak at TAM, I felt honoured but also felt some trepidation: I am not a magician, a scientific investigator, or indeed any sort of scientist, so what sort of contribution could I make to your theme of fighting the fakers, addressing a group of hardened and seasoned scientific skeptics? Perhaps, however, a philosopher can offer you a perspective that’s of general interest.

To do that, I’d like you to cast your minds back about 500 years. Now, I know none of us are quite that old, and I don’t believe in reincarnation, as will come up again later in this talk. But we have a pretty solid historical record of the past five centuries, at least for many parts of the world. So I’m going to make some comparisons between, let’s say, 1513 and 2013.

The lesson here is that what seemed like an ordinary, or at least acceptable, claim in 1513 might be an extraordinary claim now, and what would have seemed an extraordinary claim then might now be, in the relevant sense, an ordinary one. This is not because I take some relativist approach to truth, but simply because the reasonably available evidence has changed enormously over five hundred years.


In particular, I’d like you to think of European civilization in 1513. This was four years before Martin Luther confronted the indulgence seller Johann Tetzel with his famous Nine-Five Theses, catalysing the Protestant Reformation. It was thirty years before the publication of Copernicus’ major work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, and about a century before Galileo’s great scientific discoveries that arguably mark the beginning of modern science. Charles Darwin’s work was over three hundred years in the future.

People in Europe five hundred years ago were, in effect, living in another world. That is, the information available to them was radically different from what is available to us today. No wonder they understood the world very differently.

The celebrated Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has carried out a similar exercise to the one I’m asking of you, though his exercise relates specifically to the existence of God and the truth of Christianity. Taylor is himself a religious believer, but his 2007 book, A Secular Age, discusses how things changed over the past five hundred years to enable a movement from a society where belief in God is essentially unchallenged to the current situation in Western societies where it is, as Taylor puts it, “understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” For Taylor, it was virtually impossible, or unthinkable, not to believe in God five hundred years ago, whereas today, as he puts it, “many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable.”

As I said, Taylor is not an atheist, and nor is it my purpose today to put an argument for atheism – for that you’ll need to see my new book with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Great Myths About Atheism.

But it was not only belief in God that came easily in that era — all sorts of beliefs that seem bizarre to scientifically educated people today were commonplace, while the foundation stones of the modern sciences had not yet been laid. Taylor identifies features of life in early sixteenth-century Europe that made the existence of God just obvious to everybody, and importantly some of them apply more widely than belief in God.

First, the natural world was seen as testifying to divine activity, whether it was the appearance of order or the occasional extraordinary events that could not be explained by human knowledge at the time — whether plagues and natural disasters or years of exceptional fertility.

Second, if you lived in Europe in the sixteenth century the political and social systems were still closely integrated with the religious system. At all levels of society, it was assumed that human activity was underpinned by the activity of God, and all communal life was pervaded by religious ritual and worship.

Third — and this is very important — there was a strong sense for sixteenth-century Europeans of living in an enchanted cosmos, full of miraculous beings and powers.

Fourth, as Taylor adds, there was simply no well-developed naturalistic, secular alternative to religion and to what we’d now regard as superstition.

In my view, Taylor understates the degree to which science (in particular) changed things. There were undoubtedly other factors involved in the changes to how we think and understand world, but science as we know it was incredibly transformative. And in 1513, science as we now know it was in the future, as were modern styles of moral and political philosophy. Even humanistic learning, such as various kinds of textual and historical scholarship, was at a relatively early stage, despite the revival of classical learning that we know as the Renaissance, which had begun in Italy in the fourteenth century, but then proceeded through Europe in a very patchy way.

If you were living in the early sixteenth century, you’d have had no real reason to doubt stories of supernatural events, such as miracles, hauntings, and the effects of evil spells cast by witches.

Let me qualify that. It was quite well known that, for example, some seeming miracles probably had more ordinary explanations. There was also some cynicism and suspicion — it was well known that some holy relics were fakes and that some supposed miracles were fraudulent. You can find reference to this in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written over two hundred years before — and even in the work of St. Augustine well over a thousand years before. (Some of you will be especially familiar with Chaucer’s crooked Pardoner, often referenced by the late Christopher Hitchens in his debates.)

Still, the late medieval world was a world without professional scientists, paranormal investigators, and the like. Even if you thought that some specific purveyors of miracles and relics were fakers and frauds, you probably didn’t doubt that there really were miracles, ghosts, witches, and demons. There was no well-developed body of investigation and thought that you could draw upon for skepticism about all that, even if you were in the more educated classes of society. All the intellectual authorities that seemed trustworthy would have advised you, even required you, to believe in these things.

Today, of course, ordinary people still have problems knowing who to trust, who has genuine expertise. We live in a propaganda society, and we know that much of what we read or hear is misinformation. But at least we are in a position to examine who might genuinely be qualified to talk on a particular topic.


In the sixteenth century, there was no particular reason for an educated person to doubt that she lived in a world where supernatural forces were at work and supernatural events took place — even if not right here today, probably not far away or all that long ago.

Conversely, there would have been no reason to trust anyone who made such seemingly bizarre claims as that the earth revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis, that the earth is billions of years old, that human beings are descended from apelike forebears, or that the sacred history contained in the Hebrew Bible is highly inaccurate. From the point of view of someone living in early sixteenth-century Europe, all of these claims would have seemed extraordinary.

If I had time, I’d go into detail about the dramatic claim (so controversial in the era of Galileo) that the earth rotates on its axis. In the early sixteenth century and even a hundred years later at the time of Galileo’s discoveries, the idea that the earth rotates scarcely seemed to make sense. Galileo had to do much arguing and much hard-core science to challenge the seemingly commonsense view. If you’ve never done so, please read some detailed accounts of how he went about this, such as that in Philip Kitcher’s wonderful book The Advancement of Science (published in 1995).

For example, Galileo had to respond to the argument that an object dropped from a tower must fall “behind” the tower if the earth rotates. He used the example of an object dropped from the mast of a moving ship: for a sea-faring culture, this analogy had some imaginative salience. But in the end, he had to make extraordinary advances in physics, subsequently improved upon by Isaac Newton in particular, to create an imaginative picture of the universe within which the earth’s rotation was no longer an extraordinary claim. Similarly, the idea that we are descended through a naturalistic process from earlier primates was truly extraordinary until the evidence was gathered — and of course, that evidence has been vastly augmented since the time of Darwin, about 150 years ago.

