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Christian ethics and Peter Singer Ken Perrott Oct 09

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I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up.

This book is a good read for anyone interested in ethical debates – particularly those between ethical philosopher Peter Sinclair and Christian spokespersons. Singer is usually heavily criticised for his secular ethics –  but this author provides a much more in-depth consideration of the differences – which are not as great as many Christians believe.


Book review: Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization by Charles C. Camosy

Price: US$25.75; Kindle US$16.80
Paperback: 286 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (May 28, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0521149339
ISBN-13: 978-0521149334

We all “do” morality – its part of being human. We will debate ethical questions till the cows come home. And we will take sides on moral issues, often reacting emotionally, even violently, to those who disagree with us.

But here’s a strange thing. Very few of us could name an ethical philosopher. Perhaps because moral questions are of such practical and personal importance ethical discussions at the philosophical level seem to not interest us.

But, those who can produce a name might, in most cases, come up with Peter Singer. This probably supports Charles Carmosy’s suggestion that “Singer is probably the world’s most influential living philosopher.”

Singer won recognition for his work on animal rights – a topical issue  today. He has written and lectured extensively on secular morality. But his reputation must also come from the publicity he gets from his philosophical opponents. Particularly philosophers of religion who have demonised some of Singers ideas, and the man himself. It’s no accident that in debates with theists Singer’s ethical ideas are the most often quoted, by theists, as negative and inhuman examples of secular ethics.

Even bad-mouthing creates recognition so these religious critics may be responsible for making Singer’s name so recognisable. That negative propaganda may not stick when people make their own efforts to read Singer.

There’s no shortage of mudslinging across the ideological divides of religion. So it’s not surprising that there is plenty of hostility and misrepresentation in even the more academic religious critiques of Singer’s ideas (See for a local example Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part One and Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part Two).

But “truth will out” and Charles Camosy, a Catholic ethicist who is Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University, New York, sees “small cracks . . . starting to form in the intellectual wall separating Peter Singer and Christianity.” Camosy’s book, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization is a significant contribution to widening these cracks.

That’s not just my judgement. Peter Singer himself recommends the book. He says:

“Philosophy makes progress through criticism that is based on a sound grasp of the position under scrutiny, acknowledging its strengths as well as seeking to expose its weaknesses. Charles Camosy does exactly that, which is why, despite the deep disagreements between us, I regard Peter Singer and Christian Ethics as a valuable contribution to philosophy in general, and to applied ethics in particular.”

Overlapping ethical positions

The book provides a detailed consideration of the ethical positions of the Catholic Church and of Peter Singer in 5 main areas (devoting a chapter to each):

  1. Abortion,
  2. Euthanasia and the end of life,
  3. Non-human animals,
  4. Duties to the poor, and
  5. Ethical theory.

Each chapter concludes with an assessment of how close, or how different, the two positions are. For example:

  1.  ”the disagreement between the two approaches with regard to abortion is actually quite narrow.”
  2. “The overlap between Singer and the Church with regard to euthanasia and decision making at the end of life is considerable. . . . it does seem as if proponents of Singer’s position and those who support the Church could come together and support certain important public policies.”
  3. “there is significant and wide-ranging overlap between Singer and the Church on non-human animals. Such common ground opens the door for productive exchanges which can challenge both approaches in various ways.”
  4. “Both approaches react strongly against the violence and injustice that our consumerist and hyper-autonomous culture inflicts on the vulnerable poor. The enormity of what is common might also suggest yet another duty: taking advantage of the resources and loyalties proper to each approach and unleashing their combined power toward the mutual goal of ending absolute poverty and restoring broad social participation for the poor.”
  5. On ethical theory – “we have seen a dramatic overlap between Singer and the Church. Both approaches, for instance, value consequence-based reasoning while at the same time having an important place for moral rules. Both also believe that many of these rules can be overruled for a sufficiently serious reason.”

Camosy has  found large areas of agreement (by the way, he does not neglect the difference between the two positions). But I really like that he goes further and suggests this agreement provides ground for cooperation, discussion and common public platforms.

Readers might be surprised at the amount of agreement Camosy finds between Singers ethical ideas and those of the Catholic Church. However, the common ethical positions found by Camosy does not surprise me. Despite claims of revelation and infallibility the Catholic Church has had to deal with real world issues for a long time. It’s natural that much of the ethical positions they arrive at will basically be secular anyway -  even if presented with religious phrases and terms.

I think Camosy’s concept of ethical objectivity residing in human flourishing and happiness reinforces this. (Although, interesting he does take that further to the flourishing of the universe as a whole). I found refreshing Camosy’s references to objective morality without the annoying evangelical habit of seeing that as “divine,” without dragging in his god.

At least, most of the time. Towards the end of the book Camosy does seem to sneak his god into the discussion, as a grounding for objective ethics. But only in the last chapter.

