About Me

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

Monday, December 31, 2012

My top 10 posts of 2012 from Talking Philosophy - a personal selection

This list is not based on number of views or on feedback, but simply on my own personal likings and current whim. So there is no confusion, this is merely my top 10 of my own posts. It would be interesting to prepare a personal top 10 of all posts at Talking Philosophy in 2012.

Furthermore, I'm going to go light on posts about free will and determinism. I wrote a lot of them, and I (can't help but) think that the quality was quite high. However, I'll err on the side of variety and include (at number 1.) only my opening remarks in that particular lengthy debate.

My personal top 10 are, in order of appearance:

1. Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris on free will

2. Modern art and its alleged evils

3. What is a sexual image?

4. Is nice nihilism enough?

5. The Selfish Gene in The Guardian

6. Sam Harris on the Innocence of Muslims affair

7. Why can’t men shut up about abortion?

8. Freedom of religion and the contraceptive mandate (Missouri court case)

9. How can you say that if you’re an error theorist?!

10. Gaukroger, religion, and the rise of science

My ten most popular posts of all time

These are not necessarily my favourites - some are, but some rather cursory posts also make the list. Still, it's interesting to see what posts have struck a chord or incited a reaction over the years, and they do tend to have good threads attached.

Here we go, without further ado, as a New Year special, my ten most popular posts of all time:

1. Shallow, smug, arrogant; pot, kettle, black

2. Avengers movie

3. What you can't say about Islam - the backlash against Elizabeth Moon

4. More rubbish about "shrill" atheists - this time in The Daily Mail

5. Why this was never an atheist blog

6. Interpreting Deuteronomy - with sophisticated theology

7. Some Saturday supervillainy: Zeus vs the Hulk

8. Sunday superstuff - Marvel's first gay wedding: Northstar and Kyle

9. Islam and "Islamophobia" - a little manifesto

10. "The next step is to prohibit religious expression" - really?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday supervillainy - Amazing Spider-Man #700

I don't get creeped out easily, but even I am creeped out by this. Amazing Spider-Man #700 ends with a scene where Dr. Octopus is apparently about to rape Mary Jane Watson. Dr. Octopus has taken possession of Spider-Man's/Peter Parker's body and has access to all his memories. As readers, we know that Peter and Mary Jane still love each other, despite having broken up some time back (there was that whole "deal with the devil Mephisto" story, etc., etc.), and despite all the bad shit they've been through together.

Now, despite (on top of those other "despites") how oddly "Peter" has been acting, Mary Jane seems to be up for getting back to together with him. And Dr. Octopus seems like he wants to take advantage of the situation.

Ugh! Just no. I really hope that this is a fake-out and that Mary Jane is going to be revealed as too smart for what has been set up here and/or that Doc Ock, usually a relatively sympathetic villain, is going to be revealed as not that evil. Even if it does prove to be a fake-out, I'm going to be shaking my head at this development.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Some scattered highlights of 2012

As the year comes to an end, what were some highlights? Well, they would include my trip to the US early in the year, mainly to speak at a CFI convention in Orlando, Florida (but the trip also involved meeting some wonderful people, and visiting some great places for the first time, not least Yale University, The Kennedy Space Centre, and the superb CFI headquarters in Amherst, NY).

I'll also give shout-outs to the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, the national science fiction convention (also in Melbourne), and the splendid evening put on by the Hunter Writers' Centre for the annual Newcastle Poetry Prize.

As to the latter, I've been appointed at least until the HWC's next AGM in May 2013 as chair of its board of directors - a role that I'll perform to the best of my ability, seeing if I can do something positive for a small but effective community organisation. Please check out the HWC's website, and if you are in (or have connections with) the Hunter region maybe think about how you can be supportive in 2013.

Online highlights included a couple of interviews: this science-fiction-oriented one with journalist and horror writer Jason Nahrung; and this much more philosophical one for RationalHub. I was involved in some interesting online debates: the biggest one, over the issue of free will, ranged across this blog, Talking Philosophy, and other forums, including the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal, where I ended up writing this long piece. It's almost a manifesto.

It's been a delight to be involved heavily with Talking Philosophy - I'm sure the place will go from strength to strength next year (there's at least one pleasing announcement to emanate from there fairly soon). I also commenced in 2012 as a regular writer for Free Inquiry, which is another partnership that I'm very happy about.

I'm still editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology - most of JET's activity over the past two years has been devoted to the online publication of a bumper issue on the subject of minds and machines. I'm pleased to say that this is now almost complete. It's been the equivalent of co-editing (with Linda Glenn) a large book. Meanwhile, the fifth anniversary of my tenure in that position at JET is about to come around. Time really does seem to fly!

Dominating my own publications for the year was my latest book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (released in January from Wiley-Blackwell), though I also had a long peer-reviewed article published by Ethics and Information Technology, and there were numerous other publications, some of which I've mentioned in earlier paras.

And so we move into 2013. I've been working hard through recent months, and I've been professionally involved with other people who've been working hard. You'll gradually see announcements rolling out, starting soon. Very soon.

George Dvorsky on gene patents

George Dvorksy has an interesting article at io9 on the subject of gene patents, discussing the current litigation over the issue. This includes a quote that he got from me on the subject of contrived patents in general and on the so-called tragedy of the anti-commons (though I don't use that expression - the point is that, theoretically, intellectual property rights can be become too fragmented among different right-holders to operate in the public interest).

The article is worth reading, not only because it discusses my (rather wishy-washy) views sympathetically but also because it gives an up-to-date and accurate account of a tricky, often misunderstood, subject. Dvorsky has his own bias, but he's fair in presenting arguments from both sides of the debate without simply dismissing any of them or demonising people with whom he has disagreements.

There's also a vigorous discussion thread there, which looks like it may contain some worthwhile nuggets.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Kuhn and his controversies

Over at The New Atlantis - a journal whose overall values often run in a direction opposite to mine - you can find an article on Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in honour of that much-cited book's 50th anniversary of publication.

This piece, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty", by Matthew C. Rees, appears, to me at least, to be an accurate account of Kuhn's views, including of the areas where they were vague. The points of vagueness and incompleteness led to much debate: at one point, Kuhn famously denied being a Kuhnian, with the epistemic relativism that that was thought to involve.

Rees also appears, to me at least, to be careful and fair in his assessment of the book's merit and importance, including its relationship to the respective ideas of Michael Polanyi and Karl Popper.

I'm sure there are contentious points of interpretation and judgment, but this piece is much better than most of what I read about Kuhn and the associated controversies. You could do a lot worse than giving it a read if you've wanted something that lays out the nature of these controversies clearly and fairly compendiously.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Book of the year - Eric Anderson, The Monogamy Gap

My book of the year is Eric Anderson’s The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating (OUP, 2012). According to Anderson, moral and cultural expectations of strict monogamy are psychologically unrealistic, pervasively and deeply harmful, and (ironically enough) destructive of good relationships. He argues that the phenomenon of widespread “cheating” is the corollary of a system that is incompatible with human psychology and appears ridiculous when viewed from outside its assumptions. Far more research is needed, as the author acknowledges, but meanwhile he presents a lucid and persuasive, if incomplete, case against the ideology of strict monogamy.
Speaking of strict, my strictly philosophy book of the year will be announced in a forthcoming issue of The Philosophers' Magazine. If you don't subscribe, you should do so.
As for fiction, I read some great material by Alison Goodman, Margo Lanagan, and many others. I'm one of the judges of the Norma K. Hemming Award, so I'm expecting to read a lot of high quality fantasy, science fiction, and horror over the next few months. Doubtless I'll be blogging about some of it.
 
 
 

My most popular posts of the year

My most popular post of 2012 by a long way was this rather brief review of The Avengers - written before the movie had been released in the US, at a time of great excitement about the movie (which went on to make over $1.5 billion dollars worldwide on its first release).

Second most popular was my post on why this has never been "an atheist blog" - it is a blog by a person who happens to be an atheist, and it is even a blog that defends and advocates atheism. However, there have always been other dimensions to Metamagician and the Hellfire Club (as it was; for simplicity, etc., it is now just The Hellfire Club). I'm quite proud of this post, if only because it acts as something of a portal to other posts that I've written over the years that I'm quite proud of.

