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Word of wisdom, and otherwise Ken Perrott Nov 13

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Dara O’Briain and Frankie Boyle on religion and creationism

The comedian Dara O’Briain is a real gem. I was pleased to see him mentioned in this weeks NZ Listener – with some of his great sayings. How is this for words of wisdom about science:

Dara Ó Briain

“Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.” NZ Listener issue 3835

Now just for contrast – here is something from a local leader of an anti-fluoridation group:

Mary Byrne

“Why would you rely on the so-called experts when they have already been proved to be wrong? and if you rely on the experts then what are you promoting? just someone else’s views, what is the point in that. Plus that sounds like religion to me.” Facebook comment.

Funny thing about these people who dislike science so much – they are always cherry picking a little bit of science, removing the context and qualifications and then presenting it as their alternative. As Dara would say – their “fairy tale.”

Sin is relative Ken Perrott Nov 10

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dress-code1
Love this photo I saw on Facebook – actually says a lot about the nature of morality as it is often practiced.

Credit: Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc.

Moral animals Ken Perrott Oct 24

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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.

Here’s a book for lovers of animals – and philosophy. But also for those who are willing to delve into the evolutionary origins of human morality.


Book review: Can Animals Be Moral? by Mark Rowlands

Price: US$29.95; NZ42.99
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (November 1, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0199842000
ISBN-13: 978-0199842001

Interested readers need to know – this is a book about philosophy, not science. I guess this makes the book more interesting to philosophers than scientists. And some familiarity with the philosophers whose arguments the author quotes and criticises will add to that interest.

However, Rowlands does not ignore the science. He refers to the scientific evidence for moral considerations by non-human animals (see video below for an example). A plus in my view as some philosophers seem to happily debate these sorts of issues without relying on any empirical evidence at all. But, as a philosopher, Rowlands assumes “only that the evidence makes a prima facie case for the claim that animals can be motivated to act by emotions—all   species of concern—that have an identifiable moral content. This assumption is the point of departure for the arguments to be developed in this book.”

Rowlands is also very clear from the beginning that his answer to the book title’s question is definitely “Yes.” He describes the purpose of his book this way:

“I try to show that the blanket dismissal of the possibility of moral action in animals cannot be sustained because it rests on certain assumptions that are controversial and would be rejected by many, often the majority, of philosophers. Essentially, the blanket dismissal requires that one be willing to pitch one’s tent in certain philosophical camps—camps in which many, perhaps most, philosophers would not be seen dead. Second, and equally important, I shall try to show that there are indeed good reasons to eschew these camps.”

Apparently, among philosophers, Rowlands’s view is a minority one:

“The history of philosophy has reached a near unanimous decision on the central question of this book. No, animals cannot be moral. They cannot act for moral reasons, or on the basis of moral considerations.”

And

“The positive goal of this book  is to show that animals can be motivated by moral concerns, and these concerns take the form of emotions that have identifiable moral content. The corresponding negative goals of this book are to show that the respectable reasons against this claim fall far short of   compelling, to unmask confusions, and to banish the fruits of magical thinking.”

I won’t go into the philosophical details but Rowlands argues for animals being moral because they can act on the basics of moral emotions. They have feelings and emotional reactions to situations and acting on these is enough for acting morally. But he acknowledges that emotions and sentiments are not the only sorts of moral reasons there are, saying, “I certainly would not object to the claim that there are moral reasons available to humans that do not reduce to emotions or sentiments.”

Moral agents and moral subjects

This leads him into definitional issues. We consider moral agents, moral subjects, etc. Moral subjects can act on the basis of motivations such as emotions and feelings. But a moral agent has the ability to reflect on these motivations and actions, can explicitly formulate or understand the principles behind the action and may be able to adopt an impartial perspective of the sort required for a sense of justice.

“All moral agents are moral subjects, but not all moral subjects are moral agents.”

Rowlands sees many, particularly social, non-human species as being moral subjects. But only humans have the ability to reflect, deliberate and consider abstractly, to be moral agents.