The point of this talk is that the modern, naturalistic picture of the world that even most religious people accept for most purposes, most of the time, did not come naturally to us. It was hard won.
It was won through extraordinary efforts — by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and many others, including people whom we’d normally regard as philosophers and humanities scholars rather than scientists. For someone in 1513, many of the most basic claims in our modern, scientifically-informed understanding would have been extraordinary. The reason why we now, quite rightly, accept them is because we actually have the extraordinary evidence, accumulated over hundreds of years.

For someone in 1513, many of the most basic claims in our scientifically-informed understanding would have been extraordinary. The reason why we now, quite rightly, accept them is because we actually have the extraordinary evidence, accumulated over hundreds of years. The reason is not that our modern understanding of the world is, prior to the evidence coming in, natural or intuitive, or because the old understanding of the world was inherently, prior to the evidence, counter-intuitive or bizarre.

When it comes to intuitiveness, or otherwise, don’t even start me on relativity theory or quantum mechanics. The universe opened up to our inspection by science is very strange indeed, in the sense that much of what we have learned goes against our natural intuitions. For example, Edward O. Wilson has this to say:
The ruling talismans of twentieth-century science, relativity and quantum mechanics, have become the ultimate in strangeness to the human mind. They were conceived by Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and other pioneers of theoretical physics during a search for quantifiable truths that would be known to extraterrestrials as well as to our species, and hence certifiably independent of the human mind. The physicists succeeded magnificently, but in doing so revealed the limitations of intuition unaided by mathematics; an understanding of nature, they discovered, comes very hard. … The cost of scientific advance is the humbling recognition that reality was not constructed to be easily grasped by the human mind.
Relativity and quantum mechanics are not for, say, primary school children. Still, there is an exciting story to tell about the advance of science, about how our scientific knowledge was hard won — even in the face of human intuitions. I think we should introduce our children to this story as early as possible in their education. We can always learn more about it ourselves.

I take scientific skepticism to be essentially skepticism about claims that educated people should now regard as extraordinary — not because they are inherently bizarre but because they are anomalous within our hard-won, scientifically-informed picture of the world.

Think again of reincarnation. If reincarnation were true, if reincarnation were a genuine phenomenon, this would force us to revise our whole picture of the world to find some mechanism whereby it takes place. That makes it an extraordinary claim, and that is a reason to investigate it in a spirit of suspicion.

By way of analogy, many people make claims that run counter to the evidence from humanistic scholarship. For example, many people will not accept that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Shakespeare (though the claim being denied was never an extraordinary one in this case). They claim the plays were written by, say, Christopher Marlowe, or Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford.

Others deny terrible historical events, such as the Holocaust. There was once a time when the claim that the Nazis murdered nearly six million Jews in their concentration camps should have been regarded with suspicion, especially since much in the way of false propaganda was spread about the Germans during the first world war. We should always be cautious about atrocity propaganda, especially from our own side.

But of course, we know that the Nazi Holocaust did take place. We have the extraordinary evidence for these horrific events, and we have it in much detail. Given the picture that was built up by investigators immediately after the second world war and by historians since, we actually have the extraordinary evidence needed to believe in the occurrence of something as vast and horrific as the Holocaust. Someone who now denies those events does not deserve to be called by the honourable title of skeptic. Such a person is in denial of evidence that we actually have. Such a person is a denialist.

Initially extraordinary claims that actually acquire extraordinary evidence thereby change our picture of the world, or our understandings of ourselves and our situation. Once that happens, what were once extraordinary claims become normalised. Once they are sufficiently well established, those once-extraordinary claims can be used in arguments against new claims that are inconsistent with them. All the cumulative evidence that supports such a claim stands as evidence against any inconsistent claim.

So — the rotation of the earth was once an extraordinary claim. The onus was on proponents to gather the evidence. Skepticism about the claim was rational and warranted – though of course suppression and punishment were not. But the evidence has been gathered. Someone who denied the claim now would not deserve the title “skeptic”: such a person would be a crank or a crackpot or a denialist (don’t ask me what the difference is!).

We have, in our society, evolution denialists, Holocaust denialists, climate change denialists, and denialists of many other important claims for which we have the evidence, however extraordinary the claims might have been when first made, against the background of what it was then rational and reasonable to believe. That is a distinction that our children need to be taught, just as they need to know how hard won our current, evidentially informed, picture of the world actually was. I don’t believe these things are well understood, even by most adults.

Let’s do more about that.

Thank you, friends and colleagues. And thank you, JREF!

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Charity to those we oppose

This piece was first published at Talking Philosophy back in October 2014. I think it's still about right, and worth preserving on a site that I control, so I'm republishing it here...

I have a couple of old blog posts, one from mid-2008 and the other from early 2010 in which I am highly critical of Australian journalist Guy Rundle. In both cases, particularly the second, I’m quite snarky about Rundle – but I’m not going to apologise about either. Neither goes beyond my rather loose standards of civility; the criticisms are of substance in each case; and there is no realistic possibility that even a large number of posts of this level of aggression would tend to intimidate Rundle, someone with considerable cultural influence and easy access to very large platforms. By all means, make up your own mind about that. As for me… these days, my language might or might not be slightly more temperate, but I’m still fairly comfortable, even five or six years later, with the two posts as they stand.

So far, so good. Nonetheless, these posts were on subjects that I felt passionately about. In the first case, it was about the heated public debate in Australia during 2008 on the art of Bill Henson (a celebrated Australian and international photographer who’d been accused of, in effect, creating and exhibiting child pornography); in the second case, it related to the debates, throughout the relevant period, about the “New Atheism”, during which “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins received a great deal of hostile criticism, including from other atheists who wished to take a softer approach to religion. I somewhat angrily defended Henson in one post and the New Atheist crew in the other. Again, you can make up your own mind about the cogency or otherwise of my defence, though (again) it was of substance on both occasions.