Even though my next book (co-authored with Udo Schuklenk) is 50 GREAT MYTHS ABOUT ATHEISM, this blog will always have those other dimensions for as long as it survives. Furthermore, the following extract from the post remains true:
I am happy to rally under the banner of atheism for the purposes of networking and organisation. However, I am most strongly a secularist and a liberal - a liberal in the sense in which John Stuart Mill was a liberal, the classic sense that is primarily about individual liberty, freedom of speech, and diversity of ideas. My outspoken public advocacy of atheism should really be seen as outspoken advocacy of the idea that the claims of religion ought to be subjected to sceptical scrutiny, and that religion should not be accorded any kind of authority. And that advocacy is, as it were, in addition to what I was doing anyway - such as advocating what I see as a Millian liberal approach to issues in bioethics.
I should say that none of this would necessarily change even if I decided tomorrow that the balance of philosophical arguments favours the existence of God. Actual religions would still be fair game for sceptical scrutiny, especially insofar as they claim the authority to tell us how to live our lives, and what we should and should not be permitted to do by the authority of the state.

A close third was this post about the "shrill atheist" meme - it seems that this just won't go away. Quote: "Meanwhile, forthright Christians who want to argue publicly for the truth of their views manage to be at least as 'shrill' as Dawkins. For example, I'm currently reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which I don't think I've previously read in its entirety and have not opened for decades. As usual with Lewis, his style varies between blunt, emotive, self-righteous, and downright snide (I'll bracket off how naive the actual arguments are). His approach gets a free pass in our culture, but if an atheist wrote in exactly the same way he or she would be roundly condemned."

Nussbaum's excessive tolerance

I reviewed Martha Nussbaum's new book on religious intolerance (in fact, she's mainly talking about intolerance of Islam) in the latest issue of The Philosophers' Magazine. Well, they've also published it online, so you can check it out over here.

Extract: "The state is not well placed to make judgements about otherworldly matters, such as the truth or falsity of any particular religion. That also limits its ability to discover the 'right' canons of conduct for us all to follow – perhaps in the interest of our spiritual salvation – and gives it a good reason to permit much diversity in our behaviour. Thus, the state ought to adopt a degree of epistemic modesty about religious issues, and many moral ones. However, there is no reason for individual citizens to do likewise. We are well within our rights to conclude, from within our respective understandings of the world and conceptions of the good, that a particular religion has its dark side, or that a moral norm favoured by some religion is preposterous and harmful."

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

More love and cholera

I hadn't caught up with this yesterday, but the government review I mentioned has led to Love in the Time of Cholera staying on the VCE English Literature reading list - so at least good sense prevailed, even if this review was totally unnecessary.

Oh, and over here you'll find a pretty good point-by-point response to the original article crudely attacking the book (and mindlessly infantilising young readers).

H/T Margo Lanagan.

That "pornographic" novel, Love in the Time of Cholera

In other annoying news, a senior teacher in Victoria manages to get a government review of the decision to list Love in the Time of Cholera as a text for study in an English Literature course at VCE level. For people outside Australia, the VCE is awarded at the end of the final year of high school, immediately before university or college, so we are basically talking about 16 to 18 year olds. English Literature is not a compulsory subject of study, but is regarded as a somewhat specialist (and advanced, or difficult) subject. Most students choose the rather different subject simply called "English".

I would have thought that this is exactly the age when we want to give young adults a mediated experience of formally difficult, and perhaps emotionally or thematically challenging, novels. Indeed, I don't see why bright teenagers could not come to grips with such a text at an even earlier age - thinking back to myself and my friends when we were in our teens, we might have found Gabriel Garcia Marquez heavy going, but we were at an age where we were quite ready for the thematic concepts (and to learn about complex literary narratives and some of the ways they can work).

I am constantly surprised by attempts to infantilise bright young people. Yes, they are relatively inexperienced with both the world and the ocean of world literature. Their judgments may sometimes appear a bit simplistic and naive to older people, mainly as a result of that relative inexperience. But how on earth are they supposed to gain experience and develop more sophistication if they are constantly treated like infants?

This is apart from the extreme crudeness with which this "senior teacher" evidently approaches the task of literary interpretation. It does sound as if this guy might not be well equipped, intellectually and emotionally, for the task. His own critical statements sound simplistic and naive, so, yes, I'm not sure how he is well placed to help teenagers develop literary sophistication as they read and ponder, analyse and debate a book like Love in the Time of Cholera. But people teaching literature at VCE level damn well ought to be capable of teaching challenging texts; mine (in the equivalent system in NSW) did a pretty good job, back in the day; and I'm sure most literature teachers have what it takes.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Why is this even news?

An American Olympic athlete has been outed for having a job on the side as an escort, and suddenly the mainstream media are all over it with what can only be described as a mix of smug moralism and hand-rubbing prurience. It escapes me why prying into someone's private life in this way is considered to be in the public interest, or "newsworthy", why it is thought that the person concerned necessarily has anything to be ashamed of, or why she is now supposed to go through a period of publicly acting contrite and humbled. Perhaps she really does feel that way, but we see this happen so often in such cases that it looks awfully like a constructed PR narrative... at best. And at worst something like the outcome of a high-tech Stalinist show trial.

If she were a politician trying to make people's lives miserable by imposing an oppressive morality on them by an exercise of state power, perhaps it would be worthwhile exposing her hypocrisy. Likewise, perhaps, if she were a crusading moralist with no formal political power but with political influence. But nothing like that is involved.

I hesitate even to comment on this sort of thing, but I doubt that I'm adding to her woes by carping about it on a low-traffic site such as this. I won't mention her name and add yet another hit to the huge number that could be obtained from a Google search. But this kind of public shaming ritual leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday supervillainy - Gail Simone to be "new" writer of Batgirl!

I can't make head or tail of this. Gail Simone was apparently sacked as the writer for DC's New 52 book, Batgirl. But now the announcement is that the next writer for Batgirl will be ... Gail Simone.

It seems from here as if the uproar among angry fans caused DC to change its collective, corporate mind, but for all I know the whole damn thing was just a horrible mistake. One way or another, it's weird. At any rate, apparently all is well for the moment with the career of one of the few high-profile female writers in the comics industry. I hope it stays like that.

Gaukroger's The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility

I've been reading Stephen Gaukroger, The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1680-1760 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). This is the second volume of a series by Gaukroger in which he examines the origins and history of modern science from a philosophical perspective. So far we have only the two volumes, but I'd guess that there will be at least another two. This volume follows on from the first, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture, which I was discussing the other day.

I'm glad to be reading these books. I started them to see what they have to say about the interaction between early science and Christian theology. That is a recurring theme, but it does not dominate the discussion by any means, and much of the fascination is simply in getting a consolidated and detailed account of how science developed, hypothesis by hypothesis, contributor by contributor, step by step, in the early centuries, and how it interacted with much else, such as the broader literary and intellectual culture of Europe.

I still don't see any real evidence that science was somehow nurtured by Christian theology. About the most that could be said is that, back in, say, 1600, orthodox theology might have looked like a very formidable barrier for science to overcome. After all, there had been considerable resistance to natural philosophy within Christian thought, and, as Gaukroger says, "Christianity ... had traditionally laid claim to universal competence in all matters of understanding the world and our place in it, most notably in its Augustinean version" (p. 54), but as he immediately adds (same page) this claim was decisively weakened during the seventeenth century. Despite the terrible execution of Giordano Bruno in 1600, for a mix of sins in the eyes of the Church, and the persecution of Galileo not long after, Christianity did not do that much to block the rise of science in the second half of the century.

Given Christianity's longstanding claims to universal epistemic competence, it is no wonder that it came into conflict with Aristotelian natural philosophy and later with early modern science, personified by Galileo. These stood to draw their own conclusions and to challenge theology's authority.

Thus, Gaukroger is doubtless correct when he makes much of the issue of the relationship between the epistemic authority of Christianity and that of natural philosophy (or science). He says, I think justly, that the issue of the relationship between "the kind of understanding of the world that natural philosophy provides, and that provided by Christian revelation and natural theology" was a pressing one in Christian Europe from the beginning of the thirteenth century, when Aristotelian texts and doctrines were introduced into the intellectual culture (p. 11).

