Not Saussure

April 28, 2007

Dawkins vs God, umpteenth round

Filed under: Philosopy, Religion — notsaussure @ 1:28 pm

John Milton’s take on it:

In discourse more sweet
(For Eloquence the Soul, Song charms the Sense,)
Others apart sat on a Hill retir’d,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate,
Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandring mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argu’d then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and Apathie, and glory and shame,
Vain wisdom all, and false Philosophie:
Yet with a pleasing sorcerie could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope, or arm th’ obdured brest
With stubborn patience as with triple steel.

Not a scientific proposition, certainly. Nor, to my mind, to be dismissed solely on the grounds it isn’t one or that Milton must have been a brain-washed idiot.

That’s one of my main objections to Richard Dawkins’ method of arguing; not so much that it’s wrong but that it misses the point. Someone can advance the hypothesis that King Lear was, in fact, written not by William Shakespeare but by Sir Francis Bacon. It’s an highly improbable hypothesis, to my mind, and one that I’m happy to ignore unless — which I admit as a theoretical possibility, however slight — someone can adduce convincing evidence for it. However, someone can also advance the hypothesis that

no unhypnotized observer, if such an observer existed, could read it [Lear] to the end with any feeling except ‘aversion and weariness’. And exactly the same is true of ‘all the other extolled dramas of Shakespeare, not to mention the senseless dramatized tales, Pericles, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida.’

As Orwell says,

One’s first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he [Tolstoy] is saying something demonstrably untrue. But this is not the case. In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that — for instance — Warwick Deeping is ‘bad’.

There are ways of arguing against Tolstoy’s criticisms of Shakespeare, but, ultimately, there would be no way of convincing him that he’s wrong — or of convincing me that he’s right — in the way you might convince someone that Bohemia has no seacoast. Nor, indeed, would many people think that the merits or otherwise of The Winter’s Tale depend on its geographical accuracy, any more than is Tolstoy’s account of the Battle of Borodino susceptible to criticism as a work of military history.

Sir Peter Medawar was of the view

That there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer […] . I have in mind such questions as

  • How did everything begin?
  • What are we all here for?
  • What is the point of living?

Doctrinaire positivism — now something of a period piece — dismissed such questions as nonquestions or pseudoquestions such as only simpletons ask and only charlatans profess to be able to answer (The Limits Of Science, p 66)

Clearly you don’t need religion to answer such questions, but it seems perversely to miss the point if you complain that they’re being answered in a non-scientific manner.

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April 26, 2007

Why Richard Dawkins is irritating.

Filed under: Philosopy, Religion — notsaussure @ 11:21 pm

Matt, at An Insomniac, has a thoughtful article lamenting the way atheists seem to be getting up people’s noses, rather. I very much agree with him — especially when he says,

the hostile tone adopted considerably weakens the arguments being made. Whatever you believe, starting off by telling those you want to convince that they’re dangerous idiots is not the way to go about things. It simply hardens people against you – as can be seen by the responses to columns written by the likes of Terry Sanderson or A. C. Grayling in the Guardian and elsewhere. They’re merely preaching to the choir, and are unlikely to have changed any minds by it.

I frequently wonder who these writers are trying to convince, because they’re clearly not trying to persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with them. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy;

‘Only a brain-washed idiot could fail to realise that God is a delusion!’
‘Well, I believe in God, and I don’t consider myself a brain-washed idiot, so I don’t think I can agree with you there.’
‘See, I said you were brain-washed’.

Personally, I think it’s a bit of fruitless argument, since it’s more about ways of seeing the world than about a proposition that can be proved or disproved one way or the other. We can’t argue about whether a certain picture is beautiful or not in the same way we can determine whether it’s hanging in the National Gallery or The Louvre, but the fact that we can’t agree on its merits doesn’t mean we can’t have an interesting and useful discussion — which may well change the attitudes of one or the other — or both — of us, and it would be pointless to conduct the discussion in terms of ‘you’re an idiot because you don’t see things the way I do’. For an excellent example, to my mind, of a very good-natured and illuminating discussion between a convinced atheist and a convinced believer, one could do a lot worse than look at the debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan at BeliefNet. They neither of them, I think, started out under the illusion that the other would end up changing his mind, but it was still a worthwhile debate. And well done Sam Harris for choosing to debate not with a crackpot red-neck literalist who thinks the world was created a few thousand years ago but with an intelligent and thoughtful gay Catholic secularist like Andrew Sullivan. (more…)

March 26, 2007

The Trap III: We Will Force You To Be Free

Filed under: Philosopy, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 10:08 pm

The final part of Adam Curtis’ series, The Trap, We Will Force You To Be Free (download at Indybay, as are the previous parts) is summarised in quite some detail by Wikipedia. It was far more focussed, to my mind, than were the previous two programmes, omitting the discussions of psychology and genetics that I found interesting but ultimately distracting. Instead, it took as its starting point Sir Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive freedom, explored in his 1958 lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty (free registration required; paid subscription to read the whole lecture, but the sections introducing the two concepts are free).