The “rich tradition” of Christian ethics

While Camosy’s ability to find the large extent of ethical agreement he did is heartening to me, some problems do bring me down to earth. Camosy says, and I agree, that the Catholic Church has a very rich tradition of writings and pronouncements on ethical issues.  This must have been an immense help to Camosy as he searched for some commonality. However, sometimes I felt this very richness presents a problem. Which piece of contradictory evidence does one rely on? Which particular pronouncement is considered more “official” than the others. The richness itself provides difficulties of choice, and can make a certain amount of “cherry picking” inevitable.

So I sometimes found myself contrasting Camosy’s claims with the modern public positions commonly attributed to the Catholic Church, or at least Catholic spokespersons. For example – meat-eating, vegetarianism, abortion and euthenasia. Some Catholics might not agree with Camosy’s conclusion about the extent of commonality because they don’t completely recognise the Catholic ethics Camosy describes.

Perhaps that’s the common problem of differences between church office holders and lay parishioners. But I suggest that in some cases there a more basic disagreements at the level of the office holder or “official.”

On the other hand, as an individual with an easily accessible and definitive set of writings, it is much easer to establish Singer’s “official” ethical positions.  There is less scope for “cherry picking” and one can usually find suitable quotes to show Singer’s position on various ethical questions.

A problem with philosophical labels

In their criticisms of Singer religious apologists have a common habit  of inferring an ethical position (and not find a specific quote) from their own biased understanding of ethical labels.  Perhaps I have a thing about ideological and political labels, and I am sure Singer objects to their use less than I do. He does, after all, sometimes use descriptive ethical labels in his writings. However, I think some of the more extreme interpretations of Singer’s positions does not come from specific quotes or writings of Singer. Instead they come from the description of him as a proponent of “preference utilitarianism,” for example, and then inferring a specific ethical position – often relying on the commentators own hostile or simplistic understanding of the label’s meaning.

Fortunately Camosy  relies on quotes from Singer’s writing to describe his ethical positions. Well, at least most of the time. He does slip into use of the “preference utilitarianism” label to ground an inference a few times. And they stood out to me – especially as Camosy himself is arguing towards the end of the book that Singer’s ideas are shifting. That “Singer is in the process of fundamentally rethinking his preference utilitarianism.” Even more reason to avoid labels.

Conclusion

I believe this book will be very useful to anyone interested in Singer’s ethical philosophy, especially comparing it with that of the Church. Camosy relies mostly on direct quotations from Singer’s writings so the book provides a useful summary of his ideas, particularly in the 5 areas mentioned. In fact, there may be more disagreements among Catholics on Camosy’s description of Catholic ethical positions. A curse of the “rich tradition” perhaps.

It should help correct some of the misunderstandings that Christians have about Singer’s ideas – if only they are open-minded enough to read books like this. I hope their approach top a book by a Catholic ethicist is more sympathetic that their approach to the original writings of Singer.

Considering the ideological differences between singer and the Catholic Church I think Camosy has done his job well. I can excuse him the few lapses that my sensitivities have identified.

And I think Camosy’s identification of the possibilities of common action between supporters of Singer and the Catholic Church is very useful. Dare I hope that the church can be open to these possibilities in the future?

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Fiddling with census figures for religion in New Zealand Ken Perrott Apr 25

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Despite the bad publicity dogging the Catholic church internationally,  Karl du Fresne reports that many NZ Catholics have a positive picture of their church in New Zealand (see Catholicism: Holy smoke, NZ Listener). His subtitle conveys the message – despite all the scandals and controversies, Catholicism is emerging as the country’s most popular denomination.

Du Fresne wrote:

“Statistics suggest their optimism may be justified. Although the number of New Zealanders declaring no religious belief is steadily increasing, making this one of the most secular countries in the world, the 2006 census showed the Catholic population had risen by 4.7% over the previous five years. In the same period, the number of Anglicans and Presbyterians sharply declined. If the trends have continued, the just-taken census should show Catholicism overtaking the Church of England as the denomination with the greatest number of followers in New Zealand.”

A friend queried the claim of 4.7% increase in the Catholic population. After all, weren’t recent census results showing a decline in numbers of religious people?

So – I had a look at the data for the 1996, 2001 and 2006 Censuses (No data available for the 2013 Census yet). Du Fresne’s figure of 4.7% increase in the Catholic population between 2001 and 2006 is correct – but easily misinterpreted.  He is referring to absolute numbers, not the proportion or percentage of the total population, which also increased in that time – an important difference.  Here are some figures and graphics to clarify the census results.

1996 2001 2006
Total People 3,618,303 3,737,277 4,027,947
No Religion 867,264 1,028,049 1,297,104
Anglican 631,764 584,793 554,925
Catholic 473,112 485,637 508,437
Presbyterian 470,442 431,139 400,839
Methodist 121,650 120,546 121,806
Pentecostal 69,333 67,182 79,155
Hindu 25,551 39,798 64,392
Baptist 53,613 51,423 56,913
Buddhist 28,131 41,634 52,362
Ratana 36,450 48,975 50,565
Latter-day Saints 41,166 39,915 43,539
Islam/Muslim 13,545 23,631 36,072
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 1,584 11,016 13,836
Orthodox 6,933 9,576 13,194
Salvation Army 14,625 12,618 11,493
Sikh 2,817 5,199 9,507
Judaism/Jewish 4,809 6,636 6,858
Baha’i 3,111 2,988 2,772

Catholic-1Clearly, as du Fresne said, Catholics have slightly increased in numbers  while other major religions have declined. Possibly Catholics may overtake Anglicans in the 2013 census. But the 4.7% increase in absolute numbers can be misleading because the total population increased by 7.8% in that time.