Given the intellectual hegemony of Christianity, it can be argued that the ability of science to consolidate itself depended on its relationship with Christian thought. On this hinged the ability of science to establish itself in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries "as a permanent and integral feature of Western intellectual life" (p. 11).

During this period, as Gaukroger tells us (pp. 12-13), it was widely understood as a requirement for natural philosophy that its theories be compatible with shared assumptions in Europe about morality, our place in the world, and religious thinking in general. Or, in other words, science might have been greeted with a destructive hostility if it had rocked the boat too much. In the upshot it did not do so - to some extent, it avoided heresy by carefully defining its field of inquiry as the natural world (while drawing a sharp boundary with the supernatural world), and to some extent it produced theories that ultimately appealed to the actions of God, as we find in the work of Newton.

All this, however, is not so much Christianity nurturing science as simply not proving to be such a formidable barrier as first appeared. To some extent, it was a matter of science accommodating itself to Christianity. To some extent, it may even be certain theologians welcoming the findings of science as a resource for theology. But to some extent it may simply be that Christianity had lost much of its intellectual hegemony for totally different reasons - partly, perhaps, because of the disastrous Thirty Years War, and the turning away by many thinkers from insistence on a comprehensive orthodoxy. And partly because of extensive contact with other cultures in the New World and the Far East, which also tended to undermine absolutism and certainty.

Despite Gaukroger's extensive scholarship, there's still a story to research and tell here - a story about how Christianity increasingly lost its intellectual authority through the seventeenth century and beyond, and why it was, perhaps, increasingly less in a position to hinder the rise of science.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Currently reading: Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

I am currently reading Sea Hearts (published in the UK and US as The Brides of Rollrock Island) by much-awarded novelist Margo Lanagan.

As I've previously mentioned, Margo will be a writer-in-residence for the Hunter Writers' Centre just a few weeks away now, and we're all looking forward to having her stay here in Newcastle, where she was born and grew up. If any Newcastle-based people are reading this, do please pass on the news.

My verdict on the book? I loved it. It's a fantasy novel, but not in the sense of high fantasy like J.R.R. Tolkien, or in the style of Conan/Elric/whatever sword and sorcery, or, indeed, like any other stereotypical form of the genre that you might think of. (Note, though, that I have nothing against heroic fantasy, and I've written some myself. It's just that Sea Hearts is not at all an example.)

Margo Lanagan has provided a rather grim tale of cruelty, alienation, and protracted revenge, stretching over the long life of its central character. Much like witnesses in a courtroom, narrators from different generations recount their involvement in the magical, tragic course of events. Only we, the readers, get to piece together our various understandings of the full story and why it happened as it did. Although the effects produced are not exactly horrific, what unfolds is terrifying in a quieter way. In fact, Sea Hearts displays one of the hallmarks of horror fiction in its many forms: the intrusion of something apparently demonic into our ordinary, human world, with dreadful results for everyday, flawed, complicated people.

As a twist, however, those characters who appear, from others' perspectives, alien and malevolent are themselves unhappy, deeply alienated beings. They are victims of their own circumstances and limitations, and of others' ignorance, selfishness, or emotional hardness.

For some reason, Margo Lanagan is mainly promoted as a writer for Young Adults... and I'm fine with bright teenagers reading and enjoying her work, including this book (though I suspect that many inexperienced readers, whatever their ages, will find aspects of it difficult). Be that as it may, I think Sea Hearts should also be read by adults. It is absorbing, intriguing, and thought provoking - how far do the relationships depicted, especially those between the sexes, mirror, in a distorted way, those in our own non-magical world? It's a book worth lingering over, savouring, and discussing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Gaukroger on physico-theology

Late in his book The Emergence of a Scientific Culture, which I was discussing yesterday, Stephen Gaukroger discusses the (largely British) phenomenon of physico-theology: the attempts by some theologians, scientists (as we'd now call them), and philosophers to reconcile theology with what was emerging from science - or even to use scientific findings to support or revitalise theology.

He writes interestingly of thinkers such as Ralph Cudworth, who embraced some version of the atomist view of the natural world that had become popular within science, while attempting at the same time to modify it and to include it in their metaphysical systems (pp. 493-94).

Gaukroger writes at some length about others who attempted to reconcile scientific theories of the formation of the Earth with the Genesis account of creation and the biblical chronology of history (pp. 494-504).

He puts an impressive enough case that in the 1680s and 1690s, especially in the UK, there was a widespread view that natural philosophy could be used as a source of evidence for God (p. 505).

But none of this adds up to much of a case that the successful consolidation of science in the 17th and 18th centuries had much to with Christianity. On the face of it, I'd have thought that the successful consolidation of science at this point in history owed more simply to its unprecedented theoretical successes, the causes of which were contingent and complicated - perhaps having to do with some of the personalities involved, perhaps having to do with the non-religious aspects of European culture, perhaps having to do with breakthroughs in mathematics and scientific instrumentation. And perhaps with other things. I don't see much of a case for giving credit to religion.

Maybe Gaukroger's next (i.e. 2010) volume in his ongoing work on the philosophical/sociological history of science will have more on that, though... I'll get to it soon.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Currently reading - Stephen Gaukroger on the rise of science

I'm currently reading Stephen Gaukroger's huge and detailed book on the rise of modern science, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210-1685 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). As its title implies, this covers European intellectual history from the rise of neo-Aristotelian natural philosophy in the thirteenth century through to developments involving Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, and others in the late seventeenth century (the century we most associate with the Scientific Revolution in Europe).

I started on this because I'd been told that it would demonstrate how Christianity assisted the rise of science in Europe, or something along those lines. I must say that I am nearly finished it, and it has demonstrated no such thing so far. The rise of a recognisably modern form of science seems to be the result of many historically contingent factors, as far as I can make out, not least the individual geniuses of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and others who were involved in the ferment of ideas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Obviously, all these men appeared in cultures that gave them the intellectual and other resources for their work, and they all (even Thomas Hobbes) professed some kind of religious belief, but when you trace through the detail of what motivated them, how they influenced each other, and so on, not much of that has to do with Christianity. What most comes across is their fascination with experiments, thought experiments, and each other's ideas, and in many cases their joy-cum-obsession with the new tools that had become available to them in the form of scientific instruments, precision crafted experimental apparatus, and increasingly powerful kinds of mathematics.

Gaukroger sees his central question as being why a large-scale, successfully legitimating consolidation of science took place in the seventeenth century (and thereafter) - when science tends to be fragmented and stop-start, with long periods of stagnation, whenever it has appeared in a promising form in other times, places, and cultures (pp. 20-22). He answers that the natural philosophy of the Scientific Revolution was attractive to many thinkers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries precisely because it appeared to have promise for the renewal of natural theology (p. 23).

That may be so, although nothing said so far gives it a lot of support. Still, it is notorious that such thinkers as Paley did attempt to employ science to support theological positions. That, however, is very different from saying that there was something about Christianity that made it inherently pro-science in the first place.

Indeed, Gaukroger does not seem to maintain any such thesis. He notes that there was a considerable tradition within ancient and medieval Christianity of opposition to natural philosophy (and hence anything resembling science), seeing it as distracting or even idolatrous (57-59, 151).

Nothing in the book seems to give late medieval scholasticism much credit for the rise of science (it appears that whatever science it produced in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was not fruitful, and stagnated much like in other cultures that showed promising beginnings in scientific thought, such as China and medieval Islam). Indeed, even Aristotle's form of natural philosophy was initially resisted by the thirteenth-century Church, although the synthesis produced by Aquinas was later given the Church's endorsement.

Renaissance natural theology was largely an attempt to reconcile Aristotelianism with theology, which may well have been intellectually fruitful in some ways, but the Church was harsh to anyone who drew conclusions that strayed beyond orthodoxy. If anything, Christianity seems to have acted more as a hindrance than otherwise to free inquiry into the natural world (though, of course, even resistance can sometimes be inspiring).

I think this book will disappoint anyone who goes to it looking for support for the thesis that Christianity nourished the Scientific Revolution in any sense much stronger than the fact that the "revolution" took place in Christian countries. Nor do I really see any evidence for the more plausible claim that, for historically contingent reasons, Christianity (however that should be unpacked) welcomed and assisted the Scientific Revolution once it got going. If Gaukroger has produced the evidence for that thesis (one that I'm not necessarily opposed to) it looks like it might be in his next book, which was published in 2010. It looks as if I need to read that, too.

