Liberty and Control

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 30th, 2008

Security guru Bruce Schneier has challenged the view that privacy and security are at loggerheads, suggesting the real debate is between liberty and control.

Schneier, security technologist and CTO of BT Counterpane, made the comments during a keynote address at the RSA Conference in London on Tuesday. He sees ubiquitous surveillance and measures such as identity cards tipping the balance towards the state, describing them as stepping stones towards a future where checks become less obtrusive while simultaneously more all-encompassing. The Register

Interesting view there and agrees with what I have said on this blog several times.

There was also a piece on the BBC about flat earth theory. How do you personally know the world is not flat (or flat)?

AC1

Advertising Campaign for … Atheism?!

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 23rd, 2008

Organisers of the campaign, which was launched yesterday, were seeking £5,500 to run adverts in London saying There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” on 30 buses for four weeks. By last night, individuals and organisations had pledged more than £47,900. The Guardian

This is an interesting case. On one hand, if religion can run adverts, why can’t atheists? But I immediately regret saying that since atheism is a very broad label that encompasses a range of ideas. I perhaps should have said the advert is promoting secular humanism. I also despise advertising because their underlying message is inherently illogical. This example illustrates advertising’s deception and to quote Nietzsche:

“Do this and that, refrain from this and that — and then you will be happy! And if you don’t…” […] I call it the original sin of reason, the immortal unreason. (Twilight)

The advertisement is effectively saying “Belief in God makes you worry, instead enjoy live (be happy)”. The assumption, which is so impudently praised, is happiness is a criterion of truth.

One positive thing is both sides of the debate seem supportive of the adverts since it will provoke people to think. This is a mature attitude but I fear over optimistic (that people can think). (An immature response to criticism was recently seen in Afghanistan where student was sentenced to 20 years in prison for campaigning on feminism (and against religious teaching).) On the bus adverts:

“I think people will ask themselves, ‘On what basis can they make that statement?” said Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain. “So it will get people thinking, so in that sense it can only be good.”

[…and…]

The Rev. Jenny Ellis, spirituality and discipleship officer for the Methodist Church, welcomed the ads.

“This campaign will be a good thing if it gets people to engage with the deepest questions of life,” she said. AP

Anti Citizen One

Would You Vote for Kierkegaard, Descartes, Kant, Hume?

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 23rd, 2008

I found a series of fictional advertisements in the style of political negative campaigning against various “candidates”. Most amusing.

Kierkegaard in ’08
Descartes Attack Ad
Down with Hume

AC1

Update: Found two more Kant related spoofs: Kant: The Motion Picture and Kant Book Review.

Review: The Real God (part 3)

Posted by on October 22nd, 2008

In this part of my review I wish to briefly explore Harries discussions on the postmodern view of language. He is attempting to describe the views of Anthony Freeman the postmodernist theologian who has ceased to believe in a supernatural or transcendent God – seeing Him rather as being a projection of human ideals. Much of postmodernism has its roots in relativism, subjectivism and a sort of late Wittgensteinian Philosophy of Language.

A simple exposition of this philosophy goes like this:

mind is a social reality and language a public phenomenon. We see mothers bending over their prams making noises at their babies. In due course the noises are reciprocated and come to be recognized as talk. Soon this talk becomes internalized as thought. But the talk is prior and public and this enters into the very soul of our thinking. Because language is a public possession, written texts are particularly important. How those texts are intepreted or read still depends very much on the interests and outlook of the readers and these in turn will reflect the ineterests and concerns already built into the language that we use to intepret the texts. If we say we want to find out what a particular text really means, we are stymied, for the language we used to interpet it ourselves is a given, which will shape how we read…

Harries, again somewhat suprisingly is not completely anti-pomo. He accepts a certain degree of interpretative and cognitive relativism. However he rejects total scepticism and abandonment of truth and meaning notions – correctly suggesting that such a position would dissolve philosophy into just one of many methods of literary criticism.

I would just add by means of a clarification that although language is public and in turn shapes our ways of thinking this should by no means be used to suggest that speech is thought, or that absence of speech indicates absence of thought. (I could write much more here on my theories of unthought-thoughts and vocal-thought-thinking-thoughts or about the conscious and unconscious but I will digress.)

