Sunday, 4 July 2010

Down is the New Up. The Wrongs of Robert Wright.

A response to Robert Wright’s Op-Ed in the New York Times:The Myth of Modern Jihad

This is yet another in a series of confused and naive Op-Eds on Islam from author Robert Wright. The contents of which are not entirely unexpected (see here religion and in particular here on Islam.) One gets the sense then that everything in Wright’s moral universe is all the opposite of what we think it is: everything is back to front; down is the new up, and black is actually white. Everything would be just fine in the world, Wright seems to think, if we all said to ourselves: “we have met the enemy and he is us

Wright, who wrote this article (The myth of modern Jihad) after reviewing the testimony of one Faisal Shahzad: an naturalised American citizen who failed to explode a bomb in Times square on May 1, 2010. Faisal, speaking in his elocution in Court this week stated that he sees no moral difference between himself and American soldiers or between military personnel and civilian bystanders in a city thousands of miles away from any battle. Rather, in his own words “they are all the same.” Presumably then, every man, woman and child who happens to hold an American or British passport is to his eyes, an open target to any Muslim, anywhere in the world. It is often said that racists and bigots discriminate. However, as Christopher Hitchens points out it is rather a failure to discriminate, to see people as individuals not as the collective swarm of ones feverish imagination. Shahzad, has relegated everyone - all non-Muslims to one monolithic enemy - the infidel, and as such they are without moral concern. Nevermind the fact that the targets of his bomb were of no direct threat to him, his family or any Muslim. Many of them no doubt, actually don’t support the war in Afghanistan, many of them we could expect are quite critical of their own governments. None of this matters however - for they are all Americans and to Shahzad and every fanatic - they are all the same, everyone deserves to be punished by bombs, packed into public places, with the intention of killing and maiming as many infidels as possible.

Shahzad was unrepentant (see the above hyperlink for his full testimony) and explicated his reasons ad nauseum. I find it fascinating, as well as disturbing that Shahzad, an American citizen, who, by his own testimony, was helped by America in his efforts to achieve a university degree, would choose to throw away his life for a conflict thousands of miles away, that except for the fact that he is a Muslim, he has no direct connection with. Despite his articulate explication; I would reserve a cautious scepticism that we may ever know precisely why he did what he did - I will venture some possibilities below; nonetheless, what we can say with almost total certainty, that if Shahzad had not happened to be brought up Muslim in the first place, he would not be spending the rest of his adult life in jail. Imagine, if he were Christian, Buddhist or even Jewish - the probability that he would run off to a foreign country to fight a war or try to blow up a bomb in a city is downright slim. Do American Zen Buddhists blow themselves up in Chinese restaurants in San Francisco over Tibet? No. Do Christians go and fight the Chinese government’s state repression of their co-religionists? No. Why then, is Islam different?

Wright meanwhile, has fallen for Shahzad’s propaganda, hook line and sinker. On the possibility that Shahzad may simply be grandstanding and attempting to appeal to the disagreements and divisions within the West over the War on Terror. It is after all, a basic strategy in conflict - divide and conquer and how does one do that - by sowing doubt, confusion and division within the enemy camp. Wright however, briefly considers this possibility, then sagely rejects it:

Should we really take this testimony seriously? It does, after all, have an air of self-dramatizing grandstanding. Then again, terrorism is a self-dramatizing, grandstanding business, and there’s no reason to think this particular piece of theater isn’t true to Shahzad’s interior monologue.

No reason? How about the fact that every major media outlet would broadcast his view; this furthermore, was his fifteen minutes - his chance to somehow justify the act by which he threw away the rest of his life. Further, did it not cross Wright’s mind that rather than being a noble defender of Muslims against the infidel, Shahzad was simply out to make a name for himself? Or, he simply enjoyed the idea of playing a solider - a mujahid? This idea is not implausible. Muslim scholar Reza Aslan in his book How to Win a Cosmic War thinks that young Muslim men become warriors for Jihad the same way middle class western children join the peace corps, or Amnesty International. Incidentally, Martin Amis suggested as much a number of years ago, that Jihad is the most attractive and seductive idea of this generation - it’s a licence to kill, it’s a mission from God, one that transforms bored young men into giants - both literally and figuratively (as Hamas propaganda grotesquely presents them.) Finally I suspect that Shahzad is telling him, and countless other left-wing writers just waiting to lap up any confirmation of their preferred narrative - whatever the source; even if it is someone who belongs to a irredentist cult of death. (See the Al Qaeda Reader by Raymond Ibrahim, which shows that Al Qaeda are quite savvy in their propaganda against America by citing for instance left-wing books like Rogue State by William Blum.)

Wright then goes on to accuses Daniel Pipes of cognitive dissonance, but perhaps it is himself who needs to look in the mirror. Just consider this fallacious piece of reasoning:

“My point is just that, if you take Shahzad at his word, there’s more cause for hope than if Pipes were right, and Shahzad’s testimony were evidence that Jihadists are bent on world conquest.”

This is a unsound conclusion derived from a dubious premise whose chain of reasoning is wishful thinking. Wright’s hope is that if we accede to everything Muslim extremists demand then everything will be fine - or rather, it hopefully will. The two indubitable facts of the matter however, is that practically, acceding is impossible; secondly, and more importantly, morally we cannot. What would this demand amount to after all? Sharia law in Europe, America and anywhere else large numbers of Muslims happen to reside. Leave Afghanistan back into the hands of Taliban thugs and fanatics, a similar abandonment would have to befall the Iraqi people. Every single, US and allied troop or citizen would have to either vacate the (Dar al Islam) or become a Dhimmi (a second class citizen). Furthermore we would be obliged to forsake Israel to be swallowed up by the seething anger of Palestinians and for Jews to take their “rightful” place - under the lash of every Muslim bigot (as they have done under Islam for much of history - see Bat Ye’ Or’s book The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam and Bernard Lewis’s The Jews of Islam)

Wright, I am sure counts himself as a impeccable liberal and tolerant person. A believer in dialogue, understanding and compromise. These are liberal traits, and they are noble ones, traits which, nonetheless, flower as fruits of education and civilization. While I count myself as a liberal, I am also aware, painfully, but undeniably so, that there are countless who would burn the earth to cinders in order to purge the world of any deviation from orthodoxy. Consider then, the second example of Wright’s naivety:

Now on to the second cause for hope: Pipes’s confusion itself. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter whether Shahzad was telling the truth, because Pipes certainly thinks he was. Pipes applauds Shahzad’s “forthright statement of purpose,” adding, “However abhorrent, this tirade does have the virtue of truthfulness.

So then why doesn’t it bother Pipes that Shahzad’s depiction of Islamic holy war as defensive counter-attack is the opposite of the depiction Pipes has peddled for years? How can he possibly hail Shahzad’s comments as confirming his world view?”