The programme explored the ways the protection of negative freedom had been used, particularly by the USA, as a bulwark against both Soviet Communism and the various anti-colonial struggles of national liberation, pursuing their ideal of positive freedom to govern themselves. Curtis traced the way that the Marxist ideas of Franz Fanon on anti-colonialism and the way that, in his view, the violent anti-colonial struggle is an act of personal liberation quite apart from its political ends of national independence, were developed and mediated by Ali Shariati (see also this website devoted to him), of whom I’m afraid I’d never heard, and the Ayatollah Khomeini.

I had heard of the latter, obviously, but I wasn’t hitherto aware of the way that his thinking was, apparently, a fusion of Shi’ite Islam and Sartre’s Marxist Existentialism as mediated by Fanon and Shariati. This was quite an eye-opener for those of us who’re more used to thinking of the Islamic Fundamentalists as being throw-backs to the Middle-Ages. (more…)

February 27, 2007

Gordon Brown and National Purpose

Filed under: Philosopy, Politics — notsaussure @ 9:17 pm

Chris Dillow quotes Gordon Brown’s call for a ‘national purpose’

A strong sense of being British helps unite and unify us; it builds stronger social cohesion among communities. We know that other countries have a strong sense of national purpose, even a sense of their own destiny. And so should we. And it helps us deal with issues as varied as what Britain does in Europe; to issues of managed migration and how we better integrate ethnic minorities.

and, quite rightly, counterpoises Michael Oakeshott’s view of government; as Oakeshott says,

The spring of this other disposition in respect of governing and the instruments of government – a conservative disposition – is to be found in the acceptance of the current condition of human circumstances as I have described it: the propensity to make our own choices and find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued with passion, the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth; the inventiveness, the changefulness and the absence of any large design; the excess, the over-activity and the informal compromise. And the office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, not to tutor or to educate them, not to make them better or happier in another way, not to direct them, to galvanize them into action, to lead them or to coordinate their activities so that no occasion of conflict shall occur; the office of government is merely to rule. This is a specific and limited activity, easily corrupted when it is combined with any other, and, in the circumstances, indispensible. The image of the ruler is the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game, or the chairman who governs the debate according to known rules but does not himself participate in it. (more…)

January 6, 2007

Trying out your new sword on a chance wayfarer

Filed under: history, Internet, Philosopy — notsaussure @ 2:28 pm

Listening to The News Quiz on Radio 4 this lunchtime, I heard Jo Brand explaining that her favourite word was a Japanese term meaning ‘to try out your new sword on a passer-by’, which she rather liked the sound of (assuming, one supposes, she felt herself at no risk of being the passer-by), but she couldn’t remember the Japanese term for this practice. This vaguely reminded me of an essay I’d read years ago — must have been late ’70s or early ’80s — when I came across a discussion of the practice in a philosophical essay of that title, which used it to attack moral and cultural relativism. Apparently, the Japanese samurai not only had to be able to kill their masters’ enemies in battle but they had to be able to dispatch them with a single blow; failure so to do was apparently an immense dishonour and the only possible way to atone for it was to commit ritual suicide.

Consequently, the provident samurai would, on taking delivery of a new sword, obviously want to road-test it to determine it was, in fact, ‘fit for purpose.’ There were complex rules about who could be used as guinea-pigs in these experiments and, apparently, chance wayfarers were the best choice. The author of the essay used this example to try to argue that, no matter how tolerant and liberal minded one was, and no matter how much one understood the cultural milieu of the samurai, there was no way a C20th Western liberal could begin to justify the practice.

My take on it, by the way, was that it probably — no matter what anyone said — didn’t go down too well with chance wayfarers in Japan at the time, so this was probably another example of a particular group in a society trying to pretend its cultural practices were the norm, and, in any case, if anyone tried to explain that his habit of running about slicing people up would have been considered perfectly normal behaviour in C16th Japan, that was all very interesting but not much of a guide to behaviour in Britain nowadays and that our legal system takes a dim view of such activities; I’ve always rather liked the quote attributed to General Napier when he was suppressing sati in British India:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

(another example of powerful elites determining social morality, you see).

Anway, my curiosity piqued by Jo Brand’s recollection of the practice, I thought I’d try to look up the article, or at least the Japanese term for it. Mr Google quickly led me to To Try a New Sword on a Chance Wayfarer: This blog, a crossroads. My words, a sword. You, a chance wayfarer, where the latest entry is:

Hey English people!