Still so good. But I’ve been very aware of late of how easily we (or some of us) find ourselves reaching for vitriolic and potentially silencing language when confronted by people who disagree with us on issues that we feel passionately about. When someone made a comment on Twitter yesterday, recommending Guy Rundle’s new book, I immediately found myself replying with a pair of vitriolic tweets about Rundle which I’ve since deleted. Having made them, I found myself going into a mode of rationalising it in my mind. When I woke up this morning I realised this was nonsense and that I’ve held a somewhat irrational grudge against Rundle based on nothing more than disagreement on a couple of things (again, things that I felt passionately about) a few years ago. That’s just silly and unfair.

It’s no use saying that my original remarks in 2008 and 2010, linked to in the tweets, were substantive. The fact is that it’s easy to judge someone in an unfair and sweeping way based only on a couple of disagreements in the past. I’d fallen into exactly that trap.

I deleted my remarks on Twitter, made a couple of tweets explaining why I’d done so, and apologised privately to the person whose original tweet I’d reacted to (who was cool with it). There’s no use in apologising to Rundle himself – i.e. there was no real prospect that he’d been harmed or seen the offending tweets.

I could pat myself on the back for reacting fairly quickly and well in this case, but still… I didn’t meet my own standards in the first place. I regret that. More importantly, the incident underscores that I, like many others, can be tempted to unfairness and a lack of charity toward other individuals provided only that they have, perhaps on more than one occasion, taken what I see as the “wrong” approach to an issue that engages my passions. If I can do this so easily, while already being aware of the problem, it’s no wonder that I see so much of this sort of thing happen in social-media interactions. Well-meaning, decent people can quickly find themselves demonised, portrayed as morally corrupt, etc., over good-faith differences of view. Even if the latter seem (as Rundle’s did to me) to be ill-informed and simplistic, they may turn out to have an element of truth, and even if that’s not so they probably at least are the views of someone trying to sort through an issue in good faith.

In Rundle’s case, he especially bothered me back in 2008 and 2010 because he was attacking targets who were already under serious public attack (especially in the case of Henson) and put arguments that had already been used, and in my mind refuted, many times (especially so in the case of the New Atheists). But there’s another factor here. Rundle is a very well-known journalist in Australia. As mentioned above, he has access to large platforms and carries considerable influence. He’s a major left-wing public intellectual in his own country. It can seem fine to make unfair and vitriolic attacks on such a person on the basis that it’s “punching up”.

This business of “punching up” and “punching down” merits more thought. First, Rundle really would be far better placed to do significant harm to my reputation than I am to harm his. He has much bigger platforms and many allies who also have bigger platforms. (For whatever it’s worth, he also doubtless has enemies who are much more of a concern than I am.) There is definitely something in the idea that two antagonists in public debate can be greatly out of balance in power. In such cases, vitriol is far more damaging and potentially silencing when resorted to by the person with (considerably) more power. Indeed, people with large platforms should, arguably, be very reticent in what they say about relatively powerless individuals.

Still, I noticed one person toward whom I feel nothing but good will announcing a break from Twitter a few days ago, having endured too much abuse from others who disagreed with certain of her views on feminism. What she found especially hurtful was the large amount of abuse she’d received from other feminist women, as opposed to whatever she’d received (and been braced for) from anti-feminist men. As was noted in the brief Twitter discussion around her departure, some of those women may have thought that they were “punching up” at her… but what feels like punching up to the person doing the “punching” may feel very different to the person being “punched”, especially if it’s from more than one source and it’s continuing. That can soon become exhausting and can be silencing.

There’s no exciting moral to all this. I don’t intend to turn into the civility police, and I don’t suggest that we all walk on eggshells even when criticising very powerful individuals, institutions, ideologies, and ideological tendencies. That said, it’s well to remember that even seemingly powerful opponents can be psychologically hurt and reputationally harmed. Furthermore, it does nothing to advance the search for truth and wisdom when we interpret opponents uncharitably or draw unfair, sweeping inferences about their intellectual ability and moral character, perhaps based on no more than a couple of disagreements. Indeed, many opponents may turn out to be correct; even the ones who don’t may have something cogent and useful to say if they are allowed to discuss the merits of the issue rather than being subjected to tactics that silence their contributions.

To rally supporters and succeed in their struggles, political organisers may well need to pretend that their opponents are 100 per cent wrong. Yet, as Saul Alinsky notes in his celebrated (or notorious) Rules for Radicals, the opponent in a particular situation may actually, on an objective assessment, be more like 40 per cent right. But that message, alas, never rallied anyone. At the same time, Alinsky tells us, the organiser should be able to see things from both viewpoints once a dispute reaches the final negotiation phase. Here, tactical trade-offs can be made, which requires a more objective understanding of all the underlying interests and merits.

While those might be good rules for political radicals trying to achieve victories against slum lords, business corporations, or oppressive governments, it would take a rather extreme situation before philosophers ought to start thinking in that way. In normal circumstances, there’s much to be said for searching out that 40 per cent, or even 4 per cent, of truth in an opponent’s position if we want to make intellectual progress – and that includes trying to see the opponent fairly as a person. (If the opponent actually turns out to have 60 per cent of the truth, or perhaps more than that, even better.)
Again, I’m not the civility police. But rules for philosophers should involve attempts to be charitable and fair. This is a word to the wise… or in my case the not-always wise.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Concluding comments on "Best Short Story" - Hugo Awards voting 2015

I've now finished reading the five nominated works in this year's "Best Short Story" category. I've previously commented on three of them, and to get my comments all in one place I'll reuse the gist of them here.

"A Single Samurai" is a fantasy story involving a magical samurai warrior's attempt to halt the path of a mountain-sized kaiju monster. Leaving aside a couple of small verbal infelicities, it is a well-written, well-crafted piece told in the first person by the samurai, whose character - one marked by honour, tradition, and invincible determination - is conveyed effectively. So vast is the kaiju that the samurai's efforts appear ineffectual and futile, but read on... All in all, this is a solid short story, if marred by something of a deus ex machina style of ending. By all means give it a try and see what you think.

"Totaled" is a more innovative and sophisticated story, and I think it's a genuine contender for the award. It's difficult to describe this one without giving away too much and spoiling the effect. Suffice to say that it's told - mainly in present tense, and for good reasons - from a very unusual point of view. Kary English was not previously on my radar but appears to be a noteworthy talent.