Wright is arguing that Shahzad is fighting for a defensive reason - and by extension would not have happened if America had not invaded. Again, this only follows if one accepts Shahzad; and why should we? Furthermore, it is simply undeniable that Jihad is inextricably concerned with conquest; that it is both a defensive and offensive notion. Wright disagrees. By way of evidence he provides a hypertext to a chapter in his book (Evolution of God) which amounts to a whitewash of Islamic colonialism and conquest. He cites a single sura, and mentions that it has the virtue of a get out clause, thus supposedly diminishing the external image of unmitigated militancy in Islam. This is what he wrote in his book:

Here again, useful guidance could be found in scripture so long as you looked hard enough. The Koranic verse that comes closest to calling for jihad on a global scale also has a crucial loophole. It begins, “Make war upon such of those to whom the Scriptures have been given as believe not in God, or in the last day, and who forbid not that which God and His Apostle have forbidden,” but then ends, “until they pay tribute out of hand, and they be humbled.” In the end, money would substitute for theological fidelity.

Wright has not looked hard enough or rather has tried hard not to look too hard. His slurring over the concept of Dihmmi -(servitude) - paying the Jizya (a poll tax for unbelievers) as not being all that bad (read on from the link) or done for pragmatic reasons is also suspect. Though to be fair to Wright, what counted most for early Muslims was not theological sophistication or spirituality but success - success in battle and accumulation of booty There are numerous passages in the Koran, and voluminous in the Hadith that call for war, that, can easily be used to support offensive Jihad.. Here is but a flavour:

“Kill those who join other gods with God wherever you may find them” 9.5-6

“Those who believe fight in the cause of god” 4.76

“It is a grave sin for a Muslim to shirk the battle against the unbelievers, those who do will roast in hell.” 2.245

“Allah loves those who fight for His cause in ranks as firm as a mighty edifice.” 61.1

These are all from the Koran itself, which is, remember, the perfect and immutable word of the creator of the universe. This fact, once accepted by any mind, renders any liberal theological gerrymandering incoherent and dishonest. Consider now, as only a flavour, what the Hadith says:

“He who dies without having taken part in a campaign dies in a kind of unbelief “

“A day and a night fighting on the frontier is better than a month of fasting and prayer”

“Jihad is your duty under any ruler, be he godly or wicked”

Consequently as a result of this militancy virtually every major Muslim thinker from Ibn Taimiya to Ibn Khaldun to Sayyid Qutub has echoed and expounded this notion of Jihad. See for example A Bostom’s The Legacy of Jihad for a definitive, scholarly account. Islam, subsequently, has the honour or dishonour of being the first great civilisation (with the possible exception of China) that can claim to be the first truly colonialist and imperial power. Its geographical extension, cultural and religious penetration of less successful religions and cultures dwarfs the imperialism of ancient Rome, 19th century England or 21st century America. (see the chapter Arab Imperialism, Islamic Colonialism in Ibn Warraq’s book Why I’m not a Muslim)

While it is true that nearly all Muslims are not violent there is simply no question of Islam’s doctrinal, philosophical and historical infatuation with violence. Nevertheless, Wright does not appear to directly deny this. He seems to be saying that it is a purely defensive notion - one perhaps distorted and abused. While the Koran seems to indicate that Jihad is a merit for those who fight for the expansion of the faith, it is however incumbent upon all Muslims to defend Islam once it has been attacked. Defensive of Islam however, can be construed so elastically that there is little to stop one who wishes to justify violence.

Given this therefore, and the historical weight of orthodox exegesis of Jihad; the Koran’s evident comfort with violence and apocalyptic imagery; and of course, Muhammad’s warlike example; killing innocent civilians - which are of no direct threat to any Muslim - yes, innocent civilians - let us not euphemise the matter - is, within Islam, simply a non issue.

This last point is important. For Wright, appears to be in the fog of moral bewilderment rendering him incapable of making basic moral distinctions. His tone and reporting of Shahzad, suggests that he sees no significant moral difference between American and British troops; soldiers who wear identifiable uniforms and conduct operations against militants - not women and children; who seek to minimize civilian casualties as best possible, though there are of course mistakes. When mistakes occur however, there are inquests, hearings and apologies. Does any of the above, which can be effortlessly expanded, apply to likes of Bin Laden, Zarqawi (remember him?) Muhammad Atta or Faisal Shahzad? No. These men are not even in the same moral universe.

No doubt, there are good arguments against the war in Afghanistan; the conduct of that war, or the need for its continuation. It is however a disgrace, that Wright legitimises Faisal Shahzad and his toxic ideology. While it is true that these wars have contributed to Muslim anger and resentment it should be pointed out that until 9/11 most Americas were not remotely aware of Bin Laden, Jihad or even the history and tenets of Islam. It is only after 9/11 -after America was attacked (and not for the first time) with the subsequent US and Western (re)-action that any credence can be given to America waging war on Islam. Justifiably, there is plenty of people in the world who could be angry at America and the West. There are plenty of starving and disposed, which we are either indirectly responsible for or are obligated to help. Little of this appears to apply to Islam. It suffered far less consequences of European colonialism compared to Africa or South America. America meanwhile has participated and supported four armed conflicts in the last thirty years in defence of Muslim people; have furthermore contributed millions in oversees aid and has tirelessly attempted to broker peace in Palestine; don’t forget meanwhile, the millions of Muslim immigrants that were and still are being welcomed in Western countries.

Bin Laden, we should remember was a multi-millionaire, he could have lived a life of luxury on the French Riviera, or could have spent his endowment peacefully helping Palestinians with food and medical supplies - or any other charitably endeavours. But no, Bin Laden and countless other men who often possess great intelligence, university educations and with no sign of mental distress or personal malaise - choose to live in caves, fight in wars thousands of miles away or detonate themselves in trains, planes and western nightclubs.

Many - political scientists and sociologists, from journalists to politicians to religious moderates will all attempt to resist the obvious yet “reductionist” conclusion - the common denominator that is a set of beliefs laid down in the 7th century and subsequently fossilised into the minds of millions. Beliefs - about the sanctity of violence - the metaphysics of martyrdom and the glory of the Caliphate. As the chapter in Malise Ruthven’s book Islam in the World Shows (see the chapter Spiritual Renewal pp-261) Islamic history is not only littered with Jihads but with individuals and groups who oppose any form of modernity and attempt to restore, usually with violence and intimidation, Islam to its purity. This is not therefore, a 20th century phenomenon. We are only “aware” of it because we are not only more self-aware of our beliefs but of our neighbours. There is, consequently, always going to be a significant group of men ready to do violence for faith - so long as Islamic ideas are held in good stead. It is therefore a totally circular and morally incompetent argument to mount, as Wright does, that the cause of terrorism is the resistance to it:

But as a practical matter, taking any of these issues off the table weakens the jihadist recruiting pitch. (Different potential recruits, after all, are sensitive to different issues.) And if we could take the Afghanistan war off the table, that would be a big one.For now my main point is that war-on-terror hawks need to confront the downsides, rather than act as if establishing the role of “jihadi intent” or “jihadist ideology” somehow ends the debate. They need to seriously ask whether the policies they favor have, while killing terrorists abroad, created terrorists both abroad and — more disturbingly — at home.

It’s a temptation we all have to fight. Maybe if we fought it as hard as we fight other enemies, we’d have fewer of them. (on our tendency to think even in terms of enemies in the first place.)

This is his last word, and it is about us and our mistakes. Not only is the thinking that there is some (some?) incompatibility between Western liberalism and Islam in principal mistaken but that the fact that we even conceive of thinking about differences between people and between ideas, and that there may be significant moral differences between them - no - this kind of thinking is itself “the problem”.