Many of the philosophers Rowlands argues against will demand that morality requires more self-awareness and abstract consideration than we normally consider possible by non-human animals. Thereby restricting morality to humans. However, research into human morality show that rational consideration and abstract thought occurs very rarely in moral situations. In fact our reactions have to be almost automatic and unconscious, as there just isn’t time to apply abstract thought or consult holy books and learned papers in ethical journals. If human animals relied only on rational consideration and abstract thought for their morality the species just would not have survived.

Using this book’s terms in many ways and many situations humans, although capable of moral agency, will behave as moral subjects. Rowlands discusses this in his philosophical arguments and provides explanatory examples. But this could have been helped by the scientific evidence showing that a lot of human moral actions are unconscious.

The continuity inherent in an evolutionary understanding of animals blurs customary distinctions between human and non-human animals. It’s therefore not surprising that moral concerns, emotions and feelings as a major reason for action are shared by human and non-human animals.

Moral autonomy – a degree of agency

Even among humans the degree of moral agency can vary. Some individuals may be more morally autonomous than others. They may often indulge in abstract moral reasoning, discussion and reading. They may possibly consciously reject some contemporary moral ideas and values. Other individuals may not be so reflective. Their rational consideration may be restricted to rationalising the automatic behaviour they exhibit. And they may be more unquestioning of the contemporary social mores and customs. They may even be willing to rely on social and religious authorities as the source of their moral values. Moral agency for many humans may be more potential than actual.

“A stronger view might claim that one possesses moral autonomy only when one is actually engaged in these processes. That is, moral autonomy turns on the exercise of the ability and not simply possession of the ability. This view entails that humans are morally autonomous individuals only on relatively infrequent occasions— and that some humans are, perhaps, never morally autonomous.”

Moral learning, or training

The book does not really discuss the way humans learn their morality during their development, or manage to adjust their moral codes to accommodate changing social values. Not surprising as it is about non-human animals. But it does discuss briefly the somewhat equivalent role of training that can influence those non-human animals who live closely with us. Some of this training can involve moral concerns – such as where pets are taught to be careful with young children.

Given the continuity of life inherent in a scientific evolutionary view  a continuity among different animal species in their moral instincts and concerns is not surprising. This supports modern changes in the way we consider non-human animals. Rowlands reflects this with the last sentence in the book:

“If animals can, and sometimes do, act for moral reasons, then they are worthy objects of moral respect. That is why it matters.”

Conclusions

I give more credence to scientific findings than philosophical deliberations. However, these are interesting in this case – even if more for characterisation of different philosophical schools. But while such deliberations may well appeal to the philosophically inclined by their very nature they usually cannot settle the argument. At times I felt the book had a tendency to philosophical argument at length where reference to empirical evidence may have sufficed.

Another criticism I have is the occasional use of Latin terms without definition. And use of philosophical shorthand not usually familiar to the lay person.

However, I felt the author’s presentation is careful. He gives reminders of his own position from time to time so one is not trapped into thinking he is advocating another position when he is merely outlining opposing arguments. This is helpful to the reader.

On balance I think the thorough philosophical consideration in this book does complement other, scientific, texts. For example, consideration of differences between moral subjects and moral agents provides a clearer picture than use of terms like “pre-moral” which authors like Frans de Waal and Michael Shermer have resorted to when describing the moral behaviour of non-human animals. Rowlands provides a philosophical clarity to the scientific findings.

Capuchin monkeys reject unequal pay

See also:
Scientist argues that animals are moral creatures
Can Animals Be Moral?

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An aside – philosophers who naively use science

Rowlands does not distort the science on this issue – he uses it honestly. Some philosophers are not honest when discussing issues related to non-human animals. They can resort to subtle differences in definition – even to motivated reasoning, usually to support their own bias. W. L. Craig’s recent attempts to claim that non-human animals might feel pain but don’t suffer is a rather blatant example. He misrepresents the science in his justification – claiming humans are the only animals with a pre-frontal cortex necessary for the self awareness required to experience suffering. (Misrepresenting science so as to use it as “evidence” for his religious and supernatural beliefs is a common trick of Craig’s as anyone familiar with his treatment if cosmology knows). Craig also relies on selective definitions if awareness, self-awareness and suffering to bolster his argument. (See this video for details).