Maybe, from the perspective of the specific religion, the increase or decline in absolute numbers is important. However, the “no religion” and smaller religions have performed better on this criteria than Catholics. In the table below I have ranked some of the religions in order for that criteria – the increase from 2001 – 2006 expressed as a percentage of the 2001 figure.

numbers 2006

%age increase 2001-2006
Sikh 9507 82.9
Hindu 64392 61.8
New Age 669 59.3
Islam/Muslim 36072 52.6
Orthodox 13194 37.8
Spiritualist 7743 32.2
Satanism 1167 30.5
No Religion 1297104 26.2
Buddhist 52362 25.8
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 13836 25.6
Pentecostal 79155 17.8
Baptist 56913 10.7
Catholic 508437 4.7
Methodist 121806 1.0
Jehovah’s Witness 17910 0.5
Anglican 554925 -5.1
Presbyterian, Congregational and Reformed 400839 -7.0
Baha’i 2772 -7.2

Finally, many people would interpret (incorrectly) du Fresne’s 4.7% as the increase in percentage of Catholics as a proportion of the total population. The table below shows the data for that calculation – in this case the proportion of Catholics changed from 13.0% in 2001 to 12.6% in 2006 – a decline of 0.4%.

% in 2006 Change from 2001
Sikh 0.2 0.1
Hindu 1.6 0.5
New Age 0.0 0.0
Islam/Muslim 0.9 0.3
Orthodox 0.3 0.1
Spiritualist 0.2 0.0
Satanism 0.0 0.0
No Religion 32.2 4.7
Buddhist 1.3 0.2
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 0.3 0.0
Pentecostal 2.0 0.2
Baptist 1.4 0.0
Catholic 12.6 -0.4
Methodist 3.0 -0.2
Jehovah’s Witness 0.4 0.0
Anglican 13.8 -1.9
Presbyterian 10.0 -1.6
Baha’i 0.1 0.0

Du Fresne speculated on the figures for Catholics in NZ:

“That increase is thought to be partly related to the increasing number of Asian Catholic immigrants, which in turn reflects the growth of Catholicism in the Third World. Four out of every 10 New Zealand Catholics under 25 are Asian, Maori or Pasifika. That gives hope to Catholics who are otherwise dismayed at the secularisation of society and the decline in attendance at mass. Most of the older Catholics contacted by the Listener said their children and other family members had drifted away from the Church.”

Conclusions

  • Yes, Catholics in New Zealand increased in absolute numbers between 2001 and 2006 (by 4.7% from 485637 in 2001 to 508437 in 2006) but slower than the rate of growth of the total population. Consequently their proportion in the total population declined by 0.4% (from  13.0% in 2001 to 12.6% in 2006).
  • Yes, their relatively slow decline (0.4%) contrasts with the much more rapid decline of the other major Christian denominations (1.9% for Anglicans and 1.6% for Presbyterians).
  • Some smaller Christian denominations and other religions like Hindu, Buddhist and Islam increase dramatically in numbers, but because of their small size did not really figure as changes in the proportion of the total population.
  • The stand out group is the “no religion” one which increased as proportion of the total population by 4.7% (from 27.5% in 2001 to 32.2% in 2006) [Or by 26.2% (from 1,028,049 in 2001 to 1,297,104 in 2006) in terms of absolute numbers].

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Something for all those lapsed catholics Ken Perrott Mar 21

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I keep running into lapsed catholics. They seem to be everywhere – and usually they are nice people.

There’s something about being lapsed which gives you a sense of humour.

But I wonder how many have tried to formalise their position. After all, there are all sorts of people out there who might lay claim to your soul, or some of your assets, after your death if you don’t.

Well, don’t worry – there’s now an app for that – the Excommunication app.

And apparently it does work – I have that on good authority.

Seems to be a pretty straightforward way of settling one of those things that may have hung over you for years.

View Excommunication app in iTunes preview

Click on images below to enlarge screen-shots

excomm1
excomm2
excomm3
excomm4
excomm5

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A sensible Christian perspective on Peter Singer Ken Perrott Feb 27

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Book review: Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization by Charles C. Camosy

Price: US$25.75; Kindle US$16.80
Paperback: 286 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (May 28, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0521149339
ISBN-13: 978-0521149334

We all “do” morality – its part of being human. We will debate ethical questions till the cows come home. And we will take sides on moral issues, often reacting emotionally, even violently, to those who disagree with us.

But here’s a strange thing. Very few of us could name an ethical philosopher. Perhaps because moral questions are of such practical and personal importance ethical discussions at the philosophical level seem to not interest us.