The sad fact is that there are differences between beliefs and between people. These beliefs, in fact, turn out to be a matter of life and death. Wright, who seems incapable of either believing or conceiving of beliefs and intentions, so radically different from his own, does not appear to be at all worried (then again, why should he, given that he sees no differences.) - subsequently all will end well - just like the end of Communism - which conservatives “demonised” and thumped their chests over. Why did they do this? If we believe Wright - its all down to human cognitive bias and our tendencies to demonise the “other”. If its rooted in evolution, its reasonable to ask, is it not, that emotions like fear, and thoughts of suspicion - did not serve some utility and perhaps, still do?

Just so stories aside, we should remember that there was plenty of reasons to worry about Communism, which Wright in the article slurs over; additionally we may laugh now at the “domino theory” of Communist expansion but that is only from the safety of posterity. Finally, Wright’s analogy between the fall of communism as a solution to Islam is embarrassingly superficial - Wright seems to imply that some day in the future - Muslims will spontaneously wake up and shatter the walls of fundamentalism. A moment of brief historical reflection, however, will reveal that compared to the tensions and conflicts between Christianity, the West and Islam, the less than a century spat between Liberalism and Communism - was nothing but a historical footnote. What is desperately needed here is some clear thinking as opposed to wishful thinking if we to understand and resolve the problem with Islam. Wright however, sadly displays much of the latter without showing a correspondent ability for the former.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

What is a philosopher?

You would think that we could not define a philosopher before defining the subject itself. This I think, is mistaken, for one can be a philosopher about anything, thus I explain everything and nothing. Yet, paradoxically, many claim, not least philosophers themselves that they have no special subject - that they are parasitic upon others - science, history or law for example. Nonetheless, the kinds of questions that are asked, and answers that are provided - are very different to the answers and concerns of the parent subjects studied. Philosophers of science are not scientists (though many are), they are not engaging in science. So what do they do?

Therein lies the clue. Philosophy, I would assert is an activity, an attitude and a method of inquiry. It inquires into the thinking of thinking. So, where science studies objects (animals, chemicals, particles for instance) and seeks to understand how they work or what they do, Philosophers meanwhile think about how scientists think about such objects of inquiry and the assumptions implicit therein and the theories which follow from such inquiry. Subsequently philosophers attempt to determine the validity and soundness of such inquiries. To put it succinctly, philosophy is the questioning of assumptions - the assumptions that others -scientists, historians and theologians function by. Historically, or at least since Descartes, the goal of philosophy seemed to strive for indubitable foundations for the sciences and all knowledge. A perhaps more modern aim is to provide a coherent explanation and justification of our thinking and beliefs. They may suggest therefore, that philosophers are merely engaged in micro trivia, who simply fret about little problems that are of little concern to anyone. This of course overstates the issue -why therefore has philosophy been one of the oldest of intellectual subjects - if not the oldest. One that still grips all minds on some level and engages serious thinkers aswell.

Subsequently, others may take a more heroic view, arguing that while in many ways they do rely on other disciplines for input, philosophy does offer substantive truths, and that they do have a particular subject - truth or the overall nature of reality. Traditionally, philosophers were seen with asking three questions:

1. What is true?

2. What is good?

3. What is beauty?

The third question seems somewhat effete now, we could replace it with:

3. How do we know what is true and good?

This question (3) has more of an epistemological flavour to it. While the first two questions should be seeded to other subjects, philosophers should still rightly ask how do they know that, what justifies that. This sounds negative, an attitude that many associate with modern analytic philosophy -that its teaches people “only” to be “bullshit detectors”. Now, when we ask how do they know such and such or is such and such justified - what we are asking for is a rationally coherent answer. This is believe is the answer: philosophy seeks to know truth and the good by rational means, means that any rational or objective person would assent to.

This suggest two things: firstly, that philosophers do have a subject - rationality and applying rationality to other disciplines; secondly this would suggest that the fruits of philosophic investigation can affect the epistemic practice and ontological status of other subjects. While it is true, that philosophy does not provide us with ground level facts the way other subjects do, it nonetheless can potentially bracket them, systematise and harmonise them into a rational coherent order or indeed otherwise. Philosophy can draw a line through or place question marks beside the ontological claims of science, history and religion. Many thinkers of these subject at times have tended to react negatively at this conclusion, their superficial dismissal of the subject will not do: to dismiss philosophy by say scientific positivism or religious fideism is itself to make covert philosophic claims and are inherently self-defeating. While this is true, it does not of course extend to the specific metaphysical doctrines of say realism or idealism.

What does it all mean? This could be the perennial motto of philosophy. To take two examples one from the philosophy of science the second from the philosophy of religion. Much debate in the philosophy of science, focuses on how we should understand and interpret the scientific endeavour. On what terrain this dispute settles on will affect how we bracket the facts, theories and methods that comprise the sciences. An instrumentalist view, sees science as good for making predictions about things in the world, that it is an indispensable incubator of technology. Posits such as electrons, quarks or neutrinos are simply useful fictions to explain the phenomena. A cousin to this would be to take a constructivist view: the theories we have are empirically adequate, objectively arrived at but only supposing certain background criteria and assumptions which may have more to do with our cognitive capacitates endowed by evolution than with any “real” correspondence with reality. Another view, a kind of realism may state that our theories are indeed corrigible and contingent, but they are the best theories, that purport to describe real phenomena in the world. Furthermore, to state that our scientific theories are useful fictions or construction needs to be seen as a first order claim, and as such may not be a accurate account of the endeavour - which may in fact be incoherent. However we ought to think about this, it does not seem likely that we could science itself to answer such questions (though of course they play a role). The overall structure and coherent account of the endeavour and of the ontological status and epistemic practice of science will have to come from philosophers.

The second example is to consider a long running dispute in philosophy of religion. In essence it boils down to this: does the fact of evolution disprove or undermine a belief in god. Many religious people claim yes, as do many atheists. Some state no, and quite a few atheist say no either. A philosopher would explore the issue by examining the beliefs of the different parties, exploring the implications of these beliefs and highlighting the conflicts and contradictions of these beliefs when conjoined. However, there are different beliefs (some of which may be more central or important than others) that can be modified or rejected, all resulting in different conclusions - or different epistemic maps of the ontological terrain. This however, is not relativism, for these conclusions themselves are going to have be scrutinised and many may hold unwelcome implications and tensions that may force revision or abandonment. A Christian may accept evolution but only at the cost of making difficult revisions to their religious beliefs. Likewise a Christian may reject evolution, and a lot of science and rational thinking to boot, or may simply reject evolution but a coherent explanation for doing so but one that is so convoluted and implausible that signals to others an embarrassment. In such situations like this one a philosopher is like an economist telling us what capital we have, what is needed for basic running of our business. He then lays out the options for cutting (what beliefs demand revision or abandonment)and the attendant consequences that follow such "cutting and harmonizing".

So, as these examples show philosophy can affect, first order disciplines and beliefs but it does so at much higher level. It does so mainly in the application of rational thought. So I would contend that philosophy is largely a matter of method, technique and application of concepts and rules. In true philosophic spirit however, these tools and methods themselves are disputed and critiqued by more basic and fundamental concepts. This endeavour is called the philosophy of philosophy.

Philosophy to summarise does thus:

1. To criticize: ideas, theories and practices, conceptual confusions and logical mistakes. In particular there is a focus on three areas: logical consistency, evidential superiority and practical efficacy.