I will finish with a quote from Anthony Freeman that illustrates what one may call a postmodern view of religion – it is this view which Harries is ultimately attempting to challenge with recourse to realist arguments.

“A false distinction within Christian doctrine itself between an essential core and a negotiable husk. In presenting the faith to this generation I am bound to be presenting a different faith from that which my forefathers presented. Not just a different interpretation of the same essential core, but a different faith. This is because there is no essence of inner core. The interpretation is not like taking the shell off a nut. It is like peeling the layers off an onion: the interpretation goes all the way down. All is intepretation. That is the essence.”

Hoon’s Civil Liberties

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 21st, 2008

On BBC’s question time:

Goldsworthy: How far is he [Hoon] prepared to go to undermine our civil liberties to protect us… [from terrorists?]
Hoon: …To stop terrorists killing people in our society, quite a long way.
[and later]
Host: The words Julia [Goldsworthy] used were “undermining peoples civil liberties”. You said you would go quite a long way to undermine people’s civil liberies?
Hoon: Because the biggest civil liberty is not to be killed by terrorists.

Now I would grant that the right not to be killed is a human right. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” But it is not correct to put this single natural right over the others in the way Hoon argues. With this logic, all the other rights may be abridged to serve the right “not to be killed by terrorists”. If anything, staying alive is less important than the other civil rights. As Patrick Henry said, “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”. If you don’t have the other civil rights, some might think it justified in risking one’s own life to achieve civil rights – this is the case of revolutionaries, freedom fighters and “terrorists”.

I notice that article 12 begins “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy….”. I guess one way to get around this right is to attempt universal surveillance so no individual can claim their privacy was arbitrary violated?

Anti Citizen One

Free Stuff(!) is Worth While

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 20th, 2008

In a refreshing break from current social norms, various artists at the Free Art Fair have been giving pieces away to members of the public for free. I applaud this because it notes that something is worth while even if it does not have a financial price tag. It also blurs line between professional and amateur – this distinction is often unhelpful when placing value on their work.

The ironic thing about altruistic acts is, if it is truly selfless, then the giver should not expect anything in return. The question that might be posed to a moralist, is if selfless action is the best action, why do we try to give gifts to people in the expectation they will be received? Isn’t receiving an unworthy action compared to altruism? This at least encourages others to act in an “unworthy” fashion.

A close relation is the action of giving (or bestowing) but without the baggage of altruism or even the baggage of expected rewards. (The action is not even its own reward, perhaps.) Perhaps the best is to give as a choice and, if a person is inclined, as necessity.

In other news, I was disturbed but unsurprised to read this:

With so many scientific papers chasing so few pages in the most prestigious journals, the winners could be the ones most likely to oversell themselves—to trumpet dramatic or important results that later turn out to be false. This would produce a distorted picture of scientific knowledge, with less dramatic (but more accurate) results either relegated to obscure journals or left unpublished. The Economist

I notice financial rewards are linked to a researcher’s publication record. Perhaps scientific journals could do with a little more of the bestowing virtue?

Anti Citizen One

PS Interesting news item on economic growth destroying the ecosystem.

The Future of the Human Species?

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 16th, 2008

I saw Steve Jones (the geneticist) talking about the future of the human species. It was a very slick presentation. It seemed to be an expanded discussion of an article he published in the telegraph. He claimed that human evolution has come to a halt. The reasons for this are perhaps not interesting in this blog’s context. I was immediately skeptical of his conclusion but he did add two important conditions: he was only referring to the western world and the halt in evolution was temporary.

Any claims of constancy or certain knowledge in the apparent world should be examined closely since they can only come from two lines of reasoning:
1) A priori – there is no reason why constancy (or even inconstancy) should be expected, so no certain claim can be made.
2) A posteriori – basing a theory on past observations can never provide certainty since the next observation might disprove a theory.