Can animals suffer? Debunking the philosophers who say no, from Descartes to William Lane Craig

This cartoon seems relevant.

(Thanks to Jerry Coyne – William Lane Craig argues that animals can’t feel pain)

Science and faith Ken Perrott Oct 20

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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. Victor Stenger has a very useful series of books on the relationship between science and religion. He is a very clear writer, combining a knowledge of the philosophy and history of science with stories from his own research experience in particle physics. This is, I think, his second to last book – I have yet to put up my review of his latest – God and the Atom.


Book Review: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion by Victor Stenger. Price: US13.46; NZ$22.60 Paperback: 408 pages Publisher: Prometheus Books; Original edition (April 24, 2012) Language: English ISBN-10: 1616145994 ISBN-13: 978-1616145996 Victor Stenger wrote recently: “A majority of scientists at all levels do not believe in any god. Yet most are unwilling to challenge the religious beliefs of others.” That’s also my impression. The situation reminds me of our Prime Minister John Key’s reactions to many apparently important questions – “I’m relaxed about that”; “I’m comfortable with the situation” – even when we all know he should be taking problems more seriously.

Apathy of scientists

There really does seem to be a bit of confabulation going on here. Stenger describes what he calls The party line among scientists- believers and non-believers alike -:”

“science and religion are what Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria”. In 1998 the US National Academy of Sciences issued a statement asserting “Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”Yet according to a survey the same year, 93 per cent of the members of the academy do not believe in a personal god.”

As if this apathy were not bad enough it is accompanied by religious interest in co-opting science.  Dan Barker, in his Forward to this book, describes the situation as “theistic mosquitoes buzzing around pretending to understand the science (and only managing to misrepresent it).” A personal experience recently bought this home to me. I did an internet search attempting to locate a specific quote of Galileo’s referring to the importance of deriving scientific ideas from the real world. Almost all the links returned were from theological writings, websites or blogs. I also notice that many theologians and philosophers of religion actively write and comment of scientific philosophy and history. Of course it’s good the theologically inclined take an interest in important fields outside their own. Even comment on them. But the inevitable ideological bias in such writings produces  many anti-science ideas and ideologically motivated interpretations of history and philosophy. The apathy of scientists towards these issues means such ideas are not often challenged and sometimes squirm their way into academic writings on science method, philosophy and history. Stenger’s “God and the Folly of Faith” directly challenges many of those ideas. As Barker says Stenger “swats away the theistic mosquitoes”.  His “unflinching and uncompromising attitude” and his scientific and philosophical background makes him ideal for the job. And, as the many readers of a long series of books* on science and pseudo science know, Victor Stenger’s writing style means the issues are communicated clearly and understandably.

Conflict – myths and reality

I have often commented that the “warfare model” of science and religion is a myth. That science and religion are not always and everywhere inevitably in conflict. This is the model that some of the theologically inclined attribute to anyone who sees any conflict between science and region. Such an extreme claim is obviously mythical – after all there are many scientists who are also religious. However, scientific and religious epistemology, “ways of knowing” are completely different. This leads to inevitable conflicts when the areas of interest of science and religion overlap. And they do – consider the debates over evolution, consciousness, life after death, and morality. The warfare model is often blamed on two books written in the 19th century: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.  Stenger puts Whites book into context:

“His book was largely in reaction to attacks from the religious community for his refusal to impose religious tests on students and faculty” at Cornell University. “nevertheless, White’s efforts at Cornell helped lead to the conversion of the great private universities in America and Europe from the church-centered institutions they were originally to the secular ones they are today.”

 ”Modern historical scholars, some with ideological motives of their own” have been sharply critical of Draper’s and White’s books – but in the process have ignored, even covered up, the real ongoing conflict between science and religion. Stenger is quite clear – this epistemological conflict does sometime lead to real conflict and difficulties in acceptance of science. For example:

“many religious people will say they believe in evolution, but evolution guided by God. Darwinian evolution by natural selection, as the overwhelming majority of biologists now view it, is unguided.”