2. To clarify: redefine questions, pose new ones, reject old ones. Draw distinctions, suggest meaning and significance.

3. Coherence: to provide systematic coherence and explanation. To achieve consistency, coherence and rational order.

4. Collaborative To learn from and engage with scientists, historians, psychologists and sociologists and all other intellectuals.

One might, in fact, define philosophy as the rational systematization of our thoughts, on basic issues - of the “basic principles” of our understanding of the world and our place in it. We become involved in philosophy in our endeavour to make systemic sense of the extra philosophical “fact” - when we try to answer those big question by systematizing what we think we know about the world, pushing our “knowledge” to its ultimate conclusions and combining items usually kept in convenient separation. Philosophy polices our thought, as it were, as the agent for maintaining law and order in our cognitive endeavours.” - Nicholas Rescher

Friday, 2 July 2010

To know less and less about more and more.

The alternative title of this post was going to be what have your changed your mind about and why? However, within the last year I would have to confess that I have not changed by mind in any great or profound way. This does mean that there has been no enlargement or evolution of what I think or why I think it. No. In fact, it has been a great year. Before going to university, I spent a good deal of time reading and thinking, it was slight in comparison however to what was to come. This is not to say that I found what I was studying large or taxing - most of the time I was off doing my own thing and had great fun doing so.

I think the correct assessment of this year is what could be called the Socratic definition of intelligence: that the mark of an educated man is to know the extent of his own ignorance, to know that is: less and less about more and more. Taking in the new five story library at Queens, with its thousands of books on philosophy, history and politics, one simultaneously feels unnerved at how little reading and understanding one possesses - while wishing to read to correct this limitation with all the hours that god sends. An example I fondly remember, was when I pulled Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word from the shelf. I sat down intending only to scan the book. However, so impressed and inspired by Nagel’s thought and elegance in writing that I sat in the chair for the next three hours and finished the book, even re-reading sections of it again to fully capture the message.

The lucky irony, is while this year I fully and deeply fell for the questions and problems of philosophy, it was not at first to be so. The degree that I had originally chosen to do was International Studies - similar to Politics (Political Science) with only a more internationalist flavour. Last summer however, after reading and re-reading Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Durant’s Story of Philosophy, the subject was something of an itch that could not be scratched. The problem was further compounded by reading Julian Baggini’s introductory aids to the subject (which I thoroughly recommend) - The Philosophers Toolkit and The Ethics Toolkit. These books, while designed to explain the conceptual tools, methods and arguments a philosopher uses, and as such might be considered dry and uninteresting - to me, on the contrary - it is rather the quest for precision, clarity and exactness that this book purports to help instil in the beginner that makes me value philosophy so.

Subsequently then, a week before term began I switched to a joint honours between politics and philosophy. By Christmas, my desire to pursue philosophy near full time was almost complete. By the years end I had decided to change my degree: major in philosophy and a minor in politics. The minor subjects of politics can be made up by studying political theory, so I still remain within the bounds of philosophy generally. Thus, I was lucky to have changed when I did, for it made all the difference between fully engaging in what I was doing instead of slowly losing the will to live. Indeed, as luck would have it, I more or less did (in subject material terms) a major/minor instead of a joint this year anyway. I have only had to do two full blown political science courses (instead of say three). One subject included in the politics course - Perspectives on Politics was political philosophy. This module, I enjoyed the most. It was charismatically taught by the lecturer - which always helps; the module was put together in a coherent and systematic fashion, unlike unfortunately, some others.

As you would expect the module introduced the key disputes within the subject. However, one in particular gripped me. It was the dispute namely between what can be called communitarian and liberal theories of justice. Though in fact, this does not really do justice (as it were) to the issue, as it is a debate that crosses over several interdisciplinary lines, never mind several distinct and overlapping areas in moral and political philosophy - not to mention the metaphysics of identity.

Initially, my first reaction to communitarian thought was one of indifference and dislike. I saw it as an apologists work for authoritarianism and obscurantism. However, I knew that this attitude was unjustified without careful consideration of the argument. So I pressed ahead and read twice Alistair Macintyre’s After Justice. Though I disagree much with what he thinks, I came to believe that something had been missed from debates within moral philosophy about the role of character, virtue and dispositions. Though I should stress, that this interest was stimulated by moral psychologists as much as by philosophers. The modern Liberal view - encapsulated by John Rawls is not necessarily opposed to communitarian thought in fact there are many points of agreement. The real disagreement is between what could be considered the extremes of libertarian thinking both the left and the right. Much of the year I spent thinking about a rapprochement between the two positions.

While I think that Rawls basic paradigm of distributive justice is sound, it builds a foundation upon which many questions remain, which could be asked and answered by number of different systems of thought - some of which might not be considered liberal. There is however some evidence to suggest that in terms of wellbeing and human flourishing - the communitarians may be right. This however needs to be cashed out in ways that avoid the standard criticisms that could dog it - its potential illiberalness, its insularity and obfuscation. I hope to develop some of my views on this over the summer in order to deliver a talk next year, as I happened to become vice president of Queens Philosophy Society. So I should say a few words about that.

The society intends to do a number of things, not least interviews with the staff modelled on the interviews that Bryan Magee undertook with several key contemporary philosophers concerning the greats. We also plan to do a medieval style dispute, which I think will be enormous fun, along with conferences and other things. The good thing about this is that it allows for the opportunity to meet people and argue and develop and refine ones views - something which is a necessary factor to this subject.

A lot of philosophy in my first semester was taken up by continental thought. It is this style of philosophy next to the Greeks that people probably most associate (negatively) philosophy with. This style of thought was well described by one lecturer (quoting Ricœur) that it was the “philosophy of suspicion”. We looked at Nietzsche and the Existentialists, a little Hegel and some Marx - thankfully no Freud (he was cancelled).

While I have to admit that I expected to intensely dislike this, it was not all bad, Nietzsche in particular, while I do not agree with him, he is worthy of study and refutation - he is one of those philosophers who will always be a challenge. As for the rest, some of what thinkers like Nietzsche, Sartre and Foucault thought - are, surprising interesting, I think however that it has been said better, earlier and with less pretence and obfuscation.

The subject of ethics has only really be considered in the last few months. Namely in the way of practical ethics (the subject and the book by Peter Singer). Much of this, I have to confess is a straightforward refutation of (which Singer himself admits) religious dogma that had been preserved into a secular context by the help of Kant and some other unthinking human prejudices. Much of my interest in ethics either stems from thinking about political problems or engaging with the information flowing from the mind and life sciences, much of contemporary philosophical ethics in comparison seems vapid, though I suspect this will change.

A far greater interest and itch that I developed was over epistemology. I have always been interested in procedures, methods and what counts as evidence. So, it was to be expected that I would find the subject interesting. Again ironically, or perhaps because of this I have tried to explore epistemology in ways that are socially relevant. My term for this - everyday epistemology is concerned with rational rules of belief acceptance. How to assess, judge, accept or reject sources and the reliable rules and methods which govern this, all in the field of religion, politics and ethics. Three subjects that generate great conflict and division. Much of which I believe, as Russell said - require clarity and coolness and clear thinking.