"On the Spiritual Plain" by Lou Antonelli (nominated for Best Short Story). I wish I could have liked this tale of human/alien interaction, but it doesn't belong in an award nomination list at this level. I expect that some readers might assume I'm hostile to its religious theme, but that doesn't bother me at all (I may be somewhat anti-religious, but I'm not a fanatic). Quite simply, the story is not up to Hugo standard in its basic technique. Some good copyediting might have improved it, but even with a lot of additional work this would not, as I see it, be a legitimate Hugo-winning story. Antonelli is a prolific, well-credentialed writer (particularly of short stories), but if he has published something worthy of a major international award, this is not it.

I've now also read "The Parliament of Beasts and Birds", by John C. Wright, who is an undoubtedly talented author, and Steve Rzasa's "Turncoat". Wright's piece is an animal fable in which the various animals argue and posture over who should have dominion with the passing of humanity from the world. "Turncoat", by contrast, is a story of posthuman existence, narrated by an artificially intelligent interstellar warship - there's nothing dreadfully wrong with this piece, apart from a bit (quite a bit) too much exposition. Alas, I found it pedestrian.

The problem will keep recurring this year: how much stronger might this list (each list) of nominees have been without blatantly political block voting delivered care of the "Puppies" campaigns? We'll never know. Meanwhile ... none of the stories really blew me away, but one came closer than the others. In this company, the standout, for me, was "Totaled", by Kary English : for its skill and innovation, it will receive my vote. I doubt that any of the others merit such an important international award.

Russell Blackford 2012 interview at RationalHub - on atheism, scientism, metaethics, philosophy, etc.

This interview (questions from Paula Louise) seems to have vanished from the internet. So it is not lost, I am going to republish here. It represents my views on the questions asked as of October 2012. Since then, I've done a great deal of thinking and writing about many of these topics, so some of my answers might now be a bit different, or at least differently expressed.

1. Do you think 'gnu atheists', in general, have been too harsh in criticizing religious dogma?

I think that what became known as the New Atheism was and is valuable, though I also think there was a sense in which it was business as usual. That is, there was always a body of work appearing that criticized religion. We shouldn’t sell short organizations such as the CFI and Prometheus Books, or their equivalents in other countries.

What changed, I think, was that it became apparent in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001 that there was a potentially large market for criticism of religion. Thus, we saw a stream of books from large trade publishers, as opposed to relatively small, specialized presses like Prometheus or the various academic publishers. And of course, some very popular writers, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, took up the challenge.

The New (or jokingly, “Gnu”) Atheist writers don’t form a monolith – they have varied ideas and viewpoints. Overall, I doubt that they’re especially more critical of religion than writers from an earlier time, such as Bertrand Russell, or back to the likes of Diderot and Voltaire. However, there’s now a sense of urgency about criticizing religion, and especially its political influence. That was less the case in the 1980s and 1990s, when many academics and public intellectuals probably considered religion a spent force, at least in the West.

Have the “New Atheists” been too harsh? Well, one of the leading participants has been Daniel Dennett, but no one could fairly accuse him of being especially harsh. Even Richard Dawkins, who is often painted as strident and angry, actually expresses himself in a mild and nuanced way on most occasions.

There are doubtless some comments about religion by some of the New Atheists, some of the time, that I’d disagree with. Some points may overreach, as is inevitable in any discussion. I’d probably be softer than, say, Sam Harris on the more moderate or liberal kinds of religion, although I should add that I am always a bit skeptical about this idea of “moderate religion” – some of the so-called “moderate” religious groups don’t strike me as moderate at all, among them the Catholic Church.

All in all, my view of the New Atheism, to the extent that it can be seen as a movement or an alliance, is that it is was totally needed and justified. The need and justification remain. That doesn’t mean I am committed to agreeing with, say, Dawkins or Harris or Dennett or Hitchens on every point. But then again, nor should I be. Their works should be taken as encouragements to discussion and reflection, not as a new body of dogma.

2. Does the Kalam Cosmological Argument hold any merit? Would any such 'arguments' suffice, in your view, to establish the existence of a deity?


I don’t think this particular argument has any merit. Its premises are very much open to challenge. Even if they were accepted as true, all the argument would demonstrate is that what we call the universe is not the totality of what exists and is part of some larger causal order.

If we treat the argument as a thought experiment with that outcome, we’ll still be no closer to saying that there is a deity – some kind of powerful, supernatural intelligence. Why not just say, if you do accept the argument’s premises, that the finite age of the universe is evidence that, despite its incomprehensible immensity, it is still only part of the totality of what exists? If you want to say that, fine. Plenty of physicists might even agree. You might then note the difficulties that face us in trying to understand that larger order, but even if all that is correct it is not an argument for the existence of a deity.

But could there have been a convincing argument for the existence of God? Well, possibly. If what we observed around us were very different, then we might think that the presence and activity of some kind of powerful disembodied intelligence made best sense of our experience.

What if we lived in a world in which we routinely encountered phenomena that were best understood as the actions of disembodied intelligences? What if the holy books agreed with each other and with scientific findings about factual matters such as the age of the earth? I can easily imagine living in a world in which the arguments to believe in a powerful disembodied intelligence that created nature as a whole were quite convincing. But we don’t live in that world.

3. Is there an inherent incompatibility between religion and science?

Not an inherent one, no. Back in, say, 1500 CE it might even have turned out, for all anyone knew, that science would confirm what is in some of the holy books.

 For example, science might have discovered that our planet is 6,000 years old, that the rock strata and fossil order are consistent with a worldwide flood some thousands of years ago, that reproductive processes in animals are best explained on a basis that involves the activities of disembodied intelligences, that evil spirits provide the best explanation of disease, and so on.

Science and religion have very different methods for finding out the truth, but there seems to be no inherent reason why there could not be a world in which they converge on the same conclusions. Obviously, as it’s turned out, we don’t live in such a world.

What I think is best said here, at least in a reasonably concise answer, is that it’s a massive oversimplification, in fact gravely misleading, to describe religion and science as compatible.