But, those who can produce a name might, in most cases, come up with Peter Singer. This probably supports Charles Carmosy’s suggestion that “Singer is probably the world’s most influential living philosopher.”

Singer won recognition for his work on animal rights – a topical issue  today. He has written and lectured extensively on secular morality. But his reputation must also come from the publicity he gets from his philosophical opponents. Particularly philosophers of religion who have demonised some of Singers ideas, and the man himself. It’s no accident that in debates with theists Singer’s ethical ideas are the most often quoted, by theists, as negative and inhuman examples of secular ethics.

Even bad-mouthing creates recognition so these religious critics may be responsible for making Singer’s name so recognisable. That negative propaganda may not stick when people make their own efforts to read Singer.

There’s no shortage of mudslinging across the ideological divides of religion. So it’s not surprising that there is plenty of hostility and misrepresentation in even the more academic religious critiques of Singer’s ideas (See for a local example Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part One and Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part Two).

But “truth will out” and Charles Camosy, a Catholic ethicist who is Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University, New York, sees “small cracks . . . starting to form in the intellectual wall separating Peter Singer and Christianity.” Camosy’s book, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization is a significant contribution to widening these cracks.

That’s not just my judgement. Peter Singer himself recommends the book. He says:

“Philosophy makes progress through criticism that is based on a sound grasp of the position under scrutiny, acknowledging its strengths as well as seeking to expose its weaknesses. Charles Camosy does exactly that, which is why, despite the deep disagreements between us, I regard Peter Singer and Christian Ethics as a valuable contribution to philosophy in general, and to applied ethics in particular.”

Overlapping ethical positions

The book provides a detailed consideration of the ethical positions of the Catholic Church and of Peter Singer in 5 main areas (devoting a chapter to each):

  1. Abortion,
  2. Euthanasia and the end of life,
  3. Non-human animals,
  4. Duties to the poor, and
  5. Ethical theory.

Each chapter concludes with an assessment of how close, or how different, the two positions are. For example:

  1.  ”the disagreement between the two approaches with regard to abortion is actually quite narrow.”
  2. “The overlap between Singer and the Church with regard to euthanasia and decision making at the end of life is considerable. . . . it does seem as if proponents of Singer’s position and those who support the Church could come together and support certain important public policies.”
  3. “there is significant and wide-ranging overlap between Singer and the Church on non-human animals. Such common ground opens the door for productive exchanges which can challenge both approaches in various ways.”
  4. “Both approaches react strongly against the violence and injustice that our consumerist and hyper-autonomous culture inflicts on the vulnerable poor. The enormity of what is common might also suggest yet another duty: taking advantage of the resources and loyalties proper to each approach and unleashing their combined power toward the mutual goal of ending absolute poverty and restoring broad social participation for the poor.”
  5. On ethical theory – “we have seen a dramatic overlap between Singer and the Church. Both approaches, for instance, value consequence-based reasoning while at the same time having an important place for moral rules. Both also believe that many of these rules can be overruled for a sufficiently serious reason.”

Camosy has  found large areas of agreement (by the way, he does not neglect the difference between the two positions). But I really like that he goes further and suggests this agreement provides ground for cooperation, discussion and common public platforms.

Readers might be surprised at the amount of agreement Camosy finds between Singers ethical ideas and those of the Catholic Church. However, the common ethical positions found by Camosy does not surprise me. Despite claims of revelation and infallibility the Catholic Church has had to deal with real world issues for a long time. It’s natural that much of the ethical positions they arrive at will basically be secular anyway -  even if presented with religious phrases and terms.

I think Camosy’s concept of ethical objectivity residing in human flourishing and happiness reinforces this. (Although, interesting he does take that further to the flourishing of the universe as a whole). I found refreshing Camosy’s references to objective morality without the annoying evangelical habit of seeing that as “divine,” without dragging in his god.

At least, most of the time. Towards the end of the book Camosy does seem to sneak his god into the discussion, as a grounding for objective ethics. But only in the last chapter.

The “rich tradition” of Christian ethics

While Camosy’s ability to find the large extent of ethical agreement he did is heartening to me, some problems do bring me down to earth. Camosy says, and I agree, that the Catholic Church has a very rich tradition of writings and pronouncements on ethical issues.  This must have been an immense help to Camosy as he searched for some commonality. However, sometimes I felt this very richness presents a problem. Which piece of contradictory evidence does one rely on? Which particular pronouncement is considered more “official” than the others. The richness itself provides difficulties of choice, and can make a certain amount of “cherry picking” inevitable.

So I sometimes found myself contrasting Camosy’s claims with the modern public positions commonly attributed to the Catholic Church, or at least Catholic spokespersons. For example – meat-eating, vegetarianism, abortion and euthenasia. Some Catholics might not agree with Camosy’s conclusion about the extent of commonality because they don’t completely recognise the Catholic ethics Camosy describes.

Perhaps that’s the common problem of differences between church office holders and lay parishioners. But I suggest that in some cases there a more basic disagreements at the level of the office holder or “official.”