Early on I seemed to gravitate away from the concerns of traditional epistemology which perhaps have been characterised nearly all epistemologists since Descartes. I did not find the Cartesian project interesting, nor much of the work of Ayer or Russell. Popper has some very interesting things to say but is more engaged with philosophy of science (a topic I have tried to steer clear from this year) but, I became almost by accident very much interested in the ideas of one Nicholas Rescher. A prolific American philosopher (over nearly a hundred books) a truly systematic thinker (pragmatic idealism) and someone who has seems to have thought about everything and in in the process has built up a truly comprehensive system of rational inquiry and thought.

The ideas of Quine and one of his students (Penelope Maddy Second Philosophy) were and still are being absorbed and thought about. This, together with Rescher is an epistemology that is rational and objective; empiricist and practical; confident and realist while still fallible - willing to role up the sleeves as it were and get down to work. It is this truly pragmatic character - an epistemology friendly to science and interested in real problems -not the airy, abstract and effete worries of the problems of scepticism that trouble so many. Though, one must ask - how much of this is a temperamental thing rather than philosophic?

Then, finally, we come to religion. That subject that has engaged me these last three years, and whose study and consideration lead me to university in the first place. Well on one level, it was its swan song -its philosophic one anyway. Well, what do you expect when you read David Hume?

Hume who the spoof philosophical lexicon has as meaning: “To commit to the flames, bury, or otherwise destroy a philosophical position, as in "That theory was humed in the 1920s."

Hume the great infidel has probably mounted the most severest assault on the intellectual foundations of religion. While I was quite familiar (from other writers) about his arguments against design and miracles, I found when reading him directly that many ideas I had about the subjects (criticising the design argument) that I thought original - no chance - Hume had it down first. However, what was most striking this year surprising was his argument from evil. This argument, which I have long considered a theological problem and thus not especially interesting, was in the hands of Hume to prove devastating to the theistic project.

The further irony, a happy one, was that I had the good fortune to have as tutor not only a deeply religious observer but a deeply serious philosopher. A fine example that you should never judge by appearances. My first impression - a lazy metaller PHD student - turned out to be something quite different. Indefatigable in argument, prodigious in output, almost preternaturally self-assured and seems to have read and considered everything from early Christian history to German philosophy (in German) as comfortable talking about Russell’s Principia Mathmatica to Chomsky’s assault on the behaviourist language thesis, to questions about the idea that non-human animals do not have natural languages. The long hours of dispute and conversation provided ample proof of Hitchens’ notion that one of the conditions of light is heat - that argument and disagreement are necessarily for progress and insight. But I have an insight of my own, in order to learn, you should learn not only learn from people you disagree with but spend as much time as possible with them. The great thing about having a tutor like that is that your own ignorance and inconsistency is quickly exposed. You quickly learn two vital things - know what you going to say and why before you say it; secondly, admit to owning up to things you know nothing about.

As of now, I am taking a break from philosophy (kind of) looking at Islamic history, the brain, and philosophy of history as well as history in general. I will have a few months of reading, and summer indulgences before starting my second year, where I hope to redouble my efforts in politics and philosophy. While acknowledging that people have their own project and passions many of which are more worthy of respect than mine - I can agree with Aristotle that the good life (for me) is the philosophic life, the life of reflection and inquiry.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Strange Cases.

Within a day of each other I have seen two very silly and misinformed pieces: one an essay from Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum the other from Guardian blogger Andrew Brown.

I will begin with Brown first. I struggle to see why the guardian lets him write anything, not least religion, atheism or science, for anything the man seems to write is nothing but tendentious tosh bordering on slander. For those of you who are interested this was the blog I posted when he severely misrepresented Sam Harris and his position on Torture. As such we should not take him seriously on anything again:

He appears to be back at it, this time on another attack on Richard Dawkins.

Here is a question that Brown quotes from a website, a mother asking Dawkins for his view:

"What would you say to parents of children who attend quite orthodox state-funded schools who are very anxious that their child be educated within that context? I am thinking specifically of the ortho-Jewish schools around my way (north London). I know for a fact a lot of these parents cannot countenance the idea of their child being educated within a non-Jewish school. What do you think they should do?"

To which he responded

"That's a good point. I believe this is putting parental rights above children's rights.”

To this Brown has this to say:

“It is impossible to read this as meaning anything but that children have a right to be educated as Richard Dawkins thinks fit, but not as their parents do. He alluded several times in the threat to the sufferings of atheist parents forced to send their children to faith schools:”


“But apparently this doesn't apply if your principles are religious ones, because then your children have a right to be educated as atheists.”

It hard to read to this and not see how wayward Brown’s thinking is. I’m starting to believe that Brown has nothing but inexplicable animosity toward Dawkins and the “new Atheists”. Brown portrays Dawkins as the grand inquisitor, a ogre wishing to snatch children away from their parents and brainwash them into science and clear thinking. Is Brown not aware that Dawkins actually advocates teaching religion. Teaching it however, in way that best allows children to make up their own minds. Now as Brown rightly points out critical thinking (something he should learn about) does take time and may only be able to be learned by older children. This however does not mean that 1. Children and young as six can understand the multitude of religions both present and past, the fact that what religion people happen to belong to is contingent upon geography and accidents of birth. 2. They can understand the basic tenets and incompatibility between them.

Later on as children are older, they can approach religion critically, in a secular school, they are more likely to be in contact with pupils who hold a plurality of views, thus providing a environment for criticism and debate. Furthermore, lets imagine how such a class may be structured. Dan Dennett, Dawkins’s ally has stated something like lets teach all religions, their history, good and bad; their doctrines, the criticisms made against them and the defence of them. He states that if people teach their children this, then they should be able to teach them whatever they want.

Hardly a dogmatic absurd proposal?

Brown then goes on to talk about Dawkins starting with the Axiom that religion has no evidence for god. Eh? Is this not the same man who spent the first half of the God Delusion criticizing the arguments for God’s existence?

Brown here makes a very basic error. An Axiom is something that is either self-evident or absurd to deny - a belief or proposition that cannot itself be proved. Dawkins does not hold this position, rather he operates on a presumption that there is (no good) evidence for the existence of god. This presumption is entirely warranted on his part as he wrote a rather large book on the subject, debated several theologians and religious scientists. Whatever you think of him, he has earned his views.

Ron Rosenbaum has written a essay so fallacious one consider that it must be some kind of hoax. However, when one here that he recently been to a Templeton meeting one considers that he may off been obliged to something nasty about atheists if not something nice about religion. This nonsense just requires a straightforward case of fisking.

1. “It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.”

Firstly, Atheism - or the “new atheists” do not proclaim certainty in the denial of god or indeed the gods of Olympus. Name me one who does? If anyone does and I had any money I would give them every cent I had.

The second issue here, is that he himself takes up would could be construed as a dogmatic position. Similar to the scepticism seen in Sextus Empiricus. The problem here is that this form of radical scepticism is likely, if undefended, to be just as dogmatic as the positions he attempts to criticise unlike the radical Sceptics who did know a thing or two about arguments.

Thirdly. There are two kinds of agnosticism, that he neglects to mention. Permanent agnosticism in Principle( PAP). Or Temporary Agnosticism in Principle TAP. The second position is entirely reasonable, one that any inquirer should hold at the start of inquiry “I don’t know what to think as there is quite a bit of disagreement in this area - come back in a year and ill give you my view”.