Why are you visiting my blog? Don’t get me wrong; I love new visitors, especially from outside the USA. But I’ve been getting a bunch of visits from people in England searching for variations of “to try a new sword on a chance wayfarer.” It’s made me really curious. Are you all looking it up for a Japanese language class assignment or something?

So it rather seems that a lot of other people wondered about the term, too.

I was also delighted to discover from one of the comments that the Japanese term is Tsujigiri (辻斬)

Who says you never learn anything from fooling about on the internet?

(Now, let’s see what this does for my hits).

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November 25, 2006

Politics and Religion

Filed under: Community, Philosopy, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 12:22 am

This week, the New Generation Network launched itself with a manifesto in the Guardian’s Comment is Free, along with an article by one of its founders, Pickled Politics’ Sunny Hundal. All very good stuff, or so it seems to me, particularly their dislike of communal politics —

As Britons we want to be treated not as homogenous blocks but as free-thinking citizens with diverse views.

So-called community leaders and race-relations experts should be seen as lobbyists not representatives. They do not have a democratic mandate to represent anyone.

— and their recognition of everyone’s multiple cultural identities. They speak of

The right to combine mixed identities, which include culture, faith, ethnicity, religion and more [which] is the essence of an open society. These rights must be underpinned by a common citizenship which protects our rights.

I very much dislike the reductive rhetoric that seeks to define everyone by their membership of some monolithic ‘community’; that seems badly misguided for two reasons. First, there’s no such thing as an homogenous cultural group in the first place; if you think of any religious or political group — the Catholic Church or Labour supporters, for example — it’s obvious that such groups contain a whole swathe of different and sometimes hostile opinions. Second, people aren’t defined solely by their membership of any one group, since, again, people members of loads of groups which help to define their experience of life and attitudes towards it. You might be a Muslim, but you’re also male or female, straight or gay, from a particular age group, living in a particular part of the UK and part of a particular economic group, and your family comes from a particular part of the world. All of these are perfectly real ‘communities’ and you live in their various intersections, while neither any one of them, nor all of them in combination, fully define who you are.

Apologies… this goes on at quite some length; you’ve been warned…


October 28, 2006

Critical Thinking and undistributed middles

Filed under: Panic, Philosopy — notsaussure @ 2:20 pm

Garry, writing at The Sharpener, takes issue with a prevalent line of muddled argument both among politicians and in the blogoball (© Garry; he says he’s dissatisfied with the other word and this term has the advantage of not being it). He gives a non-specific example thus:

Let’s say that A is a defined characteristic or experience and that X is a particular act. We do a study and discover that every single person who commits act X has first conformed to characteristic A. Can we conclude that characteristic A causes act X?

and then shows how it’s applied in specific cases;

Let’s try a real example. Characteristic A will be defined as those who have smoked cannabis. Act X will be injecting heroin. In that example, studies have shown that almost all injectors of heroin were cannabis smokers first. I’ve seen any number of politicians say that this proves that cannabis is a “gateway drug” but it is a conclusion which cannot be drawn.

Here’s another example. Characteristic A will be defined as those who have smoked cigarettes. Act X will be injecting heroin. In that example, studies have shown that almost all injectors of heroin were cigarette smokers first. Now if you’re a smoker and you think I’m wrong in the previous example, you might be starting to feel unease here. Doesn’t this prove that tobacco is also a ‘gateway drug’? No, it bloody well doesn’t.

It’s also, as he says, used of suicide bombers and Islam:


October 5, 2006

Religion — inherited or not?

Filed under: Blogroll, Catholicism, civil liberties, Islam, Philosopy — notsaussure @ 8:58 pm

An interesting point in the comments to a piece on Those Evil Muuuuslems at A Big Stick…

Garry makes the perfectly reasonable point that

Religious belief isn’t the same as race. As I’ve said before, you can choose your religion but not the colour of your skin. But you should be free to choose your religion. Those who follow a particular religion should be able to follow that religion without being smeared, misrepresented, or persecuted for the crimes of the few.

However, in one of the replies Andrew Bartlett expresses something similar to I’ve often thought but never really seen expressed so clearly: (more…)

September 26, 2006

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (II)

Filed under: Books, Philosopy, Religion — notsaussure @ 9:36 am

Andrew, over at Definition Britain, takes issue with some of the things I said about Richard Dawkins’s new book, The God Delusion, or, rather, about Joan Bakewell’s review of it. I told him I’d expand on the subject, so here’s my latest rumination. I’ve still not read the book — I’d better do, after all this, and give my considered opinion later — but I think I can see, both from the review and the Amazon blurb” TARGET=””>Amazon blurb, where he’s coming from.