It doesn’t follow that they are incompatible in a simple way. The sorts of incompatibility that exist require some teasing out. Udo Schuklenk and I have been doing that in some detail in the book we’ve been writing together, 50 Great Myths About Atheism – we’ll have quite a lot to say in favour of what sometimes gets called anti-accommodationism. Given the nature of the world we find ourselves in, it turns out that science has progressed in a way that really has undermined the intellectual authority of religion. And given everything we know about this process so far, I expect that it will continue.

4. Organizations like NCSE has gone to great lengths to presumably be more inclusive, when it comes to religious people. Do you think that sort of accommodationist stance is a healthy one to take?


I can see why, from a political viewpoint, organizations like the NCSE want to take an accommodationist position – the position that religion and science are fully and somewhat straightforwardly compatible. However, I think that stance is intellectually untenable. I also question how much it really is politically advantageous.

I’d prefer to see these organizations take a stance of neutrality on such controversial philosophical questions. For example, there is plenty to be said in favor of evolutionary theory without getting into the question of whether or not it is compatible with theological views, and if so which theological views.

5. Has science rendered philosophy, weak, to some extent? How relevant is philosophy today?

A big question! Part of the problem here is that there are many different conceptions of philosophy and science. As I understand them, I don’t think there’s any clear dividing line between the two. Both have access to all the same arguments and evidence.

Clearly enough, however, there are pedagogical and other practical reasons to make distinctions among the various academic disciplines, and what practicing scientists do is rather different from what practicing philosophers do. That reflects the different kinds of questions they are trying to answer, and it necessitates different emphases in methods and training.

If it comes to that, there is no clear dividing line between the sciences and the humanities. Or between a discipline like philosophy and one like law.

That said, what we intuitively think of as philosophical questions remain, and they can’t be answered within the professional practice of science the way science is currently organized into specializations and sub-specializations, and so on.

Furthermore questions such as “What is needed for a just society?” or “Do we have free will?” often involve careful work to try to get clarification of vague, murky concepts. Asking such a question, then trying to answer it in an intellectually respectable and rigorous way, largely involves trying to nail down what people are really talking about when they carry on about, say, justice or free will. It’s just not straightforward, and as Socrates evidently discovered in antiquity people can tie themselves in knots when they try to work out what they really mean with all the abstract language that (until they are challenged) they seem to use so confidently.

Ordinary language is full of ambiguity, metaphor, and approximation, and often the problems of what is really going are resistant to the methods of, say, lexicographers. So philosophers are trained to clarify concepts, tease apart their components, make careful distinctions, etc., with natural language. This kind of analysis is not necessarily useful for working scientists. I can imagine scientists getting frustrated with it, but there’s no avoiding it in philosophy.

Even if we tried to conduct a scientifically-rigorously study to get an idea of what conception of free will or justice most people have in their minds, there would be no escaping the need for a lot of conceptual analysis before trying to draw up the words used in something like a survey instrument, and then in interpreting the results.

If anything weakens philosophy, it is its inability to produce decisive outcomes. No one has yet established in an uncontroversial way what is really meant by “justice” or “free will,” or many, many other such terms, let alone whether we have free will or what is a just society. It often seems that the more we delve into these sorts of issues the more they complicate and ramify. Thus, we can develop all sorts of complex, elegant concepts, but the “true” definition of justice, say, still seems to elude us, and that fact itself calls for reflection.

Perhaps when we use this language we are often talking past each other, because our concepts are very imprecise and to a considerable degree not actually shared once we get beyond obvious cases. But the result that we see in philosophy journals can be enormously detailed efforts at clarification by academic philosophers which don’t seem to get us much closer to answering the original questions. Ironically, these attempts at clarification can be impenetrable to ordinary people.

By contrast, science makes impressive progress – clearly we understand vastly more about the natural world than we did 500 years ago, or even 50 years ago. So perhaps that is a reason to be impatient with philosophy and philosophers by comparison. Scientists can point to practical results. It’s no wonder that science is in a stronger position to attract funding from business and government.

Where does this get us? I don’t think the practice or the academic discipline of philosophy will go away, because the classic philosophical questions are too fascinating and too much a source of anxiety. If you tried to reassign those questions to a branch of science, you’d soon find the scientists who were assigned to answer them would get bogged down in the same conceptual problems and would start to reinvent the same techniques of conceptual analysis, etc.

So something like the current discipline of philosophy will continue, frustrations and all.

I don’t have a simple solution to philosophy’s discontents. It seems to be difficult making progress in philosophy partly because the “big questions” that arise in natural language so often turn out to be so full of conceptual puzzles and confusions. As a result, philosophers can get tied up in interminable, indecisive, very fine-grained and technical wrangling about what seems like mere semantics to others. Even if conceptual progress is made (and I think it often is), the result might not be accessible to a popular audience, or the sort of thing that ordinary people wanted to know in the first place.

Yet there’s no substitute for the process, and it should not be dismissed. By and large, philosophers, at least those in the English-language analytic tradition, are doing their best to achieve progress and clarity.

Fortunately, my own work tends not to be conducted at a highly-technical level, and I hope that it’s accessible to a fairly broad educated audience. All the same, even a relatively low amount of technical analysis can be a barrier to readers – I work hard to avoid putting people off, but it’s partly the nature of what is involved in philosophy, and in human thought and language.


6. I'm sure you've blogged somewhat extensively on this topic - especially in response to Jerry and Sam Harris I believe - but still, what's your stance on free will?

I think the problem here, as I touched on in the previous question, is getting a handle on what ordinary people mean when they worry about whether or not they have free will.

Anyone who thinks that is something straightforward is really not being fair to the full range of problems that have emerged in the historical dialogue over the issue. So, although I am more a compatibilist than not, I’m not convinced that we all have the same conceptions of free will or that ordinary people have entirely coherent conceptions of it at all. Many people may have a mix of libertarian and compatibilist intuitions.

 My response to Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris has not so much been a defense of compatibilism, though I guess it’s widely seen that way. It is basically to ask them to hang on a minute and be more patient with people who don’t think their, i.e. Jerry’s or Sam’s, conceptions of free will “just are” what the folk mean by the expression or related expressions, or necessarily what is really bugging people who, over the centuries, have felt the need to ask questions about whether they have free will or not.

If you want a simple answer from me, I don’t think we have libertarian free will, and I always struggle to see how the idea even makes sense. But do we often act “of our own free will” in ways that philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and David Hume would recognize? Yes, I think we often do.