The first position PAP. Is actually giving what can be called a no argument argument. Here he is (apparently) claiming that there is no argument, that could settle the issue either way, so therefore we must be agnostics. This position seems incoherent on its face with the assertion that he is a radical sceptic (does he doubt gravity as well?) furthermore this is a rather strong and extraordinary argument that needs a good deal of support? So, where is his evidence for such a claim?

2. “I would not go so far as to argue that there's a "new agnosticism" on the rise. But I think it's time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists. Indeed agnostics see atheism as "a theism"—as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety.”

If they do then it would appear that they deserve the title the “new idiots”. Again, another canard, where is the holy book, the profession of faith, the church to be attended every day (or every other day) where is this religion then?

3. Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)

I have disposed of the certainty and faith canard? Can he name a single scientist who claims, for absolute certainty that they know all the answers to the mysteries of the universe? While it is true that there are some scientist who do think we can, in the future will be able to answer most of our questions, none of them appear to offer certainty in their answers. However, many scientists and secular philosophers believe there are many answers we will never get, that gaps in our knowledge is something we will all have to live with. Hardly an orthodoxy then.

4. Atheists have no evidence—and certainly no proof!—that science will ever solve the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Just because other difficult-seeming problems have been solved does not mean all difficult problems will always be solved. And so atheists really exist on the same superstitious plane as Aquinas.

This is a mistake a school boy would not even make. He is conflating Atheism and science, and certain answers given by scientists to this question as representing some kind of atheist orthodoxy.

5. In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I can't wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

PZ Meyers has given answers to what scientist think of this question. I suspect the question itself is incoherent. Well here is what I think: why does there have to be anything in the first place? Why not nothing rather than something? Any framing of the question will never lead a priori to the self-evident conclusion that there is a god, with a plan and a purpose.

Will you can read the rest for yourself - air headed nonsense - all of it. If I ever met this man I would ask him if he is agnostics about Zeus or about Witchcraft or about Creationism



Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The moral bankruptcy of religion

One of my very first posts on this blog involved the odious and equally idiotic Iris Robinson: former member of the fundamentalist and fundamentally noxious Democratic Unionist Party. I wrote about her views on homosexuality - arguing that, while being perfectly compatible with scripture there were other biblical recommendations she might have liked to mention - slavery for one, killing heretics another, or even - alas - the punishment for adultery - yep death again. In fairness, we could acquit her of bigotry only on the conviction of idiocy. Developments in the time since, however, force me to revise this assessment: not only is Iris guilty of moral midgetry but also of breathtaking moral hypocrisy.

Her “sin” was to seduce and sleep with a teenager; a boy, old enough to be her grandson. Now, I would contend that this tryst is not especially interesting, nor indeed, seriously wrong. Though the affair would have received similar attention had it happened to any politician or public figure; it was, however, her earlier actions - as a votary of God’s good works that made this revelation something of a schadenfreude moment. While her affair was a straightforward case of hypocrisy, from what I gather, she was fucking him around the same time as she was calling homosexuality “vile” “immoral” and in need of medical intervention. When the story broke, it was Iris however who needed the psychiatrist; though if one were not overly cynical, one would think that all that was needed was “forgiveness” and the grace of god.

What is more dubious, and more important is the possibility that Iris had manipulated the young man in order to obtain money for her own private purposes. This would elevate the affair and Iris Robinson from a woman brought down by earthly passion, to more sinister case of sexual predation for financial gain. Not only has Iris suffered the political consequences - psychological ones as well, her husband, Peter Robinson, has been made to feel the electoral lash as well for he too has some questions to answer over possible financial malfeasance. It seems no surprise to learn meanwhile, that the people of Northern Ireland have dubbed them: “Swish family Robinson”.

The lessons from this are obvious when we regard religion: it does not make people better, but in invariably makes them worse; in this case - quick to persecute, fulminate and pontificate, while ignoring the large specks in their own discriminating, deluded and woefully myopic Iris. That religion, in order to avoid embarrassingly displays of emptiness, shrillness and hypocrisy should shun politics and public life and tend its own garden - that is, it should preach and practice in quiet.

Even this last thought may need to be revised - that we should aim to shunt religion off into some quiet corner when we come to consider what is surely one of the greatest scandals in history. A scandal - one intensified in the last year - a disgrace, institutionalised and subsequently covered up by a religious organisation; occurring not just in one country or even one continent - but a truly worldwide phenomenon - a grizzly testament to religion’s claim and indeed - proof of its boastful universality. I am of course, speaking of the Catholic child rape scandal.

While it should not be necessary to point out that nothing in the Church’s teaching or its doctrines could ever justify such actions (the same alas cannot be claimed for another monotheism which I’m coming to shortly), it is impossible however to deny that this decades long racket of paedophilia and corruption is a direct consequence of the Church’s cleaving to power; its enforced secrecy; its belief that it is a law onto itself. Even the current Pope - Herr Ratzinger, has himself been implicated in the cover up of Priests guilty of abuse. The reason seems, to be nothing so “gross” or material - so human and man made as the need to protect its earthly power and prestige, to prevent the disfiguring of good name of the Church, to maintain its craven desire to survive at any cost - and of course - not to give ammunition to its enemies: the “Jews and atheists”.

The Church’s record on human rights - or if you like - its record breaking success in promotion and propagation of human suffering - forces upon us the conclusion, that there is no other organisation, religion or institution whose sole purpose self-evidently seems to be the accumulation of power, the retention of authority in all aspects of life with the purpose of propagating abject misery, delusion and division - especially to the poorest and the most venerable.

As parlous as the Catholic Church is, it appears to be in a running battle and indeed, what ever its misdeeds, appears to be losing the title of greatest enemy of civilization to Islam. The problem with Islam does not need to be stated in terms of the clash with the west. No. The first thing to say is that it is Muslims men and women themselves who suffer most under the totalitarian shadow of the Koran. Hardly a day passes, when another Mosque has been bombed with a fresh score (at least) of dead Muslims littering the prayers halls. Last Christmas, to take one example from many - it would appear that a fanatic was so incensed by a volleyball match that he unmade himself and fellow co-religionists with a bomb strapped to his body. Not to mention the persistent and flagrant abuse of its women with the constant trickle of reports of beatings, honour killings and rapes.

All of this, is Muslim on Muslim violence. While there is much made of Western humiliation of Islam, or the damage done to Muslim minds and Muslim societies by for instance the civilian death toll from Iraq or the pictures of Abu Graib. This is, of course, true and important. This thesis however (that pain and anger have been caused by the West) can be swallowed whole, while simultaneously admitting that the biggest cause of humiliation and the greatest damage done to Islamic societies is the contents of the Koran and the details of Sharia law itself.

The depressing and absurd conclusion however is that much of this is simply slurred over, denied or explained away. Blandishments like “all religion has its fanatics” “ we need to address the educational and economic factors of this malaise” “we should not blame an entire religion on the actions of a small minority of its members” “ we need to remember all the good that religion does”. All of the these statements could apply equally to the Catholic Church as well as Islam, though I could modify the first statement by saying: “all religions have its paedophiles” - though in the case of Islam following the example of its beloved prophet - thinks it perfectly acceptable that grown men should marry and enjoy full “conjugal” relations with girls as young as nine. Maybe the only difference is that Catholicism keeps its child rapes secret - while Islam boasts of it - that you tell you something at least about the “clash of civilisations.”

