Paul Dundon’s Weblog


A little cheese and a little whine

I Can’t Believe I’m Defending the Pope

As the forces of conservatism claw their way back to power, the neoliberal right in the US fosters its unholy alliance with Christian fundamentalism and US-European meddling in the Middle East inspires the reactionary elements of Islam, the prospects for liberal humanism look bleak. Once it seemed to be the ground on which the future would be laid; now it seems at risk of being a historical footnote.

These are times when those who are serious about liberal humanism must work hard to win hearts and minds hot for certainties in this our life and disenchanted with the dusty answers of Western materialism. We must show ourselves to be people of reason and respect, dedicated to truth and committed to a world built on freedom, tolerance, and understanding.

We must never be guilty of distorting the facts, or criticising from a place of ignorance. We must not stoop to smear and innuendo. We must prove ourselves able to reach out to our opponents and guide them from error to truth.

Which is why Richard Dawkins speech on the visit of Pope Benedict simply will not do.

Dawkins says:

…the Holy See’s claim to statehood is founded on a Faustian deal in which Mussolini handed over 1.2 square miles of central Rome in exchange for Church support of his fascist regime

This is untrue. The deal with Mussolini established the Vatican City, and not the Holy See. The Holy See has been recognised as a state-like body in international relations since medieval times. It had its own army up until 1870 (when it lost a war with Italy) and was considered a sufficiently potent political force a year later to spur a programme of legislation in Germany designed to limit its power and reinforce the position of the secular state. While it fails to meet international criteria for statehood, these criteria themselves are, relative to the Holy See, very recent. The Holy See functions as a state in international matters; it has formal diplomatic relations with 178 states; it participates in international treaties and is a member of a number of international bodies. It is a state in all but name and has been for longer than the USA has been in existence.

Dawkins says:

Don’t ask the British taxpayer to subsidize the propaganda mission of an institution whose wealth is measured in the tens of billions: wealth for which the phrase ‘ill-gotten’ might have been specifically coined. And spare us the nauseating spectacle of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and assorted Lord Lieutenants and other dignitaries cringing and fawning sycophantically all over him as though he were somebody we should respect.

This is a fine sentiment, but must be applied consistently if it is to be applied at all; and if it is to be applied consistently, then it applies equally to many heads of state (one thinks immediately of George W Bush) to whom Dawkins has, to my knowledge, voiced no objection [UPDATE: I’ve done Dawkins an injustice here; see Piers Stephens’ comments below]. I can see no basis for the “tens of billions” figure; the research I have been able to locate puts the Holy See’s worth at ten billion USD at most – one fifth the personal wealth of Bill Gates.

Dawkins says:

although it is far from clear what there is in theology to be scholarly about. Surely nothing to respect.

The arrogance and ignorance of this claim is breathtaking. It is crystal clear to everyone but Dawkins what there is in theology to be scholarly about; the University at which Dawkins holds his post began its life as a school of theology, and theology is still taught there today. Some of the greatest minds in history have addressed theological questions, and some of the finest minds in universities today are dedicated to their pursuit. Theology may not be scientific, but neither are history, politics, philosophy or many other scholarly disciplines.

Dawkins says:

The unfortunate little fact that Joseph Ratzinger joined the Hitler Youth has been the subject of a widely observed moratorium. I’ve respected it myself, hitherto. But after the Pope’s outrageous speech in Edinburgh, blaming atheism for Hitler, one can’t help feeling that the gloves are off.

In what follows, it’s unclear whether Dawkins is trying to:

(a) mount an attack on Ratzinger’s character because of his personal involvement in Nazism;
(b) mount a defence against a supposed claim, by Ratzinger, that “atheism is responsible for Hitler” (whatever that might mean);
(c) mount a weak ad hominem against Ratzinger on the basis that his personal involvement in Nazism makes invalidates his comments about it;
(d) make a strong ad hominem that Ratzinger cannot consistently hold the views he does on atheism and Nazism having been a member of the Hitler Youth
(e) show that Ratzinger’s views on Nazism and atheism are wrong

None of these is very satisfactory:
(a) is just a personal attack and accomplishes nothing
(b) is promising, but it isn’t clear that Ratzinger is making such a claim
(c) and (d) depend on which claims Dawkins wants to take issue with. Presumably he agrees with Ratzinger that Nazism was a bad thing; the disagreement (if there is one) lies in its relationship to atheism. So at best (c) and (d) are ad hominem variants of (b) or (e), and less satisfactory than (b) or (e) themselves
(e) this is the most promising, or would be, if Ratzinger articulated those views in his speech, but on the whole, he did not; but even if he had, if this is the case then his membership of the Hitler Youth is beside the point, and mentioning it – along with the claims of hypocrisy levelled later in the speech – is just smear and innuendo.

Dawkins says:

…his senior advisor is that Cardinal who takes one look at the immigration officials at Heathrow and concludes that he must have landed in the Third World

Bearing in mind that “third world” originally meant “everywhere but NATO, Australia and the USSR” it’s worth knowing that what Kasper actually said was: “England today is a secular, pluralist country. When one lands at Heathrow, one sometimes thinks one has landed in a third world country.” A poor choice of words, but solely a reference to racial diversity and not the insult the British press made it out to be.

Dawkins continues:

The poor man was no doubt prescribed a bushel of Hail Marys, on top of his swift attack of diplomatic gout – and one can’t help wondering whether the afflicted foot was the one he puts in his mouth.

I accept that humour is important in a speech, but humour at the expense of an elderly man, who may be genuinely ill, humour created by a continual and willful misconstrual of his words, just smacks of meanness.

Dawkins says:

At first I was annoyed by the Pope’s disgraceful attack on atheists and secularists, but then I saw it as reassuring.

The “disgraceful attack” amounts to the following passage:

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.

I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”

Taking this passage in context, it is part of an argument that Christian values underpin many of the virtues we prize in European culture. This is historically and philosophically accurate. It is a stretch to construe this as an attack on anyone; rather it is a way of pointing out the influence that Christianity has had in forming what we now regard as secular values.

We might ask, though, what Ratzinger means by “eradicat[ing] God from society” when Hitler often used appeals to religion in his speeches? The answer is that Hitler permitted the church to continue under the Reich in so far as the church was the instrument of the Reich. The church was denied any independent political voice; thus (in Ratzinger’s view) God was denied any voice in society.

And indeed, where the church did offer opposition to the Reich – opposition motivated by religious belief –  there was no hesitation on the Reich’s part in killing those involved. In Poland alone, nearly 2,000 Catholic clergy were murdered by the Nazis during WW2.

The Nazis were not the only force systematically exterminating religious opposition in the first half of the twentieth century. The Spanish Civil War saw over 7,000 clergy die because of their faith, and even this is a small number compared to the hundreds of thousands of Christians who died imprisoned in Stalin’s Gulags for their faith.

It is possible to argue that the Nazi regime was an atheist regime and that its crimes were atheist crimes but doing so would establish nothing more than that some atheists are wicked. I take it that this (that some atheists are wicked) is uncontroversial and I assume Ratzinger and Dawkins agree. However, taking the broader view we see in the early 20th Century a systematic persecution of theists per se by atheists per se which led to the death of tens of thousands. This seems to me to qualify unequivocally as atheist extremism.

Dawkins says:

It suggests that we have rattled them so much that they have to resort to insulting us, in a desperate attempt to divert attention from the child rape scandal.

To call the passage an attack is a stretch; to call it an insult is a leap. Further, there has been no attempt to divert attention from the child rape scandal; part of the pope’s visit was to meet with victims of abuse and he has spoken openly about the mistakes made by the church in dealing with the problem. He has expressed more contrition, and offered a more honest appraisal, than Blair has with Iraq or BP has with the Gulf disaster.

Dawkins says:

Adolf Hitler was a Roman Catholic. Or at least he was as much a Roman Catholic as the 5 million so-called Roman Catholics in this country today. For Hitler never renounced his baptismal Catholicism, which was doubtless the criterion for counting the 5 million alleged British Catholics today. You cannot have it both ways. Either you have 5 million British Catholics, in which case you have to have Hitler too. Or Hitler was not a Catholic, in which case you have to give us an honest figure for the number of genuine Catholics in Britain today – the number who really believe Jesus turns himself into a wafer, as the former Professor Ratzinger presumably does.

I really don’t know what to make of this argument. It looks like an attempt to construct a Hume’s fork on two premises (ie present the Catholic with two claims they want to be true but which are inconsistent):

(a) Catholicism in Britain is a politically significant movement because there are 5 million catholics;
(b) Hitler was not a Catholic

It fails, though, on two counts. First, there is no reason to resist the claim that Hitler was a Catholic (ie, the Catholic doesn’t care if (b) is true or not). There are good Catholics and there are evil Catholics. If Dawkins objects to this then he’s subject to the tu quoque and has to defend the claim that there are no evil atheists which I assume he doesn’t want to do. Second, the criteria for being catholic needed to make (a) work is caring what the pope says; and while we don’t know how many people are catholic under that definition, clearly Hitler was not. Further, it’s entirely plausible that many of the 5 million figure do indeed care what the pope says irrespective of their church-going practices or other beliefs. (My own parents, for example, were not churchgoers but would expect the government to treat the pope as a head of state). So a Catholic can safely reject (b) or embrace (b) without endangering the substance of (a).

I’m unclear what the criteria for being a “genuine Catholic” might be; but belief in transubstantiation (as opposed to the many more practical teachings of the church) seems a rather poor choice. In any event, the doctrine of transubstantiation is that the wafer takes on the nature of the body of Jesus, not that “Jesus turns himself into a wafer” – a poor characterisation of a philsophically subtle doctrine, presumably an attempt at humour, but this time one that smacks of ignorance and intolerance.

Dawkins continues:

In any case, Hitler certainly was not an atheist.

This is presumably to show that atheism cannot be blamed for Nazism, on the assumption that this is what the Pope’s speech is trying to do. Again, I don’t think it is; but since Dawkins spends the next few hundred words fleshing out his case, let’s grant the premise and continue.


In 1933 he claimed to have “stamped atheism out”, having banned most of Germany’s atheist organizations, including the German Freethinkers League whose building was then turned into an information bureau for church affairs.

Hitler’s relationship with religion appears similar to that of the Neocon hawks in the US – a useful tool for social cohesion. The full context of the quotation is:

“Without pledging ourselves to any particular Confession, we have restored faith to its pre-requisites because we were convinced that the people needs [sic] and requires [sic] this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”

There is nothing here to suggest that he was motivated by religious belief, personal or otherwise, rather than Realpolitik. Indeed, subsequent to “stamping out atheism” Hitler actively persecuted religious authorities wherever they spoke out against the Reich, and indeed tried to bring the church in Germany completely under the control of the Riech. In short, Hitler’s commitment to the church was simply as to any other instrument of power.

Dawkins says:

…he [Hitler] certainly knew his overwhelmingly Christian constituency, the millions of good Christian Germans with Gott mit uns on their belt buckles, who actually did his dirty work for him

If the criteria for being a “genuine Catholic” can be taken to extend to a belief in transubstantiation then presumably the criteria for being a Christian would extend to not killing Jews. Certainly, the criteria for being a good Christian (assuming that by this Dawkins means a Christian who is good rather than one who is good at being a Christian) would so extend.

Dawkins quotes at length from a speech by Hitler, and comments:

That is just one of numerous speeches, and passages in Mein Kampf, where Hitler invoked his Christianity.

All Dawkins is doing here is demonstrating the point that Hitler used religion as a tool of political control and manipulation. He has not made a case for Hitler’s theism or otherwise; and he has certainly not shown whether or not Hitler’s beliefs are motivated by or consistent with theist or atheist positions.

Dawkins regroups:

It would be unkind to prolong this point, but Ratzinger’s speech in Edinburgh on Thursday was so disgraceful, so hypocritical, so redolent of the sound of stones hurled from within a glass house, I felt that I had to reply.

It isn’t clear what point Dawkins feels it would be unkind to prolong, but the use of unkind here, coupled with the charges of hypocrisy, suggest that what Dawkins has been trying to do so far is to undermine Ratzinger’s character, rather than his thinking; that he has been mounting a personal attack rather than an intellectual one. This is just a waste of everyone’s time. Even if we grant that besmirching Ratzinger’s character is a productive exercise, Dawkins has done a very poor-to-middling job of it.

Dawkins says:

Even if Hitler had been an atheist – as Stalin more surely was – how dare  Ratzinger suggest that atheism has any connection whatsoever with their horrific deeds? Any more than Hitler and Stalin’s non-belief in leprechauns or unicorns.

This is the point where Dawkins reveals his confusion (or ignorance, I’m not sure) about what religion is. To be religious is to make a series of commitments: ontological, historical, social, political and ethical. When Ratzinger is criticising atheism, his arguments are not levelled at people who fail to make particular ontological or historical commitments; it is levelled at those who fail to make particular social, political and ethical commitments. Now there is almost certainly confusion in Ratzinger’s thinking here – he is, one might assume, conflating the absence of social and political commitment (ie, not being a member of the church) with the absence of ethical commitment. But he certainly isn’t saying that anyone’s non-belief in an existential diety is to blame for the horrors of Nazism.

Dawkins asserts:

There is no logical pathway from atheism to wickedness.

This is untrue, although I have to emphasise that the logical pathway from theism to wickedness is every bit as compelling.

If one takes atheism as simply a refusal to make a particular ontological commitment, then it looks as if there is no logical pathway to wickedness. But as we have noted already, atheism has the wider connotation of a refusal to make a particular ethical commitment also. The atheist is at liberty to invent their own moral code in a way that the theist (in this richer sense) is not. An individual developing their own moral standards is prone to all sorts of failures which lead to wickedness.

We don’t see this in our society because the vast majority of people are educated into an ethical code grounded in centuries of religious practice and make an ethical commitment to some variant of Judaic morality. From this point of view, Dawkins is not an atheist at all, but an Anglican who doesn’t believe in God. It is easy (but mistaken) in this context to think that the humanist values the atheist adopts are genuinely secular; the truth is that US-European morals are just the ten commandments in jeans and a t-shirt.

Dawkins says:

Unless, that is, you are steeped in the vile obscenity at the heart of Catholic theology. I refer (and I am indebted to Paula Kirby for the point) to the doctrine of Original Sin. These people believe – and they teach this to tiny children, at the same time as they teach them the terrifying falsehood of hell – that every baby is “born in sin”. That would be Adam’s sin, by the way: Adam who, as they themselves now admit, never existed. Original sin means that, from the moment we are born, we are wicked, corrupt, damned. Unless we believe in their God. Or unless we fall for the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell. That, ladies and gentleman, is the disgusting theory that leads them to presume that it was godlessness that made Hitler and Stalin the monsters that they were. We are all monsters unless redeemed by Jesus.

This passage is so charged with rhetoric that it isn’t clear what is being said. We can, however, identify a number of things going on:

  • A (somewhat inaccurate) statement of the doctrine of Original Sin
  • An imputation of this view to Ratzinger
  • An inference that Ratzinger holds that this position provides for a logical path from atheism to wickedness
  • A claim that the doctrine is taught to “tiny children”
  • An dramatisation of this position (“We are all monsters unless redeemed by Jesus”).

To clear up the tiny children point: teaching practices vary from community to community but a straw poll of my Catholic friends and relations around the country suggests that Original Sin is not taught to young children, and indeed, not taught very consistently at all. As one put it: “[I] Don’t think we teach it in primary [school] these days, at least not in infants’ [school] … we do [teach about] baptism but more as a way people are welcomed into the Lord’s church family and not about sinning.”

And indeed, where it is taught there is a good chance that the actual doctrine, and not Dawkins’ version of it, will be taught. The doctrine does not state that we are born wicked; it states that we are born with our passions in such a state that they often lead us to want things that are not in our best interest. Original sin is not personal sin, but it explains how we can at once be disposed to sin and error and divine in our underlying nature. The dramatisation is quite unwarranted: personal sin distinguishes the good from the wicked, but original sin distinguishes the human from the divine. There is no implication that we are monsters unless redeemed.

Now since the doctrine as Dawkins elaborates it is not actual teaching, it follows that Ratzinger does not hold that position, and ipso facto cannot invoke it in an argument about wickedness.

It would be disingenuous for me, however, to say that Ratzinger might not make some argument about the relationship between atheism and wickedness which invoked original sin. The argument is, though, more subtle than anything Dawkins entertains. The case would be something like: without the active involvement of Christ’s grace in people’s lives, they are prone to temptation and error in matters of right and wrong, by virtue of original sin. A failure to acknowledge this vulnerability magnifies the problem, and creating social orders bases on the adequacy of people’s ability to distinguish right from wrong magnifies it still further. This is not, we should note, an argument about accepting the teaching of the church but rather an argument about participation in the sacraments of the church and one’s personal relationship with God. On this view, the wickedness of Nazism was not the wickedness of Hitler, it was the wickedness of the millions willing to accept him as the ultimate moral authority – to place a man in a position which should have been held by God. When a theist does this, we may at least charge him with inconsistency or hypocrisy, but there is no such braking force to be applied to the atheist.

I don’t know if this argument works, but it makes it clear that the issue is how, as a society, we distinguish right from wrong. This is a question with good and bad answers from both sides of the theist / atheist divide, but for the atheist there is a case here to answer; indeed, it is perhaps the theist position which the humanist must take most seriously and work hardest to dispel. The caricature of the argument which Dawkins presents here accomplishes nothing, neither recognising the importance of the issue nor making any sort of case for humanism.

Dawkins says:

Joseph Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity.

This rather comes out of the blue. Even if Ratzinger is guilty of hypocrisy in his Edinburgh speech, this would hardly make him an enemy of humanity. Dawkins goes on to explain his position, though, in the paragraphs that follow, enumerating the groups Ratzinger has injured. I cannot disagree with what Dawkins says about women, the Anglican church, and condom use in Africa; but it is only really the last of these which comes close to making Ratzinger an enemy of humanity – barring women from the priesthood and poaching vicars from the Queen, while objectionable, do not make the man a supervillain.

Dawkins says:

He is an enemy of children, whose bodies he has allowed to be raped and whose minds he has encouraged to be infected with guilt. It is embarrassingly clear that the church is less concerned with saving child bodies from rapists than with saving priestly souls from hell: and most concerned with saving the long-term reputation of the church itself.

The best figures suggest that, in the US, Catholic priests were responsible for abusing about 180 minors each year. These are not trifling figures, but deserve comparison with some others. In the UK alone, for example, there are about 1,800 cases of sexual abuse of minors each year, mostly by family members. This is less than the 2,500 children killed unlawfully by Brazilian police in 2004 (the only year for which figures are available); and those 2,500 children were just a handful of the 100,000 living homeless around Rio de Janero. And even this is only half the number of children bought and sold – usually as part of the sex industry – across international borders every year. The Catholic church may be an enemy of children, but if it’s children we’re concerned about, there are lots of other problems we really need to be considering first.

Ratzinger’s personal record on this issue is ambiguous: on the one hand, he centralised responsibility for investigation of abuse claims, making it much more difficult for diocese to cover them up; on the other, he seems to have been responsible for covering them as a matter of policy to begin with. He personally pursued many investigations, however, including those of senior figures, and gained a reputation for doing so rigourously; and he has subsequently made it clear that criminal law in this area should take precedence over any clerical privilege. There is much to criticise in what he has done, but much to be welcomed also.

Dawkins says:

He is an enemy of gay people, bestowing on them the sort of bigotry that his church used to reserve for Jews

I presume that the reference to Jews here relates to the “Christ killer libel” mentioned earlier in the speech, but if so then Dawkins is flatly wrong. There is no Catholic doctrine which blames gay people for any crime; no teaching which encourages their vilification or persecution. Indeed, the catholic church encourages those in pastoral roles to be sensitive to the possibility of homophobic prejudice and bullying and to condemn it wherever the see it. Of course, the Catholic attitude to homosexuality is not the liberal one (and it isn’t one I agree with) but it is a long way from being one of outright condemnation.

If Dawkins is simply accusing the Pope of being inflexible on this issue, then that surely counts as the most fatuous charge he could possibly lay – the defender of a global faith cannot simply change his views to match the times. All values, as Bennet says, are old-fashioned; that it what makes them values.

Dawkins says:

He is an enemy of the poorest people on the planet, condemning them to inflated families that they cannot feed, and so keeping them in the bondage of perpetual poverty. A poverty that sits ill with the obscene riches of the Vatican

Quite apart from its failure to disentagle family size from factors like meddling by Anglo-American governments in the politics of developing nations and the egregious behaviour of institutions like the WTO, this is the sort of claim that drives conservatives wild and paints liberals in the worst possible light. I disagree with the Catholic position on contraception – and happen to know that not all priests promote this teaching in the field – but it remains the fact that parents are responsible for the size of the families they raise. The notion that people just have children by accident if there are no contraceptives available is grounded in an assumption of a profound abrogation of personal responsibility – and a correspondingly low opinion of human dignity –  which even Dawkins ought to find offensive.

Dawkins says:

He is an enemy of science, obstructing vital stem-cell research, on grounds not of morality but of pre-scientific superstition.

The Church’s objection to stem-cell research extends only to embryonic cells. I am in no position to comment on how vital such research is, compared, for example, to similar research involving adult cells, to which the Church has no objection, but it seems that the word vital here may have more rhetorical force than logical ground.

What is more worrying, however, is Dawkins’ dismissal of the church’s position, which is that embryos count as human persons, with all the rights of a human person. Whether or not we agree with this claim, it is indupitably a moral one. Dawkins’ rejection of it as “pre-scientific superstition” is troubling on three counts. First, it isn’t clear how the claim can be “pre-scientific” in that it relies on a scientific understanding of conception. Second, the characterisation of this view as “superstition” presumably invites the same characterisation of any view not grounded in empirical science – views like a belief in human rights, the valuing of individual liberty, and indeed, confidence in the scientific process itself. But most worrying is Dawkins’ assumption that any view not produced by his apparently rather narrow view of what counts as moral discourse can simply be waved aside as “superstition”.

Dawkins says:

Finally, perhaps of most personal concern to me, he is an enemy of education. Quite apart from the lifelong psychological damage caused by the guilt and fear that have made catholic education infamous throughout the world, he and his church foster the educationally pernicious doctrine that evidence is a less reliable basis for belief than faith, tradition, revelation and authority – his authority.

The theme of “lifelong psychological damage” is one to which Dawkins refers elsewhere, but for which he offers no evidence. While my own Catholic education was eventful, I don’t believe it caused me any more trauma than I would have experienced at the local comprehensive. On the other hand, I have spent more than a few hours with people in or close to tears as a consequence of the esteem-flatening demands of the Oxford tutorial system.

These considerations aside, it is hard to take seriously Dawkins’ characterisation of the Church’s attitude to education and authority. Dawkins seems to be suggesting here that the Pope would regard his views on, for example, astrophysics, as trumping those of Steven Hawking. I can see no evidence of this, or anything like it. Quite the reverse: Historically, the Church has been a strong, if occasionally troublesome, patron of scientific research and education, with significant research taking place at Catholic universities and promulgated outside Europe by the Jesuit order. Since 1936, the Church has sponsored the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to promote the progress of science – very much the same aim as Dawkins’ foundation – and that institution boasts a number of world-renowned scientists (including Hawking) in its membership.

There are certainly Christian churches of whom the same cannot be said – those who believe in the literal truth of biblical creationism, or that the earth is only a few thousand years old. But it is these groups, and not Ratzinger, who are the enemies of education.

This is a long blog post and has taken more work than I suspect Dawkins put into his speech to begin with. I hope, though, that it gives a good idea of the depth of Dawkins’ errors, both factual and strategic. Factual in that many of the claims he makes are just plain wrong; strategic, in that all his errors and innuendos do is to undermine his own position. I am no great friend of Catholicism and am genuinely alarmed at the rising influence of intolerant and mendacious religious groups and the prospect of a reactionary society. But Dawkins’ brand of humanism is too arrogant, too uncharitable, too slipshod in its thinking to be a worthy alternative.


Filed under: Philosophy, Politics

Someone is Wrong on the Internet

(Credit is due to the excellent XKCD comic)

Many years ago I read an article in Philosophy Now (I think) which compared the activity of philosophy to that of a detective: gathering clues which pointed to the truth, seeking out mysteries, identifying the things that didn’t add up. While I liked the metaphor (I like to boast that I have three things in common with Wittgenstein; unfortunately these are a liking for detective novels, pork pies and men) it didn’t seem entirely satisfactory. Neither did that presented in the article’s predecessor, that of the surgeon: the philosopher as one who makes incisions, cuts to the heart and cures the disease.

Some years later I read Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. Here the philosopher is characterised as one who is constantly surprised by life, who sees a puzzle in that which to everyone else is commonplace. When the Doctor asks “how do you know it’s a duck pond if there aren’t any ducks?” he’s thinking in this sort of way, seeing a problem where to most there is none. I like this conception rather more – it fits with the sort of delight my philosopher friends find in making things difficult. Not in an obstructionist way, but rather, in a way that takes a certain joy in finding a tension or a contradiction or a puzzle in something which seems at first glance to be perfectly straightforward.

None of these ideas struck me as so insightful, though, as something I heard in an interview with Paul Churchland. One of his students had asked, “Should I become a philosopher?” and Churchland had replied, “Do you have a choice?” For Churchland, being a philosopher was not simply a matter of a point of view, but a certain kind of drive; not just seeing problems, but being determined to find them.

This attitude is reminiscent of a passage in Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music, where he describes the composer as “…a human being who is sensitive to nature’s many voices, of course, but who in addition feels the need of putting them in order and who is gifted for that task with a very special aptitude.”

For the musician, this desire for order can become very pressing. There is a story that Rubenstein’s wife would wake him in the morning by playing a dissonant chord on the piano; he would have to jump out of bed to play the chord’s resolution; and in that moment she would steal the blankets from the bed to prevent him going back to sleep.

Perhaps this story isn’t true, but it will strike a chord, so to speak, with most musicians; and I think in its outline, with many philosophers, too. To parallel Stravinsky’s position, the philosopher is one who is appreciative of ideas and arguments, but who, in addition, feels the need to put them in order. Sloppy thinking, muddled reasoning and inadequate evidence grate like an augmented fourth, not just attracting one’s attention but demanding change, re-ordering and resolution. Sometimes, as when one listens to a beginner on the violin, the problem is obvious; sometimes, as when one violin in the orchestra is a little sharp, we only have an inkling, to begin with, that anything is wrong at all. But that inkling is enough to make us want to listen again, to probe, to unravel,  to find the source of the dissonance and correct it. The philosopher cannot hear an ambiguity without wanting to point it out; cannot let a non-sequitur pass even if it’s inconsequential. Error is not just apparent but uncomfortable, painful; philosophers seek to order thought as composers seek to order sound and painters light.

The internet, from this point of view, is a curious place. Social networking and blogging mean have created an unprecedented outpouring of opinion, while the demand for immediacy and responsiveness means that those opinions are less considered than ever before. Of course, no-one does real philosophy in this way, but that isn’t the point; people express muddle-headed opinions, commit the most egregious errors of reasoning and cite as evidence complete and blatant untruths. It is, philosophically, a place of chaos, and the temptation to constantly tidy is enormous, especially since the possibility of doing so is so immediately present. A click on “comment” and a few keystrokes is all it takes to set things to rights.

Does it do any good? Here, Gentle Reader, I defer to you. Do you think there’s a value in pointing out where people’s opinions are ill-considered, or founded on falsehood? Or should we go placidly, as it were, amongst the discord, and leave people to say what they will?

UPDATE: For another view on the nature of philosophy, see Simon Critchley’s recent article

Filed under: Philosophy

Four Old Rants for the New Year

Sorry, they’re just bugging me:

A brief defence of relativism

Relativism is coming in for a lot of bad press right now. Liberals who might traditionally have been sympathetic to it are blaming it for the decline of science (as if this were not just a return to the status quo of thousands of years of human history after a blip of less than fifty years, and as if the hubris and mendacity of the scientific establishment were not a better explanation) while those on the right blame moral relativism (without asking what it is or whether it applies) for the continual but seemingly interminable “decline” in standards.

As a technical project in logic or ethics, relativism is a sticky wicket, but the sentiment of the relativist is easy to defend: relativism is an objection to a certain kind of sloppy thinking. General statements are true only if we import with them a set of what we might call ceteris paribus assumptions. Heat doesn’t move from a cooler to a hotter body; except that it does, if we build a mechanism to so move it (like a refrigerator). Of course when we say “heat doesn’t move from a cooler to a hotter body” we’re assuming that our listener understands we mean things like “without the aid of a mechanism”. We say that heat doesn’t move from a cooler to hotter body all other  things being equal (ceteris paribus).

Sloppy thinking occurs when we become so used to omitting these assumptions that we forget they apply, and then think that our general statement obtains in situations where the assumptions do not. Creationists often make use of the argument that entropy increases (and complexity decreases) to argue that evolved life could not arise by chance; they forget that the general truth “entropy increases” is true for closed systems, which the earth is not.

While the technical project of relativism makes various metaphysical and ontological commitments, depending on the sort of relativist one wishes to be, I think the motivation (particularly where relativism grows from postmodern approaches) is really to insist that these assumptions have to be articulated and tested. The scandal of relativism is that articulating the assumptions is often much harder than we expect and yields rather unpalatable results.
Asking silly questions

There’s an experiment being reported around the net at the moment which purports to show a systematic failure in human reasoning. It goes like this: we tell the subject that Harry liked to take part in school plays and often goes to classical concerts, then we ask, is Harry more likely to be an accountant or an actor? The suckers subjects say “actor” and the experimenters sit back with a smug grin and say “no, because there are far, far more accountants than actors, so anybody is more likely to be an accountant than an actor.”

But that isn’t the question that was asked. Again, there is a hidden ceteris paribus here. All other things being equal, Harry is prima facie as likely to be an actor as an accountant, so if we assume he has some control over his career, and quantify over possible worlds, it’s more likely he’s an actor than an accountant.

If you’re sceptical about this, consider the following:

  1. Suppose the question were posed, “Given that there are five times as many accountants as actors, is Harry more likely to be an accountant or an actor?” Would subjects still have said “actor”?
  2. If you were posed a maths problem of the form “A train leaves Manchester heading to London at 50mph…” would it be legitimate in your answer to point out that trains on that line are usually subject to heavy delays? Or would that be a violation of the hidden ceteris paribus that comes with this sort of question?

Agnosticism and Scientific Realism

Ontological economy is a methodological principle of scientific investigation, not a requirement for rational thinking. The propensity of scientists to confuse the two is astonishing; in general, the assumption that scientific method – often poorly understood – is a normative paradigm for rationality is a pernicious error far too readily accepted by scientists and non-scientists alike.

Broadly, ontological economy says we don’t accept the existence of entities or classes of entities unless they are required by some theory explaining our observations of the world. It is Occam’s razor in a dress suit, and a jolly useful principle it is too. If you’re trying to design experiments to falsify a theory, the fewer things you have to control for, the better. Multiplying entities means multiplying controls or (worse) multiplying explanations for your results.

Things may exist and remain unobserved, however; and our theories may account for some observations in quite the wrong way. This is part of the excitement of science – we uncover new phenomena and find our assumptions about the familiar challenged. Let’s pretend it’s 1939, and ask ourselves: are there any transuranic elements? Perhaps, perhaps not; none of our theories require that they exist. So what should our attitude towards them be?

It seems to me that the right attitude – both scientifically and rationally – is to defer a judgement until more evidence is available. To take, as it were, an agnostic attitude. When we design our experiments, and interpret our results, we do not make reference to transuranic elements until there is a need to do so; but we don’t, in virtue of this methodological convenience, outright deny their existence. We are, in a sense, humble enough to admit that whatever is, is, and that even our best theories may one day be subject to revision, while at the same time we are smart enough not to be fooled into thinking that because something might be, we have good reason to invoke it in our explanations.

This is, of course, the dividing line between atheism and agnosticism. I am agnostic, in the sense that I lack enough evidence to decide on the existence of god-like entities one way or another (although I am atheist in respect of the god of Judaism). As an agnostic, I won’t deny the existence of gods any more than I will deny the existence of the flying spaghetti monster or a teapot orbiting the earth (in so far as any of these three are conceptually coherent). This does not commit me to invoking gods, monsters or teapots in my explanations of my experience, and certainly in my attempts to provide systematic accounts for the operation of the mind, I have never been tempted to do so. But my commitment, from the point of view of scientific methodology, to resist invoking these entities does not entail any commitment, from the point of view of rationality, to denying their existence entirely.

I’m happy that Richard Dawkins is an atheist and I am happy that he has invested so much energy in providing coherent and accessible critiques of religion. I reject, however, his conflation of scientific methodology with rationality, and his rejection of agnosticism as irrational. There are lots of good reasons for rejecting agnosticism in favour of atheism, but irrationality isn’t one of them.
Political Correctness Unjustly Accused

People who should know better keep bashing political correctness, generally without really understanding what it is.

I saw a “celeb” on TV last week criticising the fashion sense of another “celeb”. She said something like, “with political correctness and all, we can’t say she’s just a huge blimp wearing a tent.”

There are two problems with this sentence. The first is that it simultaneously says P while claiming that saying P is prohibited. The second is that it attributes the alleged, and evidently entirely imaginary, prohibition to political correctness. It isn’t political correctness that stops people describing a woman as a “blimp wearing a tent,” of course; it is what we outside the media call “common decency”.

A similar set of problems crops up in conversations about immigration. Otherwise quite logical people make claims of the form “Political correctness prevents me from saying P” where P is something like “there should be less immigration”.

The root of the prohibition problem is a feeling people have that they are being censored where in fact such censorship isn’t particularly extreme (but is not, on the other hand entirely absent). In the blimp / tent case, the censor is just good manners, but in the immigration case it’s a kind of liberal orthodoxy; in neither case is it political correctness (gone mad or otherwise). Orthodoxies are usually good to challenge and if people feel they cannot ask legitimate questions about immigration then they should work to throw off whatever shackles prevent them from doing so.

Political correctness has quite a different agenda. It is perfectly pc to ask, “what immigration policies will give the best chance of economic prosperity for the current and future UK population?” although the question might be unpalatable to certain temperaments (mine included, as it happens) and defy certain orthodoxies about what may or may not be asked (if you do not believe in such orthodoxies, consider in how many forums you could ask whether paedophilia is good for children). What it is not pc to ask is how many foreigners we should let into our country. This is not because of the substance of the question, but rather because the language used – foreigners, our country – establishes a value-laden opposition which prejudices the answer to the question and perpetuates an imbalance of power.

Historically, pc came alongside a fairly radical power-grab by a range of minority groups which established new orthodoxies in intellectual debate. The new orthodoxies probably represent a more egalitarian position than those they displaced, but they are orthodoxies nonetheless and deserve to be challenged. But pc itself – the process of increasing consciousness of the fact that the way we use language reinforces existing power relationships – remains a useful tool and shouldn’t be made to carry the can for perceived imbalances of power.

Filed under: Philosophy

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The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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