On the other hand, as an individual with an easily accessible and definitive set of writings, it is much easer to establish Singer’s “official” ethical positions.  There is less scope for “cherry picking” and one can usually find suitable quotes to show Singer’s position on various ethical questions.

A problem with philosophical labels

In their criticisms of Singer religious apologists have a common habit  of inferring an ethical position (and not find a specific quote) from their own biased understanding of ethical labels.  Perhaps I have a thing about ideological and political labels, and I am sure Singer objects to their use less than I do. He does, after all, sometimes use descriptive ethical labels in his writings. However, I think some of the more extreme interpretations of Singer’s positions does not come from specific quotes or writings of Singer. Instead they come from the description of him as a proponent of “preference utilitarianism,” for example, and then inferring a specific ethical position – often relying on the commentators own hostile or simplistic understanding of the label’s meaning.

Fortunately Camosy  relies on quotes from Singer’s writing to describe his ethical positions. Well, at least most of the time. He does slip into use of the “preference utilitarianism” label to ground an inference a few times. And they stood out to me – especially as Camosy himself is arguing towards the end of the book that Singer’s ideas are shifting. That “Singer is in the process of fudnamentally rethinking his preference utilitarianism.” Even more reason to avoid labels.

Conclusion

I believe this book will be very useful to anyone interested in Singer’s ethical philosophy, especially comparing it with that of the Church. Camosy relies mostly on direct quotations from Singer’s writings so the book provides a useful summary of his ideas, particularly in the 5 areas mentioned. In fact, there may be more disagreements among Catholics on Camosy’s description of Catholic ethical positions. A curse of the “rich tradition” perhaps.

It should help correct some of the misunderstandings that Christians have about Singer’s ideas – if only they are open-minded enough to read books like this. I hope their approach top a book by a Catholic ethicist is more sympathetic that their approach to the original writings of Singer.

Considering the ideological differences between singer and the Catholic Church I think Camosy has done his job well. I can excuse him the few lapses that my sensitivities have identified.

And I think Camosy’s identification of the possibilities of common action between supporters of Singer and the Catholic Church is very useful. Dare I hope that the church can be open to these possibilities in the future?

A time for hypocrisy Ken Perrott Jan 08

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I guess it’s the time of the year for hypocrisy. Most of us stick to New Year resolutions, promises to lose weight, etc.  But what about the whopper from the Pope? (see Pope Very Worried About World Income Inequality While Sitting On Golden Throne).

pope-throneIn his New Year speech he urged:

“world leaders, particularly those in Europe, to make long-range plans to encourage economic growth and lessen the gap between the world’s rich and poor. . . During the speech, Benedict said the financial crisis that has rocked the world in recent years came about “because profit was all too often made absolute, to the detriment of labor, and because of unrestrained ventures in the financial areas of the economy, rather than attending to the real economy.

Sound like he ready to join one of those “Occupy” demos. Truth is he prefers to sit in his golden throne while making his appeal.

Oh well, he could always pray for the poor – means he doesn’t have to think about melting down some of those riches for the sake of charity.

Pope Benedict XVI

“Man, if only we had some valuable things we could use to raise money to help the poor! Oh well … “


A time for hypocrisy Ken Perrott Jan 08

2 Comments

I guess its the time of the year for hypocrisy. Most of us stick to New Year resolutions, promises to lose weight, etc.  But what about the whopper from the Pope? (see Pope Very Worried About World Income Inequality While Sitting On Golden Throne).

pope-throneIn his New Year speech he urged:

“world leaders, particularly those in Europe, to make long-range plans to encourage economic growth and lessen the gap between the world’s rich and poor. . . During the speech, Benedict said the financial crisis that has rocked the world in recent years came about “because profit was all too often made absolute, to the detriment of labor, and because of unrestrained ventures in the financial areas of the economy, rather than attending to the real economy.

Sound like he ready to join one of those “Occupy” demos. Truth is he prefers to sit in his golden throne while making his appeal.

Oh well, he could always pray for the poor – means he doesn’t have to think about melting down some of those riches for the sake of charity.

Pope Benedict XVI

“Man, if only we had some valuable things we could use to raise money to help the poor! Oh well … “


Time for philosophical honesty about Darwin Ken Perrott Nov 27

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Credit: The Teaching Company

John S. Wilkins, at the Evolving Thoughts blog, has a nice short article, Why is Darwin’s theory so controversial?, on the so-called “controversies” around Darwin’s theories. I think he nails it. He shows that the usual tired old objections to Darwin’s ideas are just excuses.

The excuses

“Darwin thought species are mutable.” But:

“This was a widely held view by preachers, moralists, Aristotelians, naturalists, breeders, formalists, folk biology, and even biblical translators.”

“Darwin had racist ideas about humans.”

“He never did and the racism that is sometimes associated with his ideas preceded him by centuries (and were good Christian virtues) and were mediated by those who disagreed with him.”

“Darwin thought the age of the earth was large:”

“This preceded him also, and was settled in the late eighteenth century, although the present value wasn’t finalised until the 1960s.”