To introduce divine guidance into evolutionary science is to throw away a central part of that science.

Faithful reason

This epistemological difference also shines through in the different approaches to reasoning. Stenger is adamant that:

“the conflict between science and religion should not be regarded as a conflict between reason and unreason” – as some people present it. “The distinction between theology and science is in the objects on which to apply reason. Nothing can be learned from reason alone. A logical argument contains no information not already embedded in its premises.Reason and logic must be supplement by additional hypotheses about the nature of reality and the sources of our knowledge about that reality. In the case of science. that source is solely observation. In the case of theology, that source is primarily faith, with some observation thrown in as long as it does not conflict with faith. Theology is faith-plus-reason, with some observation allowed. Science is observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed.”

Faith-plus-reason quickly deteriorates to rationalisation supporting preconceived beliefs. There is no mechanism to keep one honest.

Chauvinistic history

Some of the theistically inclined have a habit of claiming their religion (or their god) is responsible for so may things. From the “big bang” to human ethics. From human reason to social laws. And – something that gets up my nose – for modern science. Inevitably this creates conflict. An example are the snearing predictions of the content of “God and the Folly of Faith” made by critics at  The Quodlibeta Forum. These included the forum’s administrator James Hannam – Catholic apologist and author of God’s Philosophers and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution).  Their predictions were wrong – because they relied on their own mythology about science, the history of science and atheism. Their active promotion of the myth of the conflict myth. By this I mean the habit of some students of history to vilify anyone who disagrees with their ideology-based histories as promoters of the “conflict thesis” – the idea that science and religion are always and inevitably in conflict. Of course the real world is not like that. Religion and science may be epistemologically exclusive but they are not always and inevitably in conflict. Nor is an author who writes about the history of science and religion guilty of promoting the “conflict thesis” because they are a scientist (rather than historian) or not a card-carrying religious apologist. Stenger is actually relatively balanced in his treatment of the relationship between science and religion throughout history.Where Stenger and Hannan deal with similar issues their factual history is basically the same. Mind you,  interpretations of facts can differ – and ideology plays a role here. Hannam, for example, interprets the 1277 condemnations (a list of “errors,”  issued by Bishop Tempier of Paris, which would lead to excommunication for anyone teaching or listening to them) as a good thing: 

“placing limits around as subject is not the same as being against it.” The condemnations “protected natural philosophers from those who wanted to see their activities further curtailed . . philosophy was safe to develop in peace and without fear.” (from “God’s Philosophers”).

In contrast Stenger mentions that interpretation (a speculation of Pierre Duheim) but points out that in contrast  the historian David Lindberg described the condemnations as “a ringing declaration of the subordination of philosophy to theology.” (28 – p 75) In fact , I think Stenger is so balanced that he has conceded too much in at least one case -  his treatment of the history of the Galileo affair. He says that “Galileo brought much of his trouble on himself:”

“Galileo used a foolish character, foolishly named Simplicio, to express some arguments that had been advanced by Pope Urban VIII, a long-time friend and supporter of Galileo. The pope must have said, “We are not pleased.”” “Although the Inquisition had worked out what we today call a “plea agreement” that would have left Galileo with little more than a slap on the wrist, the Pope intervened in his case, and in 1633 Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, found guilty, and sentenced to house arrest.

It’s true that much of Galileo’s behaviour must have been provocative, but any balanced consideration should also include the pressure on Pope Urban to make an example of Galileo – hence his intervention. These included personal opposition within the Vatican as well as the reformation and the religious wars. As for the Simplico issue – this does not appear to have been an issue until after the trial. Historian Maurice Finnachiro (who specialises in the Galileo affair and the subsequent history of its reporting) writes in Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992:

” this accusation is not mentioned in any documents prior to December 1635; . . . Thus, it seems more accurate to regard the Simplicio-as-Urban allegation as a new slander against Galileo”

An eternal battle?