There’s then, I suppose, a whole lot of political and other questions if I’m right on both of those points. What are the implications?

7. Having read your articles on moral realism and moral skepticism some time back (and really loved reading it) - but still a lot of people, at least in my experience, still remain moral realists by appealing to consequence. Would not subscribing to moral realism, by any means, imply 'anything goes'?


It’s nice to know that someone loved reading it – so thanks!

Unfortunately, yet again, this is going to get murky if I try to do justice to the complexity of the problems and their history. I’ll do my best to skate over all that and give you a relatively brief answer — though my answer might not be entirely satisfying.

Basically, my view is that moral norms and moral codes are best seen as standards that serve the desires of human beings living in societies. If we all (or even most of us) make certain kinds of efforts and accept certain kinds of constraints, there will tend to be a mutual benefit.

Obviously there’s a lot more to be said here, but that’s my broad-brush view of what moral norms and codes might actually be able to accomplish. I don’t think, for example, that they are going to be much use for obtaining spiritual immortality or pleasing divine beings, or anything of the kind, though of course some religious codes of conduct purport to do exactly that.

We should reject the false dichotomy between either there being the “true” moral norms and codes that are inescapably and absolutely binding in some sense or it being a case that “anything goes,” so cruelty is just as good as kindness, dishonesty just as good as honesty, treachery just as good as loyalty, etc. Neither of those is the actual situation. I guess I’ll need to return to this as we go, and say something about why.

8. On a related note, would moral scepticism be compatible with humanism? I must say that moral scepticism gets quite a bad rap, along with relativism.


If humanism is a this-worldly philosophy that concentrates on progressing the secular interests of human beings, rather than trying to please deities or conform to a supernatural principle of some kind, I don’t think there’s anything contrary to humanism in any plausible form of moral skepticism or moral relativism.

The big problem with moral relativism is that the usual form of it that people encounter, and often accept, is not at all plausible once you look into it even slightly. But there are some sophisticated versions of moral relativism that deal pretty well with the most obvious problems. We can’t write off all philosophers who argue for some sort of moral relativism just because many people seem to buy a crude version of it.

That said, it’s worth continuing to expose people to the real problems with the crude version. It won’t do to run around saying: “Female genital mutilation is fine in the societies that practice it, because that’s their moral code. We shouldn’t interfere.” Wrong. That’s not a coherent set of ideas.

A lot of students seem to enter college or university from high school with a set of ideas like that, which they acquired from somewhere. I think it’s worthwhile showing them how doesn’t add up. They can worry later about whether some much more sophisticated variety  of moral relativism might be possible – in the past, I’ve mentioned this to my students, in an effort to be open with them. But I think the urgent point at that stage of their philosophical careers is more to show them the problems with crude relativism than to introduce them to the interesting approaches of people like, say, Gilbert Harman or Jesse Prinz.

9. I have never been able to wrap my head around moral error theory in specific. How could one be a moral error theorist and condemn something as immoral or unethical?


One reason why you might not be able to get your head around it is that it’s not entirely clear what it means. Whatever it originally meant, it seems to have come to mean that all so-called first order moral statements – statements such as “Torturing babies is morally wrong” or “Giving to Oxfam is morally desirable”, and so on – are simply false. That sounds outrageous. Yet, it might be correct.

This is the point in the interview where many of your readers will, in fact, be outraged ... and understandably so.

So perhaps it’s also the point where I need to say more, even at the risk of some technicality and long-windedness. You may have guessed already that a problem arises about what is really meant, or conveyed, by a sentence such as “Torturing babies is morally wrong.” It may turn out that the sentence conveys something that is not literally true, even though it might also play a useful role in, say, denouncing and opposing the torture of babies.

I’ll come at this indirectly. What if I said one of the following? “My car is a good car.” “The Amazon River is majestic.” Or, “The sunset over Cable Beach is beautiful.” Most people would agree that there is something about these sentences that prevents them from being just facts like “My car is a Honda Civic” or “Cable Beach is on the west coast of Australia.” The claim that Cable Beach is on the west coast of Australia seems like a plain fact that is, as it were, binding on us all. Someone who disagrees is simply, unequivocally, factually wrong, given the ordinary meaning of the sentence. And something similar applies to the claim about what make of car I own (even though ownership is a socially constructed fact).

But when I praise the Amazon River as “majestic” or the (typical) Cable Beach sunset as “beautiful,” I don’t seem to be making a claim that is just factually correct in the same way. Perhaps those words can be interpreted in a way that does make them apply factually. E.g. we might say that “majestic,” when applied to rivers, just means some complicated combination of physical properties. Or “beautiful” might just mean something like having the property of inducing a certain kind of feeling in most human beings. But that’s all obviously problematic – it’s not at all clear that I’m just stating a fact in that way when I use such words. In at least some cases, it seems as if it might be legitimate for me to say, “X is beautiful” without thinking that you are just wrong if you disagree. You might say, in response, “Well, I don’t think X is beautiful,” and that’s also legitimate. We agree to disagree, and we accept that neither of us is “just wrong” about something like that. Something similar might apply to whether we want to call a natural feature like a river “majestic.”

Our language is full of these sorts of terms where legitimate disagreement seems possible, and neither disagreeing party is necessarily just wrong. Try going through your day looking out for instances, and you may find a myriad of examples — “great”; “sexy”; “alluring”; “creepy”; “cool”; and on and on. They are about as common in everyday experience as the instances where there is a factually correct statement to be made, and anyone who rejects it is just mistaken.

My reference to ideas of “majesty” and “beauty” was to warm you up. But now I want to talk about the word “good.” What does this everyday word really mean?

Well, that’s a difficult question. But arguably when I say that my car is a “good” one I mean something like this – my car has a combination of properties that, taken together, make it effective or efficient for whatever it is that we desire from a car. Those properties will include certain levels of performance, certain levels of comfort (presumably for average human beings), certain levels of reliability, etc. Part of the trouble is that the levels concerned are rather vague – even I may not know what level of performance I really want from a car. But we will probably share some vague idea. Given that people want much the same things from a car, we can reach a great deal of agreement on whether a particular car is a “good” one or not. Furthermore, when we reach that level of agreement we won’t be doing so arbitrarily.