The purists would try to apply this reasoning to my argument. An uncertainty might be the possibility of other sources of knowledge apart from a priori and a posteriori. What we can say is any claim about the apparent world without an element of doubt is, at best, misleading*. Since the apparent world is different at different times, we can speculate that change is possible. It seems the universe has changed greatly through out its existence, and it is therefore conceivable that constancy is illusionary. We could say some things are constant and some things are transitory. There is also a possibility that an seeming constant in the world is in fact going through a slow transition – too slow for us to perceive. As Heraclitus said, “All things are flowing.” Also Nietzsche, “Insofar as the senses show becoming, passing away, and change, they do not lie.” (A luck “guess” by Heraclitus – that everything is made of one primordial element (fire) is not so far from the modern concept of mass/energy equivalence.)

A few blogs have attempted to rebut Steve Jones on practical grounds which might be interesting for some.

Anti Citizen One

* probably

Defeat For 42 Day Detention Without Charge

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 14th, 2008

Plans to extend pre-charge detention from a maximum of 28 days to 42 were defeated in the Lords by 191 votes. BBC

They still plan to introduce it if there is an emergency – which means civil rights can be abridged when inconvenient for the state. Keep paying attention to this.

I doubt we will be needing this power anyway.

AC1

Update 21/10 UK’s top prosecutor warns against growing state power

Review: The Real God (part 2)

Posted by on October 13th, 2008

In his apologetic for Christian and Theistic Realism Richard Harries deals with the tricky field of arguments for the existence of God. This is rather important as he is after all trying to argue for the existence of God as a real being, and furthermore propose that it can be posited using realist language.

Perhaps suprisingly he is not altogether convinced by the standard or classic arguments/proofs of the existence of God and even goes so far as to describe them as “regulative ideas” inasmuch as it lends comforting support to “those who would like to see the world as the product of a rational intelligence”. Yet, he argues, such regulative ideas are nothing more than “nice” – they have little logical foundation (they cannot stand alone). His concession to the traditional arguments is thus: “the so-called proof therefore must always leave the matter open”. In other words it is not so much a logical formula that may be presented to the sceptic or unbeliever in the hope that they would somehow be convinced of the necessity of belief, as it is a grounding in rational thought that satisfies the already believing.

I would like now to focus on his treatment of the argument from design, as it is an argument that still has great currency amongst theists and which causes the most consternation for materialist atheists – not least because of the seemingly pseudo-scientific nature of the language game that some modern proponents of the design argument seem to adhere to.

Harries argues that the argument from design fails from the outset. The notion that as a computer may infer a human designer so too the world implies a divine designer is an illogical inference by progression. The inference demands a standard of comparison and by its definition the universe (i.e. all ‘created’ matter) is beyond complete or categorical perception and thus will not yeild to comparison.

When it comes to the universe, I do not have a category of designed universes to compare with another category that have somehow sprung up of themselves. There is only one universe. (There may very well be many worlds in addition to this one but by definition the God with whom we are concerned is the Creator of all possible worlds, i.e. the universe.) So we are simpy not in a position, on the basis of logic, to say whether the universe is designed or not. The matter is open.

I would add that the God-hypothesis Harries is proposing (i.e. the Judaeo-Christian creator God) similarly by necessity is the creator of all possible universes, and if we wish to talk of parallel universes then a new terminology such as meta-universe is needed.

Harries continues by praising as an example the evolutionary account of the creatures of the world such as those posited by Dawkins. He has no problem with the theory that says that “through a process of natural selection and random mutation… the most complex and beautiful forms can evolve from simple ones over a long period of time.” This is a thoroughly reasonable scientific account and as the evidence to support it grows we have little or no reason to doubt its retitude.

However this does not negate the idea of a designer – as he has already argued the classical proof as it is, is beyond resolution and the argument must remain open. Consequently he advocates a theory of theistic evolution (without going into details).

He also accepts – to the point of sympathy anyway – the position of scepticism about God’s goodness as evinced through the waste and violence that is resplendent throughout nature. But he suggests this does not negate the idea of design and is concerned with altogether a different matter entirely. He neatly wraps up the theistic evolutionary worldview with a quote from Frederick Temple in the 19th century “God makes the world make itself”. In short he argues arguments from design do not prove the existence of God or design, but neither does a scientific description of how the ‘process’ works resolve the God-hypothesis either.

A final brief comment on the classic arguments for the existence of God as found in the philosophy of religion and their alienation from religious belief as practised and lived goes as follows: “A person could come to the end of a logical train of argument with the conclusion that God must logically, exist: and it could leave him stone cold.”