Reading the history of science one becomes aware of an ongoing battle between ideas driven by evidence and reason, and those driven by faith, even when reason is used. And if we look around today at the debates over consciousness, evolution, climate change, etc., we see that the battle continues. It didn’t stop with Galileo and the blossoming of the modern scientific revolution. The science-religion conflict is not just a matter of history. On his final page Stenger concludes:

“Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence that bears on the concept. Nowhere is this more evident than in America today, where the large majority of the public hold onto a whole set of beliefs despite a total lack of evidence to support these beliefs and, indeed, strong evidence that denies them.”

But what about the future? As he points out:

“Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.”

And Stenger makes an appeal to “scientists and all thinking people:”

“The eradication of foolish faith from the face of this planet.”

He doesn’t think this will be achieved “in the lifetime of the youngest amongst us.” But it is required for the survival of humanity. Somewhat pessimistic! Personally I think that a certain amount of wishful thinking, faith and irrationalism is probably inherent to being human. It is certainly expected from human diversity. Perhaps this issue is not the final eradication of “foolish faith” but its minimisation and/or neutralisation with its accommodation by the rest of humanity.

Conclusions

If these subjects interest you this book is a “must read.” This is just the last of a series of Stenger’s books on science and its relationship with religion and pseudoscience.* For those interested in a scientific viewpoint on these subjects these books are a valuable resource. They deal with issues such as quantum theory and it misuse and cosmological issues like fine-tuning arguments, the “big bang” and the origin of the universe, the eternal universe and the multiverse. To some extent he briefly repeats some of the content of his earlier books here – useful for those not wishing to read further. And  arguably this current book is his best yet. But, for more detail I also recommend his other books.


* Victor Stenger’s books on science, religion and pseudo-science

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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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Tim Minchin – an inspirational speech to graduates Ken Perrott Sep 30

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Tim Minchin Occasional Address and Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters -

This is a real classic – Tim Minchin’s inspirational speech to graduates on his being awared an honorary doctorate. It has a lot of wisdom in it and the ideas are concisely, but effectively, expressed.

Tim has placed the full text of his speech on his blog – see OCCASIONAL ADDRESS. I urge you to watch the video but will just quote from one section of his speech – his advice to “Be Hard On Your Opinions:”


A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arse-holes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arse-holes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.

We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat.
Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege.

Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.

By the way, while I have science and arts grads in front of me: please don’t make the mistake of thinking the arts and sciences are at odds with one another. That is a recent, stupid, and damaging idea. You don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art, to write beautiful things.

If you need proof: Twain, Adams, Vonnegut, McEwen, Sagan, Shakespeare, Dickens. For a start.

You don’t need to be superstitious to be a poet. You don’t need to hate GM technology to care about the beauty of the planet. You don’t have to claim a soul to promote compassion.

Science is not a body of knowledge nor a system of belief; it is just a term which describes humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation. Science is awesome.

The arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated. The idea that many Australians – including our new PM and my distant cousin Nick – believe that the science of anthropogenic global warming is controversial, is a powerful indicator of the extent of our failure to communicate. The fact that 30% of this room just bristled is further evidence still. The fact that that bristling is more to do with politics than science is even more despairing.”


Scientists will love this speech – so will teachers.

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Crazy ideas and “supernatural” phenomena Ken Perrott Aug 22

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photo

Credit: xkcd

I like this little list because it demonstrates that science doesn’t reject far out ideas, just because they are far out. The decision is made on evidence. Relativity and quantum electrodynamics are far out as far as those of us with ordinary experience are concerned. From my perspective they are as far out as personal gods who forgive sins. But they are well supported by evidence. Tested against reality. The other far out ideas on the list have no evidential support and therefore of no use.

I get annoyed when people lecture me about the “methodological materialism” of science. They want science to be opened up to “supernatural” phenomena.

Well, it doesn’t matter what you call it. In practice science does not ask if an idea or phenomena is “supernatural” – it asks for the evidence. People who ramble on about methodological and philosophical materialism in science are covering up for the fact that their ideas are rejected because they have no evidential support.