It is time we ended the dogma that there is such a thing as freedom of belief or respect for beliefs that have nothing supporting them but ignorance and tradition, either a belief is supported by the evidence or it is not, if it is not then it should be abandoned. Religious belief has the same ontological status as fairies, ghosts and goblins. Its books belong to the same shelf as the Odyssey; Arabian Nights; or the Lord of the Rings. People are killing and dying in the name of nothing. Organizing their lives around a fiction. Religious moderates, condescending secularists and liberals are all engaged in the ponzi scheme that religion is useful and necessary for the uneducated and the unwell. The results of this Faustian bargain with faith meanwhile are bodies piled higher than the sun, the slavery of many millions of women, the relentless demonising of Jews and homosexuals and the abandonment of children to religious demagoguery and sexual predation.

Truly, God loves his children.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Rational Incrementalism

In my last post I was considering scepticism and the certainty of knowledge. I signalled at end that I would discuss a term I had coined: Rational Incrementalism. Though what I propose here is nothing new, nor is it some new way of thinking about knowledge and certainty, it is rather, a organising structure - a kind of conceptual map. A map that we can compare theories and propositions to. I am, mostly, considering scientific theories here, however in a later post, I will consider its application outside of the sciences.

Modern science as opposed to theology or certain non empirical strands of philosophy acquires knowledge in piecemeal form. It builds up a picture of the world in fits and starts, gradually or - incrementally. Theology, makes grand claims to knowledge on the basis of a few dogmatically held positions; it can then happily and whimsically build elaborate and ornate systems of belief based on these suppositions; should though, one supposed foundation be found wrong or invalid - then the whole edifice comes crashing down. Some might argue that science is similar: “a ugly fact can kill a theory”, indeed, but science in making more piecemeal claims seeks to find a number of coherent, mutually supportable beliefs (or theories) with attendant facts and evidence. Though a fact can kill a theory, more often than not it is assimilated into the existing paradigm or theory, thereby enriching, expanding or modifying our understanding.

What I will outline is the conceptual terrain that a theory may pass through before we can say, with sufficient certainty, that it can count as knowledge, or, at the very least, having a high probabilty of being correct.To capture the progress in a metaphor - our understanding of the world according to this paradigm - progress like a person on a escalator. They start out at the bottom -yet gradually, incrementally, they get lifted higher and higher - they “see” more, they understand more, as their experience of the world increases. Furthermore, by proceeding cautiously and methodically they do not greatly risk falling over, or the ground giving way under them. They do not make one big improbable “leap” to knowledge - loudly proclaiming truth - no; whatever claims a scientist, generally makes, are the result of careful laborious research and painstaking years of study. The theory progress via six stages: 1. Idea. 2. Speculation. 3. Hypothesis. 4. Theory. 5. Error theory. 6. Scientific explanation or scientifically established theory.

1. Idea

Firstly, before there is any theory, before any hypothesis can be tested, there must first be ideas or possibilities. This is perhaps, where a creative aspect to science and philosophy comes in. I should define an idea as merely a possibility: that, which does not have any evidence for it either way. Ideas can be conceived in two main ways. Firstly, they can be conceived in what could be termed an “a priori” position. Thus, the thinker knows no important facts or circumstances upon which he is thinking about - he thinks up ideas and thereby seeks evidence to confirm or disconfirm his idea. The second kind of idea - one studies a body of evidence or set of circumstances - after which the thinker/scientist/philosopher attempts to conceive a theory which explains these facts - this, is post facto style of explanation; one needs to be careful however - that they do not yarn a JUST SO STORY. There first kind of idea is, what I shall term hypothetical ideas, the latter being explainer ideas.

2. Speculation.

Now we have our idea. We either have an idea that will attempt to explain what we have seen or experienced (explainer ideas) or we will attempt to make the evidence fit our burgeoning theory (hypothetical ideas). Either way, what we must do now is test our idea or concept. Except in some cases, perhaps in the nitty gritty sciences of molecular biology or astrophysics -we can do a lot of preliminary testing from our armchairs. We look to see if there are any reasons or evidence in support of our supposition, or indeed, reasons that would seriously count against it. If we can see something that could drastically kill the idea (falsify - make highly improbable, or indeed if it’s highly improbable in the first place -thus not worth pursuing) - then we are back to the drawing board, if not then we advance to step three

3. Hypothesis.

We now have tested our concept in a purely informal and largely unscientific way, indeed a lot of the work up until now concerns language and concepts and armchair reasoning. Questons like, what do we mean? What would prove or disprove it? What kinds of evidence am I looking for? Is what I am talking about coherent with what we already know? Is it internally consistent? Now however, it is time for philosophy to give way to science. We have hammered out a concept or proposition to test; the aim, being either to provide verification of our hypothesis, or falsification. If our experiment goes well, and it is repeated with success - peer reviewed satisfactorily and so on - then we are on to stage four.

4. Theory.

We now have a theory, perhaps a new one, or a competing one or new alternate theory which explains some phenomena. The important thing however to note, is that the new theory is only one among many; subsequently, it will have to compete against these other theories, and at the same time answer any potential criticisms before it can be respected as an established theory. The reason being, that, for any body of data we can have multiple interpretations or theories. Our new theory then, is just a new kid on the block: out to “prove itself” - why it’s a better theory than the others on the “free-market of ideas”. Though the new theory has some empirical support - it is far from conclusive; the next goal then, is to point out why the alternate explanations are wrong or that the objections are misguided or misinformed.

5. Error Theory.

Strictly speaking, a new theory does not always call for an error theory. It’s possible that something original has been discovered that does not appear to supersede or refute an existing theory. This is not always so however, as the case of Darwin and Einstein showed. What an error theory purports to show, is why we were wrong to think the former theory was correct. It many ways, this is a powerful and important philosophical tool; it, in effect, performs a Ju-Jitsu move on the opposition - using the force of the opponents argument against them. An Error theory, then, needs to explain coherently why the originally theory or belief was mistakenly held in the first place. I should note, though, that an error theory needs to be deployed after some positive evidence has been produced for a new theory which explains the facts; as anyone can do an error theory for anything established - but its useless if they do not provide in the old theory’s place an explanation of the phenomena.

6. Scientific theory or established theory.

Finally, the theory is ready to be considered a fully established, scientific theory. It has considerable explanatory power - better than any other theory. It demonstrates a high degree of consistency with the evidence; it leaves no ambiguities or unexplained problems; additionally, it coheres with what we already know to be true; furthermore, it is simple: it does not rely on obscure, largely unproven, or implausible assumptions; lastly, and perhaps, most importantly - it is testable - with a large body of experimental data to back up its claims.

Putting theory into practice - where the rubber meets the road.

Lets now compare this conceptual map to say - Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Darwin it should be noted, was not the first person to conceive of evolution: a number of Greek philosophers noted its possibility - they did not, however, test it or provide evidence for it - so it remained merely an idea. Darwin’s Grandfather, Erasmus, understood its possibility. There was, in addition, a small number of other thinkers, who, before Charles Darwin, explored the possibility - with some references to artificial selection . It could be said however, that their ideas were speculation - they had some evidential support, but it lacked scope and sufficient rigour.