Be all that as it may, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture is an extraordinarily scholarly and exhaustive account of what was going on during a crucial period in intellectual history. I'm glad I had my attention drawn to it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

As the year winds down...

The year is winding down at my end - as I've finally started handing out Christmas presents, I'm believing, at last, that it must be nearly Christmas and that 2012 has almost zipped by.

Every year I talk about how quickly the year seems to go, but this one has been quite extraordinary in that way. Everything since early June has been a blur. I don't usually talk about very personal things here, and I won't on this occasion either (happy snaps of birthdays, etc., are not very personal, in the sense that I mean, I suppose mostly because they don't invade privacy). Suffice to say that, as I've alluded to from time to time, family health matters have often seemed all-consuming over the past six months or so. This has also been a time when I've been immersed in working on two full-scale books, and on other projects, including taking on a leadership role with the Hunter Writers Centre. The latter has had its own issues, which have received a bit of press here in Newcastle.

Still, it's been a productive year, as I was saying yesterday. I expect to have some more announcements in the coming days and weeks. For readers in Newcastle, do click on the link to the writers centre, above, as it will take you to the announcement that there will be residencies for Marion Halligan and Margo Lanagan in January/February. I hope to get out the news about that and to generate the buzz it deserves, so would local people reading this please pass it on.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Books, books, books

As the year comes to an end, Udo Schuklenk and I are putting final (hopefully) touches on our new book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, to be published by Wiley-Blackwell. If all goes well, this will be released in September 2013.

At the same time, I am getting close to finishing the manuscript for Humanity Enhanced (under contract to MIT Press). I'm slightly late with this, thanks to some unforeseen personal and other problems in the second half of 2012, although I still expect to do better than many authors when faced with contractual deadlines. Again if all goes well, I'll be delivering the manuscript in January - but I can't even think about a publication date just yet.

There are a couple of other books that may be in the pipeline (again, if all goes well!). I can't, just yet, talk specifically about these. Hopefully, there will be good news in a month or two.

It's been a productive year here, though, as I may talk about in a later blog post, a hard one in many ways. I can't believe there are only two weeks left.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy - the X-Men stories that we lost

Though there was a large hiatus in my reading (creating a gap that I've since pretty much filled by researching back issues), I've been following the X-Men narrative since I was very young, in fact almost from the beginning. I was a little kid when I read a second-hand copy of  the original X-Men #4, which caught my imagination (and I soon caught up with most of the other issues that had already been published). Admittedly with gaps, I've followed the ongoing narrative ever since.

So I was around reading the last months of Chris Claremont's original X-Men run, and I'd been following Claremont's work through most of his run, which I enjoyed at the time.

Some events in the later part of this period don't make much sense because they were never followed up after Claremont left. Crucial plot threads were left hanging or, much the same thing, cut brutally short.

Thus, we never did see the story arcs that Claremont had in mind, and was foreshadowing, toward the end of his run, particularly a fragmented war of mutant against mutant that would have involved the Shadow King somehow controlling the Hellfire Club. It was revealed that Magneto had already fought some kind of epic battle against the Shadow King and had had to do something he considered shameful to prevail, or least survive the encounter... but we've never learned what happened.

At the end of Uncanny X-Men #275, Magneto executes the "foul creature" Zaladane, abandons Rogue, with whom he's developed the beginnings of a romantic relationship, and resolves that he'll no longer try to be a "kinder, gentler" version of himself - but he'll be taking on the Shadow King and the Hellfire Club, among other major threats to mutantkind, including perhaps the UN itself.

None of this happened in the way foreshadowed. Instead, Magneto was (apparently) killed off at the very end of Claremont's run, only a few months later. When he returned (as major villains always manage to do), he did, indeed, eventually have run-ins with the UN, but he was much more like his old villainous self, rather than the wild card or anti-hero that he'd become by the end of the much-celebrated Savage Land story.

I wish those Claremont stories had happened. The narrative was building to something that could have been exciting, and the creators involved were at the peak of their powers. Well, here is an account of what it was all about that gives us an idea of what was intended... and what X-Men fans twenty years ago missed out on, thanks to the rift between Chris Claremont and Bob Harras/Jim Lee.



Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Connecticut school massacre - the news is still crazy (and horrible)

The news continues to be a rollercoaster of craziness and nastiness. The most prominent news this morning, all over the Western world, relates to a gun massacre at a school in the US. I don't intend to comment on it in any substantial way at this stage - better, I think, to allow some more facts to come out, and to get at least a bit of emotional distance.

All I can say, for what it's worth, is that I feel for all the grieving families, and for everyone connected with Sandy Hook Elementary School, and for all in Newtown, Connecticut, and beyond who have been caught up by this. It defies belief that such things can happen in a modern, civilized country such as the United States.

I'll leave it for others to discuss the cultural causes of such events and what can be done to stop them from happening. If I were a politician, I'd have to come up with some glib view. However, I'm neither a politician nor an expert on the subject. So I'll leave it, again at least for now, simply by expressing my sorrow and horror at this appalling, senseless event.

Friday, December 14, 2012

It's been quite a week in the news...

...here in Australia.

I've avoided commenting on various news stories that have caught my eye, notably the death (apparently by suicide) of a British nurse who'd been "pranked" by a couple of young Australian DJs. While aspects of this pressed my emotional buttons, at the end of the day we can't legally blame the DJs for the nurse's death. Even claims that their actions were morally somehow equivalent to murder or manslaughter are over the top. That's not to deny that their prank was taken too far - the way they pressed it, rather than ending it quickly when it became apparent that they were dealing with someone whose low level of English language skills made her especially vulnerable, was immature and cruel. There was gloating afterwards on at least one Twitter feed, since deleted, and this adds to the impression of a cruel or callous mentality.

Then again, I don't understand why the British media, which evidently displayed even more cruelty, seem to be getting off without blame.

More generally, when will we all grow up and take the attitude that it's simply not funny when powerful people use that power to humiliate ordinary, seemingly good, powerless people? Surely we can work on cultural change, so that actions like of those of these DJs are no longer considered acceptable. They were handed great power, in the form of their platforms at a popular radio station, and placed in a culture that encouraged them in every way to abuse it.

Despite some of my own intemperate tweets, one of which I subsequently deleted as it went much too far, I think, on reflection, that the blame goes a long way beyond these rather young (and in this instance, evidently immature) people. It's better for us to introspect about what we really want as a society, when the powerful confront the powerless, than to conduct a witch hunt against these two individuals, who appear to be emotionally shattered by the experience.

Then there was the sensational Federal Court judgment that found the civil law claim against Peter Slipper for alleged sexual harassment to be an abuse of the process of the court. This does not mean that Slipper is entirely exonerated - he may be guilty of some borderline sexual harassment of a staffer - but in this case there are issues of proportion, ulterior motives, and even political conspiracy. The ramifications of the case will continue for some time.

Some days earlier we saw lobbying to ban teaching Love in the Time of Cholera, by celebrated author Gabriel García Márquez, as a literary text in Victorian schools, and this seems to have met with some success. Last I heard, it's under review.

Crazy times!

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy (2) - Emma Frost

For Emma Frost fans, Brian Bendis linked to this pic by Aly Fell on his Twitter feed just now. What the heck?!

Sunday Supervillainy - reboot of Fantastic Four

The word is that there's going to be a reboot of the not-very-successful Fantastic Four movie franchise. I'd love to see the Fantastic Four done a bit better than we've seen to date, perhaps even with the sort of goofy science-fictional dignitas that you can find in the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run of the book, back in the early sixties when it really was "The world's greatest comic magazine!"

At this stage, I have no idea of what is going to be involved in the movie, and I guess we won't know for a long time, as the scheduled release date is 2015. Since it's a reboot, I guess it has to include a version of the origin story, in which the FF members gain their powers when accidentally bombarded in space by mutagenic cosmic rays (yeah, yeah, goofy). Maybe it would be a mistake to try again with Dr. Doom this early in a rebooted movie franchise. I'd love to see Black Bolt, Medusa, and the other Inhumans introduced, but that might get too complicated for an initial movie with an origin story to tell.