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The Galileo fallacy and denigration of scientific consensus Ken Perrott Jul 25

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Statue of Galileo outside the Uffizi, Florence

It’s one mark of the significance of Galileo to scientific progress that many myths about him exist even today. He seems to still be a focal point in  present day debates between science and religion, pseudoscience and magical thinking.

But one of the most cynical myths is the opportunist interpretation of his promotion of the Copernican heliocentric solar system as being simply a David vs Goliath struggle. And that Galileo was correct because he was standing up to the “orthodoxy,” or consensus, of the then “establishment.”

A recent example is that promoted by British playwright Richard Bean “who reckons  climate change science is junk, the findings alarmist, data frequently tortured into submission and the mainstream media not in a position to confront the complexity of the issue and question whether it’s really happening” (see Herald article Beyond belief). He said in his interview:

“Orthodoxy closes off thinking and if you can’t express an opinion or question an idea, well, Galileo is the perfect example of what happens.

“He declared that not everything revolves around the Earth and paid the price for his beliefs [he was tried by the Inquisition as a heretic, threatened with torture, was forced to recant and spent the rest of his life under house arrest] while human thinking and endeavour were held back.”

But this is wrong on 2 counts:

  1. It relies on the fact of being in the minority, of opposing the consensus, as being “proof” of correctness.
  2. It implies that because the user of the fallacy is in the minority and opposing the consensus then the user is correct. In  other words – “bugger the evidence, I must be right because I am coming out against the consensus.”

As Rational Wiki puts it:

“The Galileo gambit, or Galileo fallacy, is the notion that if you are vilified for your ideas, you must be right.”

It’s a favourite argument used by creationists, by climate change contrarians/deniers/ pseudosceptics (see the egregiously named Galileo Movement in Australia) and, as I have found lately, anti-fluoridationists. A way of claiming superiority while at the same time discounting, even denigrating, the wealth of scientific knowledge with which the user disagrees.

Being vilified doesn’t make you right

And, it didn’t make Galileo right in everything he advanced. Classically he made a big mistake with his theory of tides where he tried to use tides to “prove” the movement of the earth. He was wrong there, and probably wrong in many other places, like all great scientists . Those people comparing themselves to Galileo are opening themselves up to the charge that they are “proving” themselves wrong, and not right.

It’s about evidence, silly

The real lesson from Galileo is not to oppose the “establishment” or current scientific consensus – but to rely on evidence. It was this argument of his, which today most of us accept and see as almost self-evident, that describes Galileo’s real contribution to the progress of science.

His argument for the heliocentric solar system, and against a geocentric solar system, was really an argument of evidence against dogma, prevailing philosophy and the Church’s use of scripture. he expressed it very well in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615. He said:

“I think that in disputes about natural phenomena one must begin not with the authority of scriptural passages, but with sense experiences and necessary demonstrations.  . . . and so it seems that a natural phenomenon which is placed before our eyes by sense experience or proved by necessary demonstrations should not be called into question, let alone condemned, on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning.”

He was arguing against the idea that science should be a handmaiden to, or slave of, religion. That for matters of the natural world, in astronomy for example, science trumped scripture (or its specific interpretation). And it did so because it was derived from experience, from interrogating reality, rather than relying on dogma and preconceived “revelations.”

So what about the “scientific consensus?”

Scientific authority no longer rests with the Church and religious philosophers, as it did in Galileo’s time. When we talk about scientific consensus today we usually refer to the widespread acceptance of a scientific idea, theory or facts based on evidence. The consensus on climate change represented by the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, are not dogma typical of Galileo’s time. It can in no way be compared with the consensus of theologians who rejected the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system (see Consultant’s Report on Copernicanism (24 February 1616). It is in fact a consensus on the facts and conclusions based on an extremely thorough review of the scientific literature.

It is actually those people who use the Galileo gambit to support their own dogmatic, contrarian or pseudoscientific views who are not using evidence. They are relying on personal beliefs, religious ideas or magical thinking and not evidence. Their use of the Galileo gambit is a substitute for interrogating reality.

Of course, none of what I have said means that new ideas in science are never in the minority. obviously they often are – and must be fought for. But new ideas don’t win credibility by using the Galileo gambit, by arguