March 2011 archive

The Poverty of Postmodernism

You may not realise it, but you’ve probably been poisoned by postmodernism. No-one who lived through the 1970s would have escaped untainted. And just about anyone who underwent schooling or a university education in the 1980s or 1990s received a crippling dose. I was entirely oblivious to my own indoctrination during my undergraduate in the early ‘90s until only a few years ago.

You can blame postmodernism for the banalities of political correctness.

You can blame it for making contemporary art ugly and incomprehensible.

You can blame it for moral relativism, and the inability to criticise individuals from other cultures when they do plainly heinous things.

You can blame it for rampant individualism and greed.

You can also blame it for words like ‘deconstruction,’ ‘hermeneutics,’ and my favourite, ‘subversion.’ You can even blame it for the identity crisis afflicting the political Left.

The good news is that postmodernism is philosophically defunct. Deep exhale. We can all let it go now. Let it sink to the bottom of the Swamp of Bankrupt Ideas. And we can move on to firmer conceptual territory, in doing so discovering the world is, in fact, more (and less) explicable than we probably think, and intractable problems – like multiculturalism, for one – are more solvable than we realise.

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Chaos, Levels of Explanation and Interdisciplinarity

I’ve been thinking a lot about interdisciplinary research (IDR) of late. (One day I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about finishing my thesis, but hey.)

It seems that one of the most fundamental questions to ask is: why do we have separate disciplines at all?

Seems obvious, but often the unanswered obvious questions are the most interesting. Delving into them can reveal something illuminating about our assumptions about how things are, and even reveal some false intuitions.

The simple answer might be that there’s no one discipline that can tackle every question we might want to ask. Okay, why?

Well, probably because such a discipline would be unmanageably complex. Far easier to carve up nature – and the questions we want to ask about her – into bite size pieces.

But why carve it where we do?

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Religion’s Odd Relationship with Atheism

It almost beggars belief that many self-proclaimed so-called moral experts of the modern world – men and women of cloth, such as rabbi Adam Jacobs – exhibit such a shocking ignorance of modern ethical and evolutionary theory.

Jacobs penned a piece for the Huffington Post recently that could serve as a template for the gross misunderstanding of how atheism and morality are related. Quoth Jacobs:

The most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim’s purse — as it can not possibly have any meaning either way. Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes?

Sigh. He might as well be saying “because there’s no edict from God over the rules of cricket, you can just give yourself a century and refuse to leave if you’re caught out.”

Just because it isn’t written in the bible, doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules to cricket (cricket nihilism). And it doesn’t mean you can play by whatever rules you choose (cricket egoism).

Once you’ve chosen to play, you’re obliged to play by the rules, or you face the consequences. You’re thrown out of the game or, if your transgression wasn’t so obscene, you’re politely censured and threatened that if you do it again, you’re no longer welcome on the pitch.

Morality is a game, not unlike cricket in this respect. The only thing is, playing the game is to everyone’s advantage; playing the game advances our interests, both biological (selfish gene theory) and psychological (preference utilitarianism).

And it’s a matter of empirical fact that virtually everyone already wants to play the game. In fact, the whole point that Dawkins was trying to make with the selfish gene theory is that playing nice is a form of self-interest, and evolution has already primed us to play nice.

The only subjective element is that we’re not bound – logically or by divine will – to play the game. We can rationally choose not to. But if we do, we suffer the consequences and are censured by all those who do play nice.

So it’s actually not in our long-term interests to do “whatever one’s heart desires at any moment” because in such a society, I wouldn’t get much of what I desire at all. Instead, it’s far more in my interests to play nice.

This has all been said before many, many times. It’s disappointing that pontificating individuals like rabbi Jacobs haven’t read or understood it. And it’s even more disappointing that they spread misinformation about atheism and secular morality.

And then he says stuff like this:

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine.

In fact, he has it entirely backwards. He has his philosophy because of the evolved moral proclivities we’re already equipped with. Evolution and moral naturalism can explain everything, even why people might mistakenly believe in moral super- or non-naturalism.

I don’t mind people disagreeing with the details of how morality works, or arguing over the nuances of evolution or anti-realism. But I do mind people getting on their high horse and dismissing those poor deluded atheists based on uninformed and vacuous arguments.

The Quality of Discourse is Low

I don’t know why I bother reading comments. Not that the irrational ejaculations to my recent piece on The Drum about conservatism and climate change do anything but support my argument that many people judge first and ask question later.

But if there’s one thing that shines through from trawling comments is that the quality of discourse today is devilishly poor.

It’s not that I’m surprised that uninformed people pontificate as if they’re experts; that they presume to pigeon hole someone else, and subsequently dismiss them, on the basis of but a few words; that many take solace in their belief that they’re obviously the only intelligent one in the room, and those who disagree with them are clearly stupid; that the employment of fallacies is seen to be signal of wit; that reason and evidence feature so seldom in any expression of disagreement; that black and white trumps shades of grey.

I’m not surprised at all. But I am disappointed that we, as a culture, don’t consider these things to be heinously embarrassing transgressions of the norms of public discourse.

We’re confronting a sizable list of dilemmas facing humanity today. Yet our public discourse is so poisonous, so divisive, so destructive that we’re lucky anyone makes progress in their thinking at all.

We ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard of reason and conversation. We ought to consider fallacies to be faux pas. We ought to stop anyone who asserts without argument. We ought to be mortified if we are to let our irrational proclivities burst through the veil of reason.

That’s not to say everyone must be rational all the time. Only that we should not so readily forgive irrationality.

That so many believe ‘freedom of speech’ means ‘I have a right to say whatever tripe I believe whether it’s rational or not’ is not going to get us very far.

If people agree to hurl insults at each other, let them. But if we want to engage in a dialogue about serious questions, then we ought to be held to the base standards of rational discourse.

It begins with respect for all interlocutors, moves through to presenting thoughts backed by evidence and structured as an argument, tempered by an acknowledgement that we might be wrong, and that if proven so, we’re obliged to change our mind, and finished with humility.

Maybe I’m unrealistically optimistic or naive to believe the level of discourse can be improved. But I think it can.

At the very least it’ll help distinguish those who are serious about finding answers to tough questions, and those bile-charged individuals who are least qualified to provide solutions to the world’s toughest problems. We may never stop the zealots of unreason from having a voice, but we can at least diminish the import of their contributions, marginalise them until they’re forced to play by the rules of rational discourse or be struck mute by those with power to change the world.

It’ll take a while, but it has to begin somewhere. And if enough people adhere to the base standards of rational discourse, and politely embarrass those who don’t, and in doing so show that progress can be made on tough issues, then things might start to change. I’d like to see that happen.

Moral Meltdown

When Scott Stephens invited me to pen something on the ethics of nuclear power, I must admit I winced.

I mean, I’ve written for the ABC about morality after god, about the muddle of multiculturalism and about how moral nihilism can actually be a good thing (no pun intended), but the ethics of nuclear power is as starkly real an issue as the previous are abstract.

Still, it was an interesting exercise, and one that forced me to reflect on what ethics is all about. Lofty ruminations on normative theories or metaethics is all good and well (or perhaps not for the latter; my feelings on metaethics are already well known). But ethics is ultimately about applied ethics. It’s the application of the theory to the real world where things get really crunchy.

And I must say, it strikes me how little I hear philosophers talking about applied ethical issues these days. Here we are, with a nuclear crisis unfolding in front of our very eyes, a nuclear debate is heating up, and where are the philosophers?

Back around the time of World War I, Bertrand Russell was more than a pontificator, he was an agitator. He wrote profusely about war, not only in academic circles, but for the general public. He even went to prison as a result of his pacifist stance.

You don’t see that kind of philosophy in action any more.

It seems as though the philosophy community today is largely obsessed with technical and theoretical problems, and with responding in academic journals to arguments against x, where x is their preferred theory. Yet they don’t seem terribly engaged with the very subject matter of ethics in the first place: humanity.

The real world offers a slew of moral dilemmas that can test even the most robust moral theory. Philosophical moral dilemmas, like ye olde trolley dilemmas, are good for rarefying one particular element of a moral theory and placing it, and our intuitions, under stress. But real world dilemmas are different.

Moral philosophy has largely been seeking the right answer to morality. The single approach to discovering moral truth; the single value or set of values upon which all others are based; the normative system that lends justification to our moral utterances.