The classic arguments focusing as they do on various aspects or properties of the proposed divinity always diminish the meta-concept of the divinity that the Judeao-Christian traditions believe in and worship.

Later on in his consideration of rational arguments or proofs of the existence of God he touches on a postmodern or holistic psychology of belief and disbelief. “It is always possible to give a psychological explanation of both belief and disbelief.”

Of course such explanations do not prove/disprove the beliefs but they may shed further understanding on the processes involved. He uses monotheism and its attachment to the argument from causality as an example. A monetheist

“looking at the argument from causality will always tend to have some sympathy with it and want to go along with it, because he or she already believes there is a Creator. Because their heart already moves in gratitude from Creation to Creator, it is natural for their mind to move in that direction as well. Cardinal Newman once wrote that: ‘The whole man moves, paper logic is but the record of it.’ I believe this is too extreme and that logic can act as the helmsman of the ship, not simply a log book of where we have been. Nevertheless, Newman’s remark does bring out the important truth, that our great shifts of belief or disbelief are never purely intellectual, they involve the whole person. So, because we know God in our own life, we will naturally believe him to be present in the life of the world of which we are a part.”

I am reminded of two Wittgenstein quotes here that I feel are relevent (though I shall paraphrase). Firstly that the sum of belief dawns on the believer in the same way that as the sun rises we can better see to the horizon (in other words belief may be enhanced by logical or rational argument but rarely if ever can it be prompted by it). Secondly the world of the happy man is very different to that of the unhappy man – thus reinforcing Harries psychological point I think that a person who is inclined to theism will see and feel the strength of arguments that support his belief even though independent of this a priori belief those same arguments are incapable of logically resolving the questions.

I am moved to remember that St Anselm talked of “Faith seeking Understanding” and not of understanding or knowledge in order to find Faith.

Harries concludes the chapter concerning belief with a brief discussion on the various types of disbelief. “I suspect that most of those who disbelieve do so because they have had a bad experience of religion. Some do so because their understanding of religion is full of misconceptions. Some may be unwilling to make the necessary changes in lifestyle which the Christian faith asks of us. Others see no way of reconciling the tragic quality of so much existence with the claim that there is a loving Creator. There is a variety of reasons, all of which have to be looked at seperately.”

I find this brief paragraph unsatisfactory. On the one hand I appreciate his nuanced commentary that “atheism” is not one single monolothic entity. That there are various types of disbelief and reasons for disbelief and that each needs be considered seperately. I think that this kind of pluralism is a healthy alternative to the ‘them and us’ mentality often exhibited by the loudest tub-thumpers for either side. Yet I feel that he has missed out on the category of disbelievers who genuinely have concluded – indeed one might say believe – that there is no God. He would probably classify these as ‘misconceptions’ and this would betray the chauvenistic attitude of someone who maintains that in the end belief is good and disbelief (at the least) harmful to the self.

I would add though that such a category is difficult to discuss – atheists don’t like to be called ‘believers’ – even if they object to a narrow or naive definition of faith/belief. I would propose that it may even be difficult to isolate these different types of disbelief – for a person who through a solely materialist epistemology has decided that there is no God may very well have also had a bad experience of religion, hold different views on morality, and even be responding negatively to a radically different God-hypothesis than that held by believers.

Also he tends to bypass agnostics here, although one may say that his stance that the “proofs” of the existence of God are not “proofs” and that philosophically the matter remains open is a nod in their direction. All in all though despite these criticisms I think he displays a fairmindedness and openness to plurality of belief all too rare in this arena of debate.

Links

Posted by on October 13th, 2008

Part 7 of the “A Secular Age” review on the Only a Game Blog is here.

This is entitled The Imminent Frame and is a discussion on materialism versus transcendentalism.

It raises the contentious issue of belief in epistemology.

Richard Dawkins for example holds what is considered a naive interpretation of Faith when he says:

Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion,” whereas Science “is free of the main vice of religion, which is faith”.

As a counterpoint Charles Taylor quotes evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin as an example of a materialist who maintains a lucidity about “their prior ontological commitments”.

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to understanding the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori allegiance to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.”