“Darwin’s claim humans are animals contradicted the Bible.” But:

“Linnaeus knew humans were animals a century earlier, and indeed the only issue was whether humans were animals with souls (or if all animals had souls), which Darwin never implied anything to the contrary.

Moreover, it was Christians who rejected the literal interpretation of the Bible, long before Darwin (beginning with the Alexandrian school in the second century), and those who realised that the global Flood was a myth (or an allegory) were Christian geologists a half century at least in advance of Darwin.”

The real controversy

John explains:

“No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple. Darwin argued that complex designs could arise without a mind to guide it. In short, his controversial idea was natural selection (and sexual selection, but even that preceded Darwin). Almost from the day it was published, critics attacked the implication that the living world was not all that special, and that it lacked a Plan or Meaning. Theologians, moralists and even scientists objected to this, and while even most of the Catholic Church accepted common descent and modification of species, it was natural selection they hated.”

But instead of honestly confronting and debating the real issue they lie and slander:

“All the supposed “controversies” of Darwinism (or that phantom, “neo-Darwinism”) are post hoc attacks based on the prior objection to the lack of a guiding hand in biology. Don’t like natural selection? Attack Darwin by calling him a racist or blaming him for the Holocaust. Say he is antiessentialist. Say he is anti-religion. No matter how much evidence one puts forward that these are deliberate lies manufactured by those who hate Darwin for natural selection, it won’t stop the prevarication industry.”

A basic philosophical conflict

Wilkins says:

“Sensible philosophical critics of Darwin focus on selection for that reason. It undercuts our prior belief that We Are Special. Human mentation, cognition, language, morality, religion or economics is somehow privileged in the universe. Bullshit. We are an animal and we arose without the universe seeking us.”

But some philosophers will devote their energies to attacking this position while refusing to justify their alternative:

“The human exceptionalism which critics like Fodor, Fuller, Plantinga and the rest presume but do not argue for unfairly places the onus on Darwinians. It is time to stop taking them seriously.”

Amen to that.

But I want to add something to John’s analysis – and I do hope he doesn’t feel I misrepresent him.

Time for philosophical honesty

Darwin’s approach of looking to nature, and not to scripture, for the explanation of nature was simply being scientific. It extended the progress made by modern science in physics, astronomy, etc., into the understanding of life – including human life. Galileo in the early 17th Century argued our understanding of the world should be based on evidence from the world – not on fallible interpretation of scripture. Scientific knowledge, or natural philosophy in those day, should be based on evidence from reality and resulting ideas and theories tested and validated against that reality.

Today, sensible philosophers (even sensible philosophers of religion) accept this approach in the physical sciences. We no longer hear them talking about, or justifying, divine guidance in the movement of stars and planets, or the reaction of chemicals. Why should Fodor, Fuller and Plantinga so adamantly wish to sneak divine guidance into the biological world?

As they are so keen on divine guidance why not try to find and deliver some evidence for it instead of relying on logical possibility alone? That would be the scientific approach. And if they were really consistent they would also be arguing for, and producing evidence for, divine guidance in the physical world.

Now, that would put them in context.

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The arrogance of supernatural privilege Ken Perrott Nov 21

1 Comment

I’ve often criticised the arrogance of some of those with a supernatural ideology. Their claims of special access to the “Truth,” to morality, etc. But I get especially angry when this arrogance rides roughshod over the most innocent and vulnerable people in society. Our children.

 Recently the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a Royal Commission to uncover the truth about sexual abuse of children in Australia. This is a response to the public outrage against revelations and accusations of paedophilia and its cover up by a number of institutions with responsibility for care of children  – including Churches. The commission has generally been welcomed across the political spectrum with the strongest concern being that it should get to work and produce results quickly. That it shouldn’t dawdle on for decades and itself contribute to the cover up.

 So I was shocked to see a local blogger, Kereopa at beingfrank, interpret this commission as “persecution” of the Catholic church (see Persecution begins against the Catholic Church in Australia)! Talk about (guilty) paranoia. Gillard made clear that the Catholic Church was not the only institution targeted. That its scope would cover:

 ”all institutions, including religious institutions, state-based organisations, schools and not-for-profit groups such as scouts and sporting clubs. It will also look at the response of child services agencies and the police to accusations of abuse.”

 So what does Kereopa want? Exclusion of the Catholic Church from such an inquiry? And how can she/he justify that? Because of its supernatural privilege? That it must be protected from such accusations and investigations because it is “sacred?”

 How else can Kereopa interpret an objective investigation of all bodies as persecution of his/her own organisation?

 Plain supernatural arrogance. Arrogance which is medieval and in this day and age deserves only a laugh. Why should the Catholic Church be exempt from such investigations, immune to even accusations or concerns? Especially as we now know its functionaries have often sexually abused the children in their care. And the organisation has often denied these crimes, protected the criminals and gone to great efforts to cover up the crimes. To the extent of allowing the crimes to continue and usually slandering the victims in the process.