But morality in the real world isn’t absolute. Even if there is one set of ‘right’ values, unless everyone can agree what they are, then we’re forced to behave either as inquisitors, and impose our truth on others, or we must accept pluralism, and have a modicum of tolerance for dissenting views.

After all, moral action isn’t a theoretical debate, it’s a drive to motivate behaviour. And it’s a time-limited endeavour.

Writing about the ethics of nuclear power reminded me of these important lessons. And I hope that while I continue to study and write about ethics, they’re lessons I don’t forget.

The Revolution is Dead (For Now)

There aren’t any revolutionaries any more. The closest contemporary figure I can muster from the cloudy reaches of my imagination who might qualify as a revolutionary is Julian Assange. Certainly he’s an original thinker, far more so than most people these days.

But even Assange’s revolution is incremental, if profound. He a seeks to change the landscape of democracy without necessarily wiping the slate clean entirely. His is not a prescriptive vision of a better world, but a solution to the ills of this one, underpinned by a conviction about the particular nature of corruption – or, as he calls it, ‘conspiracy.’

So where are the true revolutionaries? Where are the visionaries with a compelling view of a better world, one for which we ought to fight to bring into reality? Who’s thinking beyond the contingencies of this world to the possibilities of the next?

There was a time, not so long ago, when revolution was in common parlance and bold visions of a new world were talked about openly, debated, fought over and striven for. Only 40 years ago there was talk of building nothing less than a new civilisation.

What happened?

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Morality Without God

It keeps being said that without God, there can be no morality. It keeps being said that if we’re evolved from selfish genes, there can be no altruism. It keeps being said that a universe without a divine creator is a universe without meaning.

It keeps being said.

And it’s flat out wrong.

I’m sympathetic to religious sentiments, even if I think the accompanying metaphysical interpretation of those sympathies is in error. But I’m entirely unsympathetic to those of a religious persuasion spreading untruths and fallacious arguments about secular morality.

It’d be like me saying that there is a God, and He is malevolent.

Disagreement over the existence of God is one thing, but to misrepresent the religious view is not acceptable. Not for anyone. Likewise, misrepresentation of the secular view by the religious is ignorant at best, malicious (and immoral) at worst.

So, in the interests of providing a clear and unambiguous exposition of the secular moral position, I’ve compiled a list of false claims made by some in the religious community and the reasons why they’re in error.

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Top 10 Books of All Time

Yeah, all time. I could even say Top 10 Books in All Possible Worlds. They’re that awesome.

People often ask me what are my favourite books, or the books that have most influenced me – in philosophy, science, history etc. So I figured I’d post ’em here to fuel my laziness; if I’m asked in future, I can just give a URL. Nice.

The Iliad – Homer

Sing, o muse… Not sure what’s more astounding, that it’s one of the first written works in human history, or that it’s still one of the most profoundly moving books, dripping with pathos and turgid prose the likes of which a pitiful writer like myself can only dream. I mean, rosy fingered Dawn, who spread her light across the lands of the deathless gods and mortal men. Sublime.

There’s a also lesson in reading in reading the Iliad, too. It’s the catalogue of ships. It’s almost the peer of all the begetting in Genesis (well, I assume Genesis is worse because I’ve never made it through that whole section). But it’s like you have to earn the rest of the tale. That makes it all the more epic. In fact, every epic has a catalogue of ships. My thesis has its literature review…

Although I still have an unresolved question: who would win in a fight between Achilleus and Arjuna. Man, that’d be an epic bout.

More below the fold…

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On the Importance of Rational Wonder

When you read about secularism and Humanism, you read a lot about reason, compassion, anti-dogma, tolerance, free thought and free speech – and lots of other wonderful things.

But one thing you don’t read much about is wonder itself.

All those specs are galaxies. Tell me that doesn't blow your mind.

I’ve said before that Humanism and secular morality still have a long way to go to challenge the established religious ideologies in the world. And one reason is they’re still couched largely in dry, rational language.

That’s understandable – not only is Humanism a movement that is founded on the principles of reason, but the early adopters are typically those who have embraced reason of their own accord and only then found their way to Humanism.

This means they’re not normal. Most folk live their lives, happily believing what they believe. Few people voluntarily shrug off the warm embrace of their cultural and ideological norms to follow the rocky path of reason to unknown lands. It can be a harrowing journey, and it can lead to not insubstantial angst.