Darwin provided the hypothesis and the theory - alongside Alfred Russell Wallace. Darwin, after years of thinking and amassing evidence provided testable hypotheses, and a mechanism or means by which evolution unfolds: natural selection. Darwin could point to the fossil record and argue that lower forms evolve into more complex forms (by way of transitional fossils) - over great expanses of time. Indeed, the artificial selection, and hence - evolution - of dogs, pigeons and livestock; which subsequently, though well know, provided additional and highly persuasive evidence for the burgeoning and highly controversial theory of evolution.

Darwin and Wallace then, developed the theory ( evolution by natural selection) which promised enormous explanatory power, it was in its day - highly plausible and consistent with the evidence that was available. However, it could be argued that it was not until relatively recent times - that the last two features of our schema were provided for: an error theory and that Darwin’s theory became a fully established, and secure, scientific theory.

Many thinkers have provided reasons as to why we did not conceive of evolution sooner and why many have trouble grasping it, or rather - accepting it. If we set aside religious propaganda, and examine the factors which gave rise to movements like creationism - we will find - intuitively attractive, or seductive “reasons”, though entirely unsound, - why some “think” design so convincing and evolution so absurd.

Firstly, evolution requires a vast amount of time to work - the earth being only a few thousand years old - hence not enough time for the theory to work. This objection, which is still made today, was solved in Darwin’s own time, where the age of the earth was shown to be very old indeed. Humans who only live, if at best, for a few decades, subsequently - many cannot grasp deep geological time.

The second reason we have trouble with evolution is that we are a tool making species. Darwin’s theory, as Daniel Dennett notes: “is a strange inversion of reason…. You never see a pot making a pot maker, never see a spear making a spear maker…. Never see a car making a carmaker.” Darwin’s theory when presented to our common-sense intuitions - flat out nonsensical - it has it the wrong way round. It is only complex things which can create or design less complex things; but Darwin and scientists ever since, have shown time and again why, this is wrong.

Since Darwin wrote Origin of Species, there has been a number of scientific breakthroughs that have supported and extended his theory. Firstly, there was the discovery of genes - this solved the problem that vexed Darwin as to how the information from parent to child was passed, thus ensuring the preservation of information which allowed superior organisms to survive and reproduce. Secondly, with the advent of computer technology and complex mathematical algorithms - the theory of natural selection as a mechanism - can be tested, abit theoretically. Furthermore, after more than a hundred years of investigations, in biology, in palaeontology, bacteriology, epidemiology - Darwin’s theory, is, as Richard Dawkins affirms: “the only game in town”.


To sum up then, we can use this conceptual map or schema to assess on what point of the scale a theory or hypothesis rests on. Furthermore, we can see what work lies in front of us if we wish to establish an idea or theory as knowledge. Finally, this paradigm allows us to independently assess what degree of support a theory or explanation has in the scientific community - we can seek out and examine studies, experiments, books and experts - in order to determine how well established and respected a theory is.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

On Scepticism

Recently, I have been considering the uses, values and applications of scepticism. I will try to distinguish firstly, what I mean by the term scepticism. We ought to bare in mind the sharp and frequently misunderstood distinction between academic, philosophical or theoretical scepticism or Scepticism, and “applied” or “practical” scepticism. I shall briefly sketch the differing forms of this position, Finally, I will recommend some practical recommendations when applying sceptical thought to real life problems.

Consider academic scepticism: this can be taken to be either one of two positions. The first being that all knowledge claims are of equal merit: we cannot rationally distinguish any claims to knowledge - we hold all claims, or pretensions to certainty, as being equally probable. The second, is a more moderate position: any inference between fact and theory - then there is always a underdetermination of evidence. This means for example, that when I throw an apple up in the air - the established and empirically backed theory of gravity explains - why the apple falls to earth. It is possible however, to construct a consistent (though implausible) theory of why the scientists are wrong - that it is, instead, a invisible demon pushing the apple down.

I shall now outline the problems with this form of Scepticism (this will apply both to the stronger and weaker forms.) Given however, the persuasiveness of arguments produced by philosophers such as Hume, Russell and Quine, it would be reasonable to say that we can never be absolutely sure of any claims to knowledge, even gravity or claims involving mathematics (Quine). Though I broadly accept this argument; while subsequently rejecting however, the idea that all knowledge claims are equally probable or likely; I find, in the end, that this sort of Scepticism is next to useless; moreover, it allows people to be lazy, or worse, insincere - “you believe what you believe and I believe what I believe - in the end its all just opinion.”

This kind of Scepticism is useless, for, like Pyrrho - you end up with your head stuck in the ground, not knowing whether or not it’s a good idea to try and remove it. Secondly, this form of scepticism is self-defeating. Like the Marxist argument concerning super-structure or false consciousness - it can be boomeranged back against the opponent and vice versa - without any address to the substance of each other’s argument. Each person take up a position of complete scepticism against the other, thus - no progress is made. Next, the claim that one knows nothing or cannot know anything - is contradictory - for one cannot claim to know even that. Finally, the claim, though sound - that we can never have absolute certainty, leads moreover, to a non-sequitur if we say that there does not exist probabilistic degrees of certainty or rational expectation - that any claim to knowledge has a 50/50 probability. Bertrand Russell closed the door to this fallacy forever when he came up with the argument from ignorance: the celestial teapot. We can never be sure that there is a teapot orbiting the sun, or that there are fairies in the bottom of the garden - though we cannot disprove such things, there is scarcely a reason to believe that a china white teapots currently orbits space or that there are pixies playing in the garden.

Turing now to the more profitable uses of scepticism then, - keep in mind how one could, potentially, be wrong. Seek out then, alternative explanations and other possibilities, indeed, invite criticism and debate - to ensure that you have not fallen for the first explanation you have been presented or came up with. Be careful when judging claims that are outside of your field of expertise; furthermore, be mindful of the emotional reactions when you comes across an argument that contrasts with your position - that “extraordinary claims require extraordinarily evidence”; finally, beware the claims that seek to bolster self-esteem or attempt to flatter one sense of self.

Here are a few useful rules of thumb when using positive or practical scepticism. I draw some of them from Bertrand Russell’s essay on the values of scepticism.

1. When experts are agreed, the opposite claim cannot be held to be certain. 2. When they (the experts) are not certain - no opinion cannot be held to be certain by a non-expert. 3. When they hold that no sufficient ground exist for a view - the non-expert suspends judgment.

In addition to these guidelines, I would add the metaphor of a juror considering evidence in a court case. Imagine what would, in the circumstances of the case, consist of reasonable doubt - has, then, those doubts been met? Consider what evidence or arguments would force you to revise or abandon your conclusion? Attempt then, to seek these alternate explanations, possibilities and doubts out - if you do not find them, or if they are not persuasive - then maintain your position. Finally, ask yourself, are you being objective and dispassionate in your analysis and evaluation, or, are you being driven by emotion and prejudice.

This short primer then, should help us keep in mind the important and often forgotten distinction between philosophical and practical scepticism. Furthermore, the maxims outlined are useful rules to keep in mind when encountering strange and extraordinary claims - especially if they lie outside our normal range of experience and expertise. In addition to this short missive on rational thought, in my next blog, I will consider a gradient or structure where we can track our ever increasing certainty when considering a theory - the process I call Rational Incrementalism.