All the same, some people place more weight than others on such things as reliability, as opposed to performance or comfort, or other factors. And we tend to think that these different weightings, not to mention our differing standards for the levels we demand, are all legitimate. You might say that the idea of “whatever it is that we desire from a car” is something of a fiction, since we all desire slightly different things. In fact, if “effective or efficient for whatever it is that we desire of the sort of thing in question” were the precise meaning of “good” then we could not (or at least not often) say that any car is a good one, because there is no such thing as exactly what we desire. There is what I desire, the slightly different thing that you desire, the slightly different thing again that she desires, etc. These will overlap heavily, but they won’t line up exactly.

And yet, not-so-miraculously, we can have perfectly sensible discussions of the merits of cars!

That’s because, given the kinds of beings we are, with similar needs, desires, projects, etc., and given the uses we actually make of cars, we are tacitly applying similar approximate standards. We may ultimately agree to disagree about which is the better of two competitive current-model cars in the same price range, but often we’ll reach agreement in more clear-cut cases.

I want to suggest to you that something similar applies to other things whose merits we discuss. We can have sensible discussions of the merits of clothes, movies, books, houses, tennis players (considered simply as tennis players), and so on – and in each case the discussion won’t be simply futile or the standards used just arbitrary. We’ll be able to reach considerable agreement. And yet, we really might, to some extent or other, want different things from, say, a book, and that might mean that we ultimately disagree, quite legitimately, about whether The Lord of the Rings is a better novel than, say, Tom Jones or Midnight’s Children.

But what if say, “Roger Federer is a good man.” I don’t mean he’s a good tennis player (perhaps we can all agree on that easy case, at least). I’m really talking about his character. And character is something to do with people’s dispositions of certain kinds, such as kindness or cruelty, courage or cowardice, propensity to violence, or otherwise, willingness to compromise and get along, or otherwise, and on and on. If we have some difficulty applying exactly the same standards as each other to cars or books, I expect it may be even more difficult when we sum up the characters of human beings.

Even if we agree that kindness is better than cruelty, courage is better than cowardice, etc., none of us are completely kind or courageous, etc., and we all have mixed, complicated sets of dispositions. X might be very kind but rather cowardly, while Y has a cruel streak but is very courageous and absolutely loyal. Which of them is a “better person,” summed up overall?

If we followed the approach in my earlier answers, we’d conclude that there will be easy cases where every sincere person considers X, overall, to be of bad character, while Y is of good character – but there will also be cases where it might not be clear what we should say about someone’s character overall, or where it might not be clear who is the better person out of X and Y, judged overall. You might rank X higher, while I rank Y higher, and in the end it might be legitimate to disagree (despite having had a sensible discussion of the merits) because, really, there is no “what we desire from a person’s character” just “what I desire from a person’s character” and the slightly different “what you desire from a person’s character.”

Here’s where the moral error theorist chimes in. The moral error theorist is likely to claim  that people are not prepared to accept legitimate disagreement when it comes to these judgments of people’s characters in the way that there is room for legitimate disagreement about the merits of cars. It seems that when we make judgments about the goodness or badness of people’s characters, i.e. moral judgments about people, we erroneously think that we are making purely factual statements like whether Cable Beach is on the west coast of Australia. We see someone who disagrees with us as just factually wrong. But this is an error – the other person is not just factually wrong when she disagrees with me about the goodness of someone’s character in a case that is not clear-cut, any more than if she disagrees with me about the goodness of a car in a case that is not clear-cut.

Well, that will be controversial. But let’s move beyond the goodness or badness of character to the moral rightness or wrongness of people’s decisions and the resulting acts.

The moral error theorist should concede that we often have sensible, meaningful discussions about whether someone decided well or badly and whether their act was a good one or a bad one. But she will notice how even in cases that don’t seem at all clear-cut we don’t seem to be willing to accept disagreement with judgments about what we call the moral goodness or badness (or wrongness) of acts. We seem to insist that the acts we judge to be morally wrong just are wrong – i.e. this is a matter of unequivocal factual correctness.

Thus, we look for an answer that is factually correct. We then insist on our view prevailing, and when we say that an act is morally wrong we don’t mean something like: “Having properties counter to those that are effective for what we (really, I) desire from human decisions and acts.” Rather we seem to mean something more like: “Having properties such that the act breaches an absolutely binding standard that transcends all desires and social institutions.” If that’s what morally wrong means, says the error theorist, then all statements of the form, “X-ing is morally wrong” are false, because there simply are no such absolutely binding, transcendent standards.

What I’ve just tried to explain has taken a long time, but it would probably take a book to explain it properly and make it really persuasive. Suffice to say, I think that the error theorist has a point here. We do have this tendency, when it comes to people’s characters and certainly their decisions (or at least particular types of decisions that we consider “morally significant”) to think that we are applying absolute, transcendent standards, rather than standards that we roughly agree on because most of us have similar desires about these things (e.g. a desire for human societies to survive, or for pain and suffering to be avoided). At least with some kinds of moral language, this idea of an absolutely binding and transcendent standard may well infect our language itself.

Thus, the error theorist will (however outrageous it sounds) count the following as, strictly speaking, a false statement: “Torturing babies is morally wrong.”

That isn’t because the error theorist thinks that torturing babies is, in the ordinary sense, a good thing.

But she will interpret “Torturing babies is morally wrong” as meaning something like “Torturing babies is forbidden by an inescapably binding and transcendent standard” or perhaps “Torturing babies is categorically forbidden in the nature of things.” Since the moral error theorist, rightly in my view, denies that there are such standards, or that anything is “categorically forbidden” in that mysterious way, she says that this statement comes out false. She will still be opposed to torturing babies, and she will probably think that it’s a bad thing to do in the ordinary sense of “bad.”

How far error theory is correct is going to depend on how far people tend to think that categorical forbiddenness and similar strange properties actually exist, and how far our language itself conveys such ideas. There does seem (to me) to be at least some tendency that way, so, once again, I think that moral error theorists have a point.

But how far is it a practical point? Clearly, we are going to go on making judgments about people’s characters, decisions, actions, etc. Clearly, we’ll continue to have sensible discussions of these things, and we’ll often reach agreement. In practice, many cases will be clear-cut. So the point might not be very practical. Even if you think that certain moral sentences are, strictly speaking, false, you might think they are near enough to being true not to quibble.