Yet Humanism is couched in its own kind of revelationary language – that of reason. It appeals to the people who have already made the emotional leap to give sovereignty to reason. And it doesn’t appeal to those who find reason emotionally unappealing, who believe elevation is a religious experience. It’s not.

This is why I think wonder is central to any future secular morality, Humanism included.

Wonder is tool already employed by supernaturalist religions, but it doesn’t belong only to them. Anyone who has gazed into the night sky, peered through a microscope, lingered over a sunset or pondered the nature of DNA or prime numbers has experienced wonder. And it’s natural wonder. Rational wonder.

It’s this kind of wonder that inspires reverence towards the natural world, and that humbles us into seeing that we’re just a bit piece in this cosmic puzzle. It’s that kind of wonder that we can share with others and which brings us closer together. It’s that kind of wonder that can inspire an entirely naturalistic religious experience.

Wonder is also crucially important because it reminds us that we don’t have all the answers. Our best reckoning and scientific enquiry can’t tell us how the universe began, or what exactly life is, or why the universe is just the way it is, or why strawberries taste like strawberries. Yet, just because we don’t have the answers, doesn’t mean the answer must come down to some supernatural being.

Conversely, wonder also erodes our complacency in taking our existing knowledge for granted. Knowing that all elements on Earth heavier than carbon – including the iron in your blood – were formed in the cataclysmic death throes of a giant star doesn’t make that fact any less astounding. We should revel in this knowledge, share the wonder of this knowledge, not just chalk it up on the board and move on.

Humanism needs to be participatory, not just couched in words. It needs to be something people can experience, something they can do. And something they can share. A Humanist ritual could be as simple as going to the observatory. There is nothing a cathedral can offer in terms of wonder that an observatory can’t.

Let’s think beyond just reason, and beyond just our opposition to dogma and the supernatural. Let’s think about what we want to engender. And besides reason, we need wonder.

Ockham’s Beard Goes Latvia

Exciting news. For Latvians! I’ve had a paper accepted to the Morality and the Cognitive Sciences conference, held in Riga, Latvia, in May. Abstract below:

Evolution and Moral Diversity

If humans have an evolved moral psychology, then we should not necessarily expect it to function in an identical way between individuals. Instead, we should expect a diversity in the function of our moral psychology between individuals, and a corresponding diversity of moral intuitions and moral judgements that emerge from it. This is because there is no one solution to the problems that our moral faculty evolved to solve that yields the best outcome in every environment or circumstance. As such, our moral sense may have evolved to produce a variety of strategies that increased the likelihood that we were able to successfully respond to a wide range of situations and environments, with these ‘environments’ also including the strategies employed by other individuals. An example of this phenomenon can be seen in political psychology research, which reveals that personality and other psychological variables have an impact on political attitudes. I argue this gives us reason to expect that personality and other psychological variables will also have an impact on moral attitudes, and suggest empirical experimentation could reveal whether this is, in fact, true.

Now I just have to figure out how to get myself there. A few curly hurdles to pass first though (too mixed a metaphor?).

First, my university, in all its bureaucratic wisdom only handles travel funding for conferences twice a year, the last was December and the next round isn’t until August. Now, even had I known I wanted to go to this conference in December, I wouldn’t have received any funding unless I’d had a paper accepted. But I only had the paper accepted now.

What kind of person designs a funding system that front-loads them all at once, placing extra burden on the administrators, and does so in such a way as it’s almost impossible to get funding ahead of the conference – you know, when the funds are most needed? A nitwit, that’s who.

Anyway, I will make my own way there under my own pecuniary impetus, and hope the university might see fit to reimburse me at least some of the expense come August.

Second hurdle: I’m also hoping to attend the World Conference of Science Journalists, held in late June. “Where is it?” I hear you ask. Egypt. So yeah, that’ll probably be moved. Rumours are Qatar is looking good. Although it might be a tad hot that time of year. Awaiting word on the new location any day now, but if it’s anywhere within a quarter of a hemisphere of Latvia, I might just bum around Europe for a few weeks and then make my way to that too.

So yeah, if you’re going to the Morality and the Cognitive Sciences or WCSJ2011 conference, I’ll see you there. If you know of any good places to bum around in Europe, let me know.