Looking forward to some more clarity on this as the time approaches.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Ah haz marketing copy

More on this soon, but Udo Schuklenk and I have now received the marketing copy for our new book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism (to be published by Wiley-Blackwell). There is still a considerable lead time before publication, but we can see the basis here for a strong campaign to market the book. Needless to say, we're excited about the book itself, which addresses many of the myths, misconceptions, half-truths, etc., about atheists and atheism - as well as presenting a brief history of atheist thought and our views as to why, at this point in history, atheism is the most reasonable view on the God question.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A sceptical review of Kurzweil's new book in The New Yorker

I haven't yet read Ray Kurzweil's new book, How to Create a Mind, and therefore can't comment on this piece by Gary Marcus - except to say that it's provocative, and it makes me more, rather than less, interested in reading the book. Marcus is sceptical about the structure of the brain posited by Kurzweil, and quite scathing about some of the latter's arguments. This may be deserved, but there will probably be much buzz, pro and con, about Kurzweil over the next few months.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Contents of Dreaming of Djinn announced

Ticonderoga Publications has just announced the contents of its forthcoming anthology, Dreaming of Djinn, edited by Liz Grzyb. Contents are as follows:

  • Marilag Angway "Shadow Dancer"
  • Cherith Baldry "The Green Rose"
  • Alan Baxter "On A Crooked Leg Lightly"
  • Jenny Blackford "The Quiet Realm of the Dark Queen"
  • Jetse de Vries "Djinni Djinni Dream Dream"
  • Thoraiya Dyer "The Saint George Hotel"
  • Joshua Gage "The Dancer of Smoke"
  • Richard Harland "The Tale of the Arrow Girl"
  • Faith Mudge "The Oblivion Box"
  • Havva Murat "Harmony Thicket and the Persian Shoes"
  • Charlotte Nash "Parvaz"
  • Anthony Panegyres "Oleander: An Ottoman Tale"
  • Dan Rabarts "Silver, Sharp as Silk"
  • Angela Rega "The Belly Dancing Crimes of Ms Sahara Desserts"
  • Jenny Schwartz "The Pearl Flower Harvest"
  • Barb Siples "The Sultan's Debt"
  • Pia Van Ravestein "Street Dancer"
  • DC White "A Dash of Djinn and Tonic"

Monday, December 03, 2012

Hello, Newcastle!

I'm back in town after a week in Melbourne - a week in which I caught up with numerous friends, including (in the order in which we saw them) Alison and Tony, Alison and Ron, Marj, James (whom I met for the first time), DJ, Corinne, Kirstyn and JasonJaneen and Jack, Peter and Clare, and Paul and Meredith. Love you guys!

First thing tomorrow - at the crack of dawn, more or less - I have a meeting with my local state member of parliament. Stuff does keep happening...

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy - look what happened to Professor X!

Yes, the Red Skull stole his brain, as revealed in Uncanny Avengers #1 and #2. Horrors!

Nice seeing some interaction between Rogue and the Scarlet Witch, including Rogue's memories of when she first joined the X-Men... with Professor X defending her despite her villainous past.

US Supreme Court to decide gene patents case

The Myriad gene patents case will be heard by the US Supreme Court. That is good news, I think. The whole area of gene patents is murky as a matter of law and legal principle.

My report on the original case can be found here. However, that judgment was overturned on appeal. In my view, the original judgment had a great deal of merit. In any event, the issue is overdue for consideration by a national court at the highest level. I hope we get a clear, principled decision out of this, however the court views it.

Randi the other night - now this is a bit better...

DJ Grothe sent me this shot.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Same-sex marriage issue could go to US Supreme Court

Will the US Supreme Court be willing to take on a case that would potentially overturn a Californian ruling in favour of same-sex marriage? If not, provision for same-sex marriage stands as law in California. If so, this will be a very important and legally complex case, in addition to its obvious social importance.

(My views on same-sex marriage can be found in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, among other places. For a relatively brief discussion of how I see marriage, go here.)

Friday, November 30, 2012

A fine day in the country

We had a fine day in rural Victoria - visiting our dear friends Janeen Webb and Jack Dann. No photos this time, but it's always nice to catch up with much-loved people in your life whom you don't get to see as often as you'd like to. Great food! Great conversation! And I enjoyed seeing what they've done of late to their beautiful house.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Jenny gets an unusual acceptance

In this case, it's a poem for kids that she first wrote (and had published) when she was just a kid herself - aged 12.

Hmmm, I don't think Jenny can claim it was professionally published back then. If I'm right about that, her first professional publication is still a poem in the magazine Dolly when she was 15 or 16. But I guess this will now be her first work to be eventually professionally published, or something. I'm not sure quite how she looks at it, but congratulations to her anyway!

Edit - come to think of it, the $5 Jenny got way back then might be quite respectable in modern terms if we adjusted for inflation!

I meet James Randi and meet up with DJ Grothe

I've worked with James Randi before, in that he wrote an essay for 50 Voices of Disbelief, but I hadn't actually met him until last night - that was a great privilege, as I've admired his work for many years. Jenny and I also got to spend a bit of time with my colleague and friend DJ Grothe - all at a Skeptics in the Pub meet-up here in Melbourne, where we're visiting for a few days.

I'm sure there are some photos of events, but none taken by me. So, alas, you're stuck with this brief all-text post.

Edit - here's a photo taken with Randi in which I look suitably demonic from the effect of the flash and, ahem, someone's de-reddening of my pupils.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy - How death works in the world of X-Men

This video provides a bit of fun ... and seems to be about right. I'm glad I chanced across it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The latest on our friend, Dave Mabus

Tim Farley has a long, detailed post over here about the latest with intenet troll Dave Mabus (and the events leading up to it). Farley deserves thanks for all his efforts in getting police intervention and in keeping us all posted.

I hope it goes without saying that, annoying as he may be, Mabus needs help... probably psychiatric help, though it's not up to me to try to diagnose him.

I bear the guy no ill will, even though this is one of the sites that he has disrupted from time to time, and despite the fact that some of the material I've received from him in the past has amounted to death threats against me and my family. I think we can conclude by now that he is probably more dangerous to himself than anyone else (though of course, you can never be totally sure - and these situations do need to be treated with some caution).

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Kenan Malik on why he is an atheist

Kenan Malik has a long post over here, on his own blog, explaining why he is an atheist. In the process, he also deals with a few well-known canards about atheism - without God, life lacks meaning and purpose; atheism entails some kind of repugnant moral nihilism; etc.

Which leads me to a small plug... these are, of course, among the issues that Udo Schuklenk and I will be discussing in our new book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, to be published by Wiley-Blackwell. Malik makes a good fist of them and scores some telling points against theistic belief... which is not to say that I endorse every point he makes (he is discussing philosophical issues, after all).

Have a look for yourself at Malik's post, which is detailed and interesting. It concludes with a nice flourish:
The human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no belief in God, no amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Being human, the choice is ours.

Deepest beliefs

How often do you hear religious people talk about their religious beliefs as their "deepest beliefs"? Very often, I suspect - if you do a google search, you'll find that this is a common trope. Not only that, non-believers who are solicitous toward religion will often make a fuss about how we must not mock the "deepest beliefs" of religious people, or force them to act in ways that violate their "deepest beliefs". Again, you can do your own google search - I'm not going to drag out the evidence, but will merely remark that this is a very common trope.

I suppose some religious people do, indeed, hold their religious beliefs at a very deep level, but this can't be assumed. For some others, it might be mainly a matter of associating powerful or "deep" emotions with these beliefs. That's not quite the same thing.

I suspect that many religious believers do not hold beliefs about certain gods, or the authority of certain organisations and holy books, or the efficacy of certain practices for spiritual salvation or the like, or the truth of certain religious moral claims at the very deepest level.

Say I were able to demonstrate to a particular religious believer's satisfaction the truth of the proposition: "Either God does not exist or you have three arms." Imagine this is a person who has the usual human complement of only two arms, and is as aware of this as most of us, and in the same ways, etc.

I would then be in a position to continue with this tight little argument:

P1. Either God does not exist or you have three arms. (This has, ex hypothesi, been demonstrated.)
P2. You do not have three arms. (This seems like an incontrovertible empirical fact.)
C. God does not exist. (Disjunction elimination)

I suppose that some believers in this situation might conclude that they actually do have three arms. Some believers might abandon their acceptance of disjunction elimination (or vE or "or elimination") as a logical rule. Many, however, would believe in the seemingly incontrovertible empirical fact that they are two-armed, and in the intuitively compelling rule of disjunction elimination, at a more fundamental level than they believe in the existence of God.

Of course, such a person might still be very emotionally attached to the idea that God exists, and might look desperately at the previous demonstration of P1., looking to find a flaw in the demonstration. But what if P1. also turned out to be demonstrable using only a mix of intuitively compelling logical rules and seemingly incontrovertible empirical facts? I'm pretty sure that many believers would crack and admit that God doesn't exist after all. For them, belief in the existence of God is not be as deeply held a belief as belief in certain everyday and seemingly incontrovertible empirical facts. Nor is it as deeply held as their belief in certain fundamental logical rules (whether or not they could actually name those rules formally).

I actually doubt that belief in God - or any other religious claims - is as deeply held for many people as belief in various everyday, seemingly incontrovertible facts, or as deeply held as belief in basic logical rules.

Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to demonstrate a proposition quite so devastating to theism as "Either God does not exist or you have three arms." The problem, then, is not necessarily that the religious beliefs of religious believers are literally their most deeply held beliefs. It's more that it's difficult devising an argument which shows a clear contradiction between religious beliefs and what are probably (even?) more deeply held beliefs.

All that said, it is worth watching how religious believers respond when confronted with, say, the Problem of Evil.

Some people don't want to look too closely at it, perhaps sensing how devastating it is to certainreligious and propositions that they hold dear. Some people are terribly troubled by it (and some of these actually do abandon their religious beliefs). Conversely, some people actually do dig in, and they often end up having to believe stuff that looks crazy to most non-believers... and would probably look crazy to many believers as well. This last class of people, those who dig in, perhaps do have their religious beliefs among those that are most deeply held. But that can end up looking a bit nuts, or seeming rather unpleasant, or as if they are occupying very contrived and unattractive positions.

And these religious people may not be typical, which is one reason why many people might simply not want to look closely.

And here we have a clue why some people actually do abandon religious beliefs. For them, these were not their deepest beliefs after all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Who would have guessed? Sex and alcohol make you happy!

Well, something like that - see this piece. In a New Zealand study, the participants apparently gave sex and "partying" top billing for what brings them happiness. Children and religion... well, not so much.

A bad decision - on the contraceptive mandate

I submit that the court decision discussed here by Ron Lindsay is wrong in principle. The outcome is to allow a religious publisher to evade the contraceptive mandate, and not offer its employees insurance cover with provision for contraceptives. Thus, the effect is to restrict the effect of a religiously neutral law of general applicability to employers (religous or otherwise) in the US. Such a law does not impinge on freedom of religion, as understood within the neo-Lockean model that I argue for - and which is pretty much accepted by the US Supreme Court in interpreting the First Amendment.

Importantly, persecution or imposition of religion in no way motivates the contraceptive mandate provision. Nor can it be said to be the primary effect of the law, or even some kind of disproportionate effect such as to make the law appear to be a contrivance or something of the sort. Nothing like any of this is involved. In principle, the law should have been upheld and left to operate freely.

If the case had been decided, with the same outcome in favour of the religious employer, under the First Amendment, I'd be fairly confident that it would be overturned on appeal. Note, however, that it appears (from Ron Lindsay's discussion) to have been decided under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which goes a lot further to give parties before the courts an affirmative right to practice their religions, which can include complying with religious canons of conduct, even in the face of neutral and general laws enacted to provide citizens with worldly benefits.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was a mistake. It gives rights to religion that go well beyond the historical point of religious freedom, i.e. to prevent the state from imposing a favoured religion or persecuting a disfavoured one. The statute did not restore religious freedom. Rather, it created a situation where religious individuals, organisations, etc., obtained legal rights in excess of religious freedom.

The effect of the Act was struck down at state level by a US Supreme Court judgment, back in the 1990s, but it continues to apply at federal level in the US (and in addition, some states have their own versions of it). The effect is to impede the federal legislature in defending perfectly legitimate, non-persecutorial laws when they are challenged in the courts. Instead of the situation being clear-cut under the Supreme Court's interpretation of the First Amendment, litigation over cases of "religious freedom" is now a dog's breakfast, as is trying to draft laws to conform to its requirements. This is an unsatisfactory situation, but I doubt that anything can be done about it in the short or medium term.

It's at least worthwhile, however, pointing out the problem. More people should be doing so. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act did not "restore" religious freedom in the US - something that the First Amendment protects adequately and did not need to be restored. It goes further and gives religious people and institutions - and even for-profit corporations - a special privilege to challenge neutral and general laws that they find inconvenient.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy - Uncanny X-Men returns



As of next February, the flagship Uncanny X-Men series will be restarted at #1 for the second time in the last year or two. This iteration neatly fits our "Sunday Supervillainy" theme because it focuses on the adventures of what is pretty close to a team of supervillains.

In the wake of the Avengers vs. X-Men event, Cyclops is now a full-blown mutant revolutionary, and his team is made up of Emma Frost, Magneto, and Magik - all of them morally dark characters. Their immediate aim is to rescue young mutants from bad situations and induct them into the team. Their ultimate goal, however, seems to be mutant revolution in some form.

It hasn't escaped anybody, I'm sure, that this rebel X-Men faction is pretty much an update of Magneto's old Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. It will be getting into conflicts with more law-abiding X-Men groups, though apparently it will also have a mission of protecting the world that hates and fears it. In that sense, it is a continuation of the Extinction Team that Kieron Gillen introduced to us in the previous series of Uncanny X-Men, although it is now down to its most hardcore members.

Magik has gradually become a favorite character of mine during AvX and especially since. I never used to think much of her one way or the other, but she's becoming a breakout character for Marvel at the moment. She's being portrayed as one of the most badass, ruthless, and competent of any of Marvel's characters with some claim to heroism - she's someone whom you'd hate in real life, but her destructive, demonic glee makes her a helluva fun character to watch in action.

Also of interest is the Chris Bachalo redesign of the main characters' costumes, which is going to take me some getting used to, though I think I might come to like it. At this stage we only have the cover of the first issue - I'm looking forward to seeing how the new visuals for Cyclops, Emma, Magneto, and Magik work within the covers.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A great Margo Lanagan interview

I like this interview with Margo Lanagan over at Gabrielle Wang's blog. I'm always interested in reading about authors' work routines, and Margo has some interesting things to say about hers.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Is abortion a greater evil than sex abuse?

Is abortion a greater evil than child abuse? Of course it isn't! Indeed, I don't generally regard abortion as an evil at all. We could doubtless get into hypothetical cases of late-term abortions carried out on a mere whim, but are there many, or any, such cases in the real world? In the real world I think you must either suffer from a distorted moral sense or be in the grip of a theory if you regard abortion as the real evil (as opposed, say, to denying an abortion to a desperate woman or teenage girl).

And yet, we see statements made from time to time that abortion is a worse evil than, say, the sexual abuse of children, or that the widespread occurrence of abortions in modern societies constitutes an evil akin to black slavery or the Nazi Holocaust.

Frankly, these sorts of statements appear repugnant. What is especially repugnant, and to many people unintelligible, is how something that has great benefits in reducing or avoiding suffering - the ready availability of abortion to desperate women and girls - is being compared to sources of terrible suffering, such as slavery, sex abuse, and the Holocaust. Surely someone who makes these comparisons must be crazy or evil... right? Wrong.

I don't think that Catholic moralists, for example, are crazy or evil. Nor do I think that they are hypocritically rationalising what is really a hatred of women or a wish to keep women in subjection. Yes, there may be an element of that if we delve back far enough into Catholic (say) sexual morality. The Catholic moral system may fossilise ancient attitudes of misogyny, and particularly fears of women's sexual power and freedom.

But I actually think we should take people like Cardinal George Pell, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, at their word. They really do accept a moral system that, as a matter of fact, rationalises many ancient moral attitudes and ideas on a false basis ... and ends up producing totally different results from a moral system based on amelioration of suffering (or, if you are a moral abolitionist like Richard Garner or Joel Marks, from a settled attitude of simply being opposed to suffering).

People like Cardinal Pell are not crazy or evil. In many circumstances, they will think and feel and act much as I (for example) would. They will show people respect and compassion.

But when it comes to thinking about anything to do with sexuality, they are in the grip of a horrible, miserable, cruel moral theory. They have been indoctrinated into it, and they actually believe it. From inside that theory, it is all consistent and all makes sense, even if you are otherwise a decent person.

If you don't understand that point, you'll find much of the behaviour of your opponents simply incomprehensible, and you'll just be dumbfounded when your own expressions of moral repugnance have no impact on them. Your opponents will appear to be monstrous. From their viewpoint, however, whatever you say is ill-informed and essentially irrelevant. They will dismiss it, but not because they are monsters or even because, as individuals, they are arrogant. Mainly, they are deeply mistaken about reality (which makes them the exact opposite of moral leaders or moral authorities).

Seen from the outside, of course, Catholic (and similar) sexual morality appears ridiculous and repugnant. All the more reason to fight against it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What do the New Atheists really say?

While we're talking about the New Atheists, what do they really say? You'd think, from the various denunciations, etc., that they just come out with long, unstructured, uncivil rants against religion. Who would think that the core New Atheist books contain detailed, thoughtful arguments and that they actually make out cases for certain ideas? You may disagree with those ideas, but surely they are worth rational discussion.

At the risk of being reductive, I think the following is a reasonable starting point to identify what they are really on about.

Sam Harris, The End of Faith. What people believe will actually motivate their actions. Therefore, we cannot simply be tolerant of all beliefs. At least some level of pushback against extreme religious beliefs is justified, and moderate religious people are not assisting with this.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Orthodox or popular theism can be seen as a persistent false belief, one that survives in the absence of evidence and even against our best evidence of how the universe works. Furthermore, it causes actual, identifiable harms.

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell. We ought to devote a lot more time and energy to the study of religion as a natural phenomenon. This will be more useful than the current deference to religion and assumption that it is at least socially valuable (if not actually true).

Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great. The big problem with religion, especially with Christianity, is not so much that it's false as that it comprehensively denigrates human nature and valuable human experience. In that sense, it "poisons everything".

Doubtless all four (well all three, plus Hitchens before his untimely death) would tend to support the main ideas of the others. But they have different specific concerns and different emphases, and they do put actual arguments for their positions. Importantly, while they don't mince words they do remain within broadly accepted standards for civility.

They deserve to be engaged in detail, with appropriate arguments, qualified agreement where that is appropriate, and so on. Instead, the response is often merely an attempt to demonise them and thus try to neutralise them as contributors to debate in the public sphere. That's not good enough.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A study of the effects of abortion ... and denying abortions

Here's an interesting article by Annalee Newitz, over at io9, about the social and psychological effects on women of having abortions ... compared with being denied an abortion that you want.

The question here is whether anti-abortion laws can be justified on paternalistic grounds, presumably because women who want abortions, but are prevented from having them, will end up being better off than they would be if they actually had the abortions. Before I go on, there is something offensive about the state enacting laws on this basis... telling you what to do in relation to very important decisions in your life on the basis that it knows your own good better than you do. This is a significant use of coercive power to override your autonomy. But even if we waive that point, are women likely to be better off if denied abortions?

Well, the study (as reported) doesn't seem to support that proposition. On the contrary, it appears more likely that someone who has been "turned away" from having an abortion will be stuck in an abusive relationship and/or trapped in poverty. Moreover, the medical risk of carrying a baby to term is greater than that of having an abortion. Finally, there is no sign of any greater risk of psychiatric illness such as clinical depression. Statistically speaking, there doesn't seem to be any downside to abortion.

Even if we accept the idea of paternalistic laws far more readily than I do, this looks like a weak case.

On Chris Stedman's Faitheist

I'm currently reading this book, and am writing a fairly lengthy piece on it (maybe a couple of thousand words) that I'll be submitting to Free Inquiry.

Just a few quick thoughts here, though. I've enjoyed Faitheist as the memoir of a life that has been interesting so far (though, alas, with its share of pain during the author's adolescence), and Stedman can certainly write lucid, concise, enjoyable prose. There are some small (seeming?) oddities, as when John Berryman is referred to as "a deceased gay Minnesotan poet". I don't know what that's all about, since Berryman was well-known for being heterosexually predacious. Even if it turns out he was bisexual (which would be news to me!), he seems an odd person to refer to as Stedman does. Could someone please enlighten me about this? Does Stedman know something I don't? Anyway, the memoir parts of the book make for a solid read ... sometimes even a poignant one.

I'm less impressed by Stedman's analysis of how we should talk about religion and the religious. I actually agree with him that some more civility might be in order as the default. But that's because we see some material on the internet (in particular) that is totally undiscriminating and unnuanced, mindlessly hostile, and even vilifying. This is not something we should aspire to. The atheist blogosphere is not always a pretty sight.

But Stedman goes too far in his denunciations of authors such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and to a lesser extent of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. In my opinion, none of these authors violates ordinary standards of civility that are accepted in, say, political debate. Perhaps they could be argued to have "given permission" (as they say) to others to be more offensive and less nuanced. Really, though, I encourage my readers to go and read any of these people carefully. See for yourself how they develop their critiques of religion. You'll see that their styles are calm, rational, and suitably varied to the topic. These are all fine writers with skilled control, in each case, of the "voice" that comes through.

None of that is to deny an element of moral indignation in some of what they write (some engage in this more than others). But we do not see incivility for its own sake.

In the past, I've disagreed with Harris, in particular, about some issues, but it is all too easy to demonise people. Unfortunately, there's that tendency in Faitheist. I wish the author had torn out a few pages on reflection (or rather, deleted them from the manuscript). The strength of his argument in favour of more civility will tend to be lost on many people because he overreaches. Yet, surely he has a point,and it's unfortunate that it might get lost in the inevitable kerfuffle.

[Edit: One sentence above is badly worded and conveys something rather different from what I actually had in mind: it's the sentence beginning, "But Stedman goes too far...". See comments below for explanation of what I was trying to convey.]

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Big Brother is going to be watching you

While we're celebrating a reasonable outcome to the political debate in Australia about internet censorship, let's pause to note that the next debate will be about internet surveillance. It seems that the government now wants to go ahead with this scary proposal, whereby telcos/ISPs will be required to retain your online data for two years. I.e. the police will be able to find out exactly where you've been and what you've done on the internet over the last couple of years, so you'd better worry about what you might have said or looked at that you don't want grandma or the public to know about.

Doubtless there would have to be safeguards with something like this, and it will be interesting to see what is proposed, but this is a degree of intrusiveness into our privacy that is not to be taken lightly. We're in for another messy but necessary debate before this one gets resolved.

Friday, November 09, 2012

More sex when drunk

Okay, I need to get more people reading this blog - it lost some traffic during its recent semi-hiatus in October.

So allow me to point out Jeremy Stangroom's post at Talking Philosophy, entitled "More Sex When Drunk". It's a perfectly good post, making a point of some importance, and I must get around to commenting on it. But my interest for the moment is that I notice when I check TP's stats that it's pulled in an unusually large number of views. I guess that's the internet for you.

So that's my interesting sociological datum of the day.

And now to see whether the same effect is achieved here. :)

Australian government backtracks on internet censorship

The Australian government has apparently abandoned its clean feed/mandatory filtering proposal, contenting itself with requiring ISPs to block Interpol's list of the most severely abusive child pornography sites.

I doubt that anyone who has been opposing mandatory filtering wants to defend those sites or access to them, even if a requirement imposed on ISPs causes them some inconvenience (too bad: for most of us, that was never what the argument was about). The sort of material that makes it to Interpol's list is obviously abusive.

Meanwhile, this outcome is an example of what I often argue for on this blog and elsewhere - we have ended up with a narrowly tailored law that deals with the worst aspects of a social problem, without an overreaching and clumsy attempt to micromanage things. The latter often sounds fine in theory, but it too easily creates systems that are over-inclusive and, in any event, ripe for scope creep. Wherever important freedoms are at stake - such as freedom of speech - that is not acceptable.

In this case, the public opposition to overreaching legislative proposals was successful. All the same, we need to be vigilant against this sort of thing whenever we see it.