‘While Europe’, Amazon tell us,

is becoming increasingly secularized, the rise of religious fundamentalism, whether in the Middle East or Middle America, is dramatically and dangerously dividing opinion around the world. In America, and elsewhere, a vigorous dispute between ‘intelligent design’ and Darwinism is seriously undermining and restricting the teaching of science. In many countries religious dogma from medieval times still serves to abuse basic human rights such as women’s and gay rights. And all from a belief in a God whose existence lacks evidence of any kind.

All perfectly true, and it’s perfectly understandable why someone who spends so much of his time quite rightly fighting religious fundamentalists about their loopy views on evolution should see religion in terms of fundamentalism.But, it seems to me, this leads him into exactly the same mistake perpetrated by American anti-communists 50-odd years ago; they looked at the horrors Stalin’s Soviet Union was perpetrating in the name of dialectical materialism and concluded that a lot of the problem with ‘Godless communism’ was that it was Godless rather than that it was communist. It would obviously be insane — and a logical fallacy — to argue that because atheist regimes like the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China ‘abuse’ or did abuse ‘basic human rights’ on a massive scale, atheism inevitably leads to the abuse of human rights. Fundamentalism — whether religious or secular — may well so do, but that’s to do with the way people tend behave when they know they’ve got right on their side. Doesn’t much matter, it seems to me, whether it’s God or ‘scientific socialism’ that tell them they’re right; the results are much the same for the poor bugger on the receiving end.

What if you believe in God but you’re not a religious fundamentalist? Joan Bakewell says

When sophisticated believers claim disarmingly that “we don’t take Genesis literally any more,” [Dawkins] rails “That is my whole point!” It’s as much a pick-and-mix philosophy as believers accuse atheists of.

Well, that’s the Roman Catholic Church, among others, you’re talking about. They certainly don’t take Genesis literally, have never read the Bible as literal truth in the way you’d read your washing-machine manual and disagree with Christian fundamentalists almost as much as does Richard Dawkins (though for different reasons, obviously). There’s certainly no necessary contradiction that I can see in believing that God created the universe and the rules by which it runs, and that these rules include the mechanisms of natural selection. The short answer to a fundamentalist who wants to argue creationism with you is that if someone’s reading of the Bible leads him to conclusions that fly in the face of the available evidence, then it’s quite possible he’s misreading it, since while the Bible may well be infallible, human understanding certainly ain’t.It needs more argument than this — so I suppose I’d better go and read the book — but Dawkins can’t just dismiss the objection that some — many — people who disagree with him don’t actually say what he thinks they ought to be saying by telling them they should be saying something different so he can disagree with them more easily. I’d buy that if, and only if, someone can convince me that evangelical Protestantism is the only valid form of religious, or even Christian, belief.

Certainly, my point is open to the objection that you don’t need God to explain the workings of natural selection and the rest of the universe, and I’d completely agree. But to my mind that misses the point, since we’re talking about two different levels of discourse. Science doesn’t admit, quite rightly, unnecessary and unverifiable hypotheses in scientific statements. But since we don’t spend all — or even much — of our time making scientific statements, I don’t see what the problem is.

Scientific statements are a way of describing an aspect of the world, but that doesn’t mean that aspects of the world that can’t readily be accommodated by scientific statements aren’t worth making statements about. You can’t, for example, demonstrate the proposition that the novels of Charles Dickens are better than those of Jeffrey Archer in the way that you can demonstrate a scientific hypothesis, but that doesn’t make it a meaningless or irrational statement.

September 23, 2006

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Filed under: Books, Philosopy, Religion — notsaussure @ 5:09 pm

Joan Bakewell reviewing Richard Dawkin’s new book, The God Delusion. I’m not sure if her summary does his argument justice here, but it seems to me to exemplify why his evangelical mission, as it were, will only succeed with people who already agree with him:

Believers wrongly accuse Dawkins of being himself a fundamentalist, a fundamentalist atheist. He argues the difference: that given proof he was wrong he would at once change his opinions, whereas the true fundamentalist clings to his faith whatever the challenge. What he doesn’t satisfactorily answer is the sense that people of faith have of the divine, a true experience for them that encompasses love and joy and celebration – all the things Dawkins finds in the physical world. He doesn’t comprehend that for many people reasoned argument is not the final arbiter of how they choose to live their lives. They are swayed by feelings, moved by loyalties, willing to set logic aside for the sake of psychic comfort. Tell them that all this is the product of chemical and electrical activity in the brain and they will at best assert that God made it thus. For decades now we have been willing to let such diversity of unverifiable beliefs exist among a democratic tolerance of ideas. But this, the assumption of the secular outlook, can no longer be taken for granted. The clouds are darkening around tolerance.

I’d go so far as to say that no one lives their life primarily on the basis of reasoned argument, let alone with it as the final arbiter. (more…)

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