As if to rub the salt into the psychological wounds of the victims of this child abuse, apologists for the Catholic Church have been frantically attempting to defend the supernatural privilege of confessions, the seal of the confessional. To protect this from investigations by the Royal Commission. They think their obligation to protect children in their care can be superseded by mythical supernatural claptrap.  Here’s how blogger Lucia Maria at New Zealand Conservative argues for a privilege of exempting Catholic confessions from the law:

“Confession is where a person is forgiven of their sins so that they are able to enter eternal life (ie not go to Hell). The priest represents our Lord Jesus Christ, and has been given the power to forgive sins.”

So, put a guy in a dress and give him a cross and he can represent a god! And you then claim that such a claim supersedes the rights of the victim? Innocent and defenceless children? Or the rights of society to get justice?

Who do these people think they are fooling – or even talking to? Most of us just don’t share their particular brand of supernaturalism. We are not convinced they have special privileges putting them above the law. Their talk of angels, hell and heaven don’t convince us that they should not have to obey the same laws we do. Especially when it comes to protecting our children.

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So you think science has a problem? Ken Perrott Jul 15

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There are a number of opinion piece writers, usually  philosophers of religion or accomadationist atheist philosophers who really hate  today’s vocal atheists. Particularly if those atheists are also scientists. They often pretend to be concerned about the reputation of science. “These gnus should STFU,” they argue, “because it’s just turning people away from science.” And science needs all the friends it can get with the current attacks on climate and evolutionary science.

In my review of Elaine Ecklund’s book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think I argued this position, which she also was pushing, is mistaken (see Are scientists hostile to religion?). That in fact the data just doesn’t support it. If these people were really looking at the data properly perhaps they should be telling militant Christian activists to STFU – because polls show that people are losing the respect they used to hold for ministers, priests and the church. The data I referred to is in the graph below.

%age of US public considering professions of “very great prestige.”

Now the Gallup polling organisation has revealed data showing a steady decline in the public confidence of the church and organised religion:

Forty-four percent of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in “the church or organized religion” today, just below the low points Gallup has found in recent years, including 45% in 2002 and 46% in 2007. This follows a long-term decline in Americans’ confidence in religion since the 1970s.

See the graph below:

via U.S. Confidence in Organized Religion at Low Point.

Perhaps its time for these writers of opinion pieces to start considering the data that is staring them in the face. Rather than their knee jerk whining about the gnus and public respect for scientists they should write about a real phenomenon.

After all there are plenty of  factors they could speculate on as explanations for the public decline of confidence. As the article points out child molestation by Catholic priests and cover-up by church leaders appears to have had a noticeable effect. One could also consider the role that conservative religion plays in US politics today, the ongoing demands to be allowed to continue discrimination by religious bodies, interference in education, moral hypocrisy, and so on.

Perhaps these horrible gnus may have also been having an effect. Just not in the way these commenters claim.

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Galileo’s modern critics Ken Perrott Jul 08

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The Gallileo Affair – a useful primary source of documents

What is it with some philosophical and historical commenters who take sides against Galileo in his 17th century dispute with the Church?

Perhaps because we now have many documents from that period (17th century) – including Galileo’s original writings, official documents from the Inquisition and the church,  and the text of complaints made to the inquisition about Galileo’s beliefs and teachings. This itself can fuel different perspectives.

However, I think another source of this lively debate lies in the preconceived notions and beliefs of the modern protagonists. That, to me, is the only explanation for a trend (a trend – I don’t blame all) among commenters on the history of science that seeks to blame the victim (in this case Galileo) for the affair. To claim that Galileo was scientifically wrong. That the Church was correct to suppress research into a heliocentric model for the solar system. And to threaten imprisonment for anyone holding these opinions. And, inevitably, when there a preconceived beliefs, sources are selected to confirm those beliefs.

We can see one example in Andrew Brown’s blog article Science is the only road to truth? Don’t be absurd  (see my earlier post Debates in the philosophy of science). Here, I want to take issue with his claim that the Church was partly correct in suppressing Galileo’s ideas on heliocentricism:

” Because if there is one thing that has been established in the history of science in the last 50 years, it is that in strictly scientific terms, and going by the evidence available to him and to his contemporaries, Galileo was wrong and Cardinal Bellarmine was right. Heliocentrism was a beautiful theory, and Galileo would have been free to teach it as such — but the observation of stellar parallax, or rather the discovery that none could be observed, should have knocked it on the head “

There are a few points in this which need challenging.

1: Was Galileo “free to teach” heliocentricism?

(As a theory or anything else). I have already commented in  on how arguments about hypotheses and facts were intimately mixed up with theology at the time – the facts being what the Church decided from its interpretation of the “holy” bible. But what in fact had the church told Galileo in 1616? This from the Inquisition Minutes of 25 February 1616:

“His Holiness ordered the Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Bellarmine to call Galileo before himself and warn him to abandon these opinions; and if he should refuse to obey, the Father Commissary, in the presence of a notary and witnesses, is to issue him an injunction to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it; and further, if he should not acquiesce, he is to be imprisoned.” [Source The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History by Maurice A. Finocchiaro]

It doesn’t seem that Galileo was free to even hold an opinion, let alone teach it!

2: Was Galileo wrong and Belarmine right?