Of course, it shouldn't be surprising that those moral watchdogs at the Australian Christian Lobby still want a wide-ranging scheme of censorship of sexual material on internet, based on "think of the children" grounds.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Steve Zara on Faitheist by Chris Stedman

Steve Zara gives a (surprisingly?) positive review to Chris Stedman's book, Faitheist. I'll be reading this book, and writing about it, myself. At this point, let me just say that I welcome the book, even though I am almost sure to find a great deal to disagree with.

I'm known, I suppose, as one of the more prominent anti-accommodationist thinkers/writers ... but anti-accommodationism in this sense just means that I don't think that religious doctrines can be accommodated straightforwardly within a scientific view of the world (for example, using Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA principle).

I also think that there is a place for stark, dramatic expressions of our problems with religion, as with the title of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I think there is a place for reductio ad absurdum arguments against religious views, showing how bizarre they can seem when their implications are examined, or how ridiculous they can appear in total when you step out of them. And religious views, like everything else, can be fair game for mockery and satire. That especially applies when the adherents of these views seek to wield power or political influence.

I guess this means that I am no "faitheist", which I take to be an atheist who considers religion a good thing, wants to say nothing against it, considers it beyond satire, etc. For a start ...generally speaking, I don't think religion is a good thing.

All that said, there are limits. I don't think that we should go after good, moderate religious people without restraint. I don't think that incivility, dismissiveness, and mere abuse are often appropriate. On the contrary, I think it's worthwhile striking a few blows for thoughtfulness, fairness, kindness, and civility. Satire is often justified, and even outright anger and mockery can be justified in some circumstances, but surely we can be a bit discriminating and careful about when.

If that is part of what Stedman wants to argue, I'm fine with it, and that's the way I'd hope to treat his book.

The Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2011


This beautiful book contains a selection of the best fantasy and horror stories published in 2011, as chosen by Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene. Among the stories is "The Head in the Goatskin Bag" by Jenny Blackford (originally published in Kaleidotrope #13). Jenny's author's copy has turned up in the mail, and of course she's thrilled to have it in her hand - and I'm just about as thrilled.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Free will and moral responsibility

I'm reading Against Moral Responsibility by Bruce N. Waller (MIT Press 2011). There's much to say about it, but the book is notable for challenging the tight connection that analytic philosophers make between ideas of free will and ideas of moral responsibility. Indeed, there is a near consensus among recent and current philosophers (at least those in the analytic tradition) that we possess free will just insofar as we possess the capacity to act with moral responsibility.

However, it's possible to find exceptions, philosophers who've questioned the consensus. There do seem to be other conceptions of free will - whether in philosophical writings, popular culture, or elsewhere - and I question whether the anxieties that ordinary people have in mind when they worry about having free will actually do track so closely with the idea of moral responsibility (whatever this might amount to).

Waller takes an unusual position in arguing that we possess a form of compatibilist free will (and he seems to think that this is a good answer to much of what we are concerned about with free will talk), while at the same time denying that we ever have moral responsibility. If that combination of ideas sounds untenable, bizarre, or plain heretical, you might like to check out his book and the arguments he offers. I'm not really persuaded, but it's possible that he's hit on a position which does better justice than outright hard determinism to the intuitions and concerns of people like Sam Harris who want to deny the existence of free will. He certainly develops his position with much detail and care.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Eric MacDonald & last year's IQ2 debate

I came across this somewhat by chance. Eric MacDonald comments on the IQ2 Australia debate on the topic "Atheists are wrong", held in Sydney last year and subsequently broadcast on national radio and television here in Australia.

As my regular readers will know, Peter Jensen (the Anglican archbishop of Sydney), and theologians Scott Stephens and Tracey Rowland spoke in favour of the motion.

Tamas Pataki, Jane Caro, and I (pictured here from the ABC's video) formed the opposition team, speaking against it.

Written versions of the speeches were also published on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal, though mine is a reconstruction that may not much resemble what I actually said, as I spoke with little recourse to my notes.

For whatever it might be worth, the opposition team was declared victorious in the debate: following the rules used by IQ2, the live audience shifted toward our position when polled before and after the debate. We gained a big chunk of the undecided vote and a small piece of the "for" vote.

It's hard to know what to make of these sorts of results, and I discussed in some posts last year what, if anything, such debates, on whatever topic, really mean. Arguably, they are won by whichever team seems more likable overall to the audience, but it would be interesting to see some research to establish whether there's more to it than that - just why do people change their votes? What we do know about debates in the IQ2 format is that the pre-debate and post-debate votes often, indeed typically, show dramatic shifts one way or the other, for whatever reasons.

Eric MacDonald's post contains some embedded video from the debate (though you can find this elsewhere). It includes an excerpt from my presentation as third speaker for the opposition, as well as material from Dr Jensen's performance that night.

MacDonald is rather scathing about the theodical ideas put forward by Dr Jensen during the debate in response to my challenge as to why the world (not to mention the Christian churches, with their very flawed histories) looks as it does if it's the creation of an omnicompetent god of love. Says MacDonald:
Their god, according to Jensen, spent billions of years thoroughly enjoying himself, but, in order to become human, we need to suffer and be diminished, and Jensen, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of his ilk, are not at all backward when it comes to forcing people to undergo this suffering and this diminishment, all the while repeating the empty catch phrases about the goodness, the power and the love of their god.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

On the future of this blog (more)

This blog was largely in hiatus through October, which was for a number of reasons. One was simply that I was very busy with Udo Schuklenk putting the finishing touches on the manuscript of our next book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism. This can be seen as, in a way, a sequel to our co-edited volume 50 Voices of Disbelief.

Since we submitted the manuscript in mid-October, there's been a flurry of activity, as we plot and plan with each other and our commissioning editor at Wiley-Blackwell. There will be more news, no doubt, as the book goes through the editing/publishing process, but at this stage I can just say that we're very excited about it, and we're getting great feedback from the publisher. As the title might suggest, we'll be examining a wide range of myths, misconceptions, slanders, and half-truths about atheism and atheists. Amongst it, we'll also have quite a bit to say about the rise of modern atheism and why we think atheism is the most reasonable response to the God question.

I also have a deadline looming for another book, Humanity Enhanced, which will be published by MIT Press. This is involving a lot of work, and it is intensifying as that deadline approaches.

Some people may think that I'm a glutton for punishment, but I also stepped up during October to become the new chair of the board of a significant local arts body, here in Newcastle, Australia, the Hunter Writers' Centre. This immediately involved me (in a modest way) with the lead-up to the Centre's annual flagship event, the award night for the prestigious (and even somewhat lucrative) Newcastle Poetry Prize. The NPP is one of the most important annual literary awards in Australia. And there's the prospect of even more news relating to literature in Newcastle. That will have to wait for now, but I'm very pleased to find myself more closely involved in the cultural life of this beautiful city where I grew up, and to which I returned from Melbourne three years ago.

In the background of my own life, though, there are ongoing and worrying health issues in my family (not directly involving me!). That's placed some demands on my energy level just lately ... well, since about June.

While all this has been happening, I've been somewhat neglecting this poor blog and even wondering about its future. However, I do still think that it has a future as my personal blog, even if my lengthier and more philosophical pieces (particularly those where I feel I am writing for professional philosophers) are more likely to appear elsewhere, such as at Talking Philosophy.

Okay, so I've decided that the place needs a facelift. One thing I've been thinking of doing for some time is changing its title from "Metamagician and the Hellfire Club" to simply "The Hellfire Club". When I started blogging over six years ago, the "Metamagician" part made some sense in relation to how I saw the blog evolving. However, it has little actual relevance to the blog as it exists today - and merely makes the name more esoteric and difficult.

From now on, just plain "The Hellfire Club" it is. If the blog ever migrates elsewhere, which I do contemplate from time to time, that's the name it will continue under. The sort-of-new name, "The Hellfire Club", signals not just a certain anti-religious aspect - though I reiterate that this has never been an atheist blog more than a lot of other things - but also a certain alienation from much conventional moral and similar wisdom, which has been subjected to a running critique. That element will continue ... and, indeed, it may become more important.

Would people who have this blog listed on their blog rolls, or anything similar, please adjust accordingly.

The rest of the facelift is a work in progress, and you may see more tinkering over the next few days. But I was getting a bit bored with the look of it as it was. Time for something new!