All the same, there might be more to it. If you accept moral error theory, you might be less insistent on others accepting at least some of your judgments. Again, you might consider that at least some moral language is best avoided if you think it encourages unnecessary and harmful dogmatism about certain judgments where you think disagreement is legitimate. You might also find that the most suspect language is not the language you are most inclined to use on an everyday basis in any event.

Again, it might be disconcerting if the theory pushes you to think that our moral codes are  ultimately based on human desires, which vary to an extent, rather than on something that goes more deeply into the impersonal fabric of the universe – though then again, this might be a salutary reminder of the limits of what moral norms and codes can really do. Without wanting to write a whole book on the subject – at least right this minute – I’ll leave you to think whether moral error theory, if it is on the right track, has any practical importance or use.

10. The word 'scientism' is thrown around often these days. What do you make of it?

Again, there’s a lot to say, and much of the disagreement relates to what is meant by science as well as by “scientism.” I’ve already said that I don’t see a clear dividing line between the sciences and the humanities. All the methods available to one are available to the other. Nonetheless, different questions tend to require different approaches and emphases, and this will necessitate different training.

For example, if I am doing a lot of historical research that involves translating ancient inscriptions there is really no substitute for training in the relevant ancient language or languages. At least the way the sciences and humanities are usually understood in English-speaking countries, learning and using languages is more a hallmark of scholarship in the humanities than of the practice of science. Conversely, employing instruments that extend the human senses, developing mathematical models, and conducting controlled experiments are more the hallmarks of science than of scholarship in the humanities.

However, scientists and humanities scholars both need to use logic, including hypothetico-deductive reasoning. They may both need to carry out various kinds of close observation, and so on. There may be circumstances where it would be helpful for a scientist to understand a foreign language. There will certainly be times when humanities scholars will use scientific instruments and other devices. None of this is a matter of drawing sharp lines.

There would be a problem with scientism if it meant the idea that the methods that are hallmarks of science are the best, or the only, approach to all problems and that the methods that are hallmarks of the humanities are never useful or the most useful – so it is useless learning foreign languages, or mastering a reasonably integrated technique of interpretation of certain kinds of documents such as might be used by a legal scholar making sense of a statute or a literary scholar making sense of, say, a seventeenth-century poem.

If that is how scientism is understood, then scientism is clearly wrongheaded and a bad thing (where “bad” has its everyday meaning). Of course it can – and often is – useful to learn a foreign language, for example.

 But how many people really do embrace scientism in that sense? It’s very difficult to think of examples. Perhaps there are scientists who are sufficiently ignorant of the humanities to despise them or to think their methods are useless, or to think that they could do better with, say, making sense of a legal statute or deciphering an ancient inscription in a ead language. But any scientists like that would be rare. At least I hope so. I certainly don’t see them involved in serious debates about religion and philosophy.

All that said, the methods that are so much the hallmark of science have been very effective in opening up the universe to our inspection over the past four to five hundred years. In particular, science has enormously extended our knowledge of the natural world, enabling us to probe the depths of time, the distances of space, and the many scales of the micro-world that is invisible to our ordinary senses. I’m a great fan of science.

11. Having read your entry in "50 voices of disbelief" (which I really enjoyed reading), it would be a bit redundant to ask about your transformation from an evangelical Christian to an atheist. But do you miss being religious?

Not at all. (That was an easy one!)
 
12. Are you working on anything at the moment?

Udo Schuklenk and I have just submitted the manuscript of 50 Great Myths About Atheism, which is under contract to Wiley-Blackwell. As I mentioned, this will come to grips with accommodationist ideas, among others. We’ll be discussing a wide range of misconceptions, half-truths, and misleading ideas that surround atheism, as well as spelling out something of our positive case for why atheism is the most reasonable response to the God question.

The other book I’m working on is Humanity Enhanced, which deals with issues, especially legal and political ones, surrounding genetic enhancement technologies, human cloning, etc. How should people of reason approach this? Humanity Enhanced is under contract to MIT Press.

I should also mention Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, which was published by Wiley-Backwell earlier this year, and which we haven’t really talked about. It’s my definitive attempt, so far, to defend the idea of a secular state – i.e. one in which the government is not guided by religious considerations, but only this-worldly ones – to explore the implications, and to explain why I think a secular state segues into a liberal state. Among other things, I explore conflicting concepts of freedom of religion, and I discuss the relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of speech. In brief, I reject ideas of any conflict between them, but there’s far more to say than that.

There are other projects, including another book that may or may not get off the ground, so I don’t want to say too much about it at the moment.

 My life is incredibly busy right now, but hopefully this will all come to fruition and be worth it.
 
13. Philosophers who inspire you the most?

Many of them. Among the great philosophers of past times, Epicurus, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill would all be near the top of my list. Hume is perhaps the greatest of all. He saw very clearly and deeply, and philosophy has been trying to come to terms with his vision ever since. Much of modern philosophy is either footnotes to Hume or a campaign of resistance to his insights.

14. Any book recommendations for our readers?

Ah, where do I start? Actually, a lot of what I’ve been reading is rather specialized – it’s been research for my own books. In particular, I haven’t been getting a lot of time to read fiction, which I miss. Conversely, I’ve read enough works of Christian theology or apologetics of late to last me a lifetime (all for the purposes of 50 Great Myths About Atheism).

I’m currently reading the newest edition of Galen Strawson’s challenging book on free will, Freedom and Belief, and in fact I’ve been doing a lot of reading in that area. Although Strawson is regarded as an incompatibilist, while I’m probably thought of as a compatibilist, his detailed views don’t seem that far from mine so far. Both of us reject libertarian free will, and for much the same reasons. It’s then a question of what you do with the conceptions of free will, or simply freedom, that are left.

A lighter read just lately, but still an interesting one, was Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality, by Darrel Ray. This is a very accessible and provocative approach to the topic, and I found myself nodding along as I read it. I would be interested in other opinions of it. Ray did not really need to convince me of the main thesis of the book, that religion can be a barrier to any rational consideration of sex, either for individuals navigating their own sex lives or for understanding at a social level. He does, however, develop the case with many examples and arguments.