“In strictly scientific terms, and going by the evidence available to him and to his contemporaries?” Again, questions of right and wrong were confounded at the time because of the overriding theological decisions. But what about the science?

Some commenters place strong reliance on the inability of the original Copernican model to explain some features of planetary movements. This was debated at the time and Galileo’s Reply to Ingoli* (1624) can put these objections into proper perspective:

“. . you criticize the Copernican system by saying, in accordance with Tycho’s authority, that the eccentricities of Mars and Venus are different from what Copernicus assumed, and likewise that Venus’s apogee is not stable, as he believed.

Here it seems to me you want to imitate the man who wanted to tear down his house to the foundations because the chimney made too much smoke, saying that it was uninhabitable and architecturally flawed; and he would have done it had not a friend of his pointed out that it was enough to fix the chimney without tearing down the rest. So I say to you, Mr. Ingoli: given that Copernicus went astray in regard to that eccentricity and apogee, let us revise this, which has nothing to do with the foundations and the essential structure of the whole system.”

“Copernicus was induced to reject the Ptolemaic system, not because he discovered some small fallacy in some particular motion of a planet, but because of an essential and inadmissible incongruity in the structure of all planetary orbits and because of very many great difficulties which are then all removed in his system.”

“So, leave the foundations of the Copernican edifice alone, and repair as you wish the eccentricities of Mars and Venus, and move the latter’s apogee, for these are quantities that have nothing to do with the stability or location of the sun or the earth?” [Source as above]

Of course, there had not been complete proof of a heliocentric system then – nor had there been any such proof of a geocentric system. The authority of the geocentric model rested very strongly on theological justification.

The question of the way that ad hoc adjustments were required to apply a geocentric model is an epistemological one and philosophers of science have discussed this – see 4 below.

3: Did lack of parallax disprove heliocentricism?

Brown is being a bit shifty here as the inability to measure stellar parallax was a matter of sensitivity – it did not prove its non-existence.

One of the beauties of heliocentricism is its ability to produce testable predictions – like stellar parallax. That is the observable location of a distant star against the background stars would differ at different parts of the earth’s orbit around the sun. However, the distance between the earth and the observed stars is so large the parallax is very small and was beyond the sensitivity of the instruments of the time. Copernicus understood this and Galileo used telescopic measurements to conclude that the stars were far more distant from the earth than the proponents of geocentrism argued. (I guess geocentrists would also have to be careful with their argument as they could easily have got into the problem of non-observation of stellar parallax from different locations on the surface of a stationary earth.)

Brown’s flippant claims on stellar parallax were similar to some of Galileo’s opponents of the time. Here’s how Galileo saw them in his reply to Ingoli:

“. . . you should in all honesty have known that Nicolaus Copernicus had spent more years on these very difficult studies than you had spent days on them; so you should have been more careful and not let yourself be lightly persuaded that you could knock down such a man, especially with the sort of weapons you use, which are among the most common and trite objections advanced in this subject; and, though you add something new, this is no more effective than the rest. Thus, did you really think that Nicolaus Copernicus did not grasp the mysteries of the extremely shallow Sacrobosco? That he did not understand parallax?”

“. . . if you had read him with the care required to understand him properly, at least the difficulty of the subject (if nothing else) would have confused your spirit of opposition, so that you would have refrained or completely abstained from taking such a step” [Source as above]

I think this criticism can be addressed to modern critics of Galileo. There seems to be too much cherry picking of arguments to discredit Galileo, by people who do not understand the complexities of the science.

4: The epistemological issues

Almost all the critics of Galileo willfully ignore the huge elephant in the room — the need for indulgence in a huge number of artificial ad hoc adjustments to retain geocentricism.
Philosophers of science often use the geocentric model as an example of bad science because of the indulgence in ad hoc solutions and lack of novel predictions. Alan Chamber, for example, writes in What Is This Thing Called Science?’:

’The Ptolemaic explanation of retrograde motion did not constitute significant support for the program because it was artificially fixed up to fit the observable data by adding epicycles especially designed for the purpose. By contrast, the observable phenomena followed a natural way from the fundamentals of the Copernican theory without any artificial adjustment. The predictions of a theory or progam that count are those that are natural rather than contrived.’

I believe there are important issues in the Galileo affair which relate to the philosophy of science – and especially scientific epistemology.  Many philosophers are well aware of these. However, there are some critics of Galileo with either a philosophical or historical bent who do not seem to appreciate them.

Personally, I don’t think either the history of the Galileo affair, or his contribution to science, can be understood without appreciating these  philosophical and epistemological aspects.


* This was Galileo’s reply to an article by Ingoli directed at him 8 years previously  (1616). While Galileo presented several reasons for the delay he was clearly inhibited by the Inquisition Injunction of 1616 quoted above. He may have been emboldened by the fact of a new, and apparently friendly, Pope coming to office at the time to feel capable of taking up the arguments again.

I mention this because another argument of some apologists for the treatment of Galileo is that his treatment did nothing to hold up the advance of astronomy (see for example An interesting question). I think this delay is just one example showing they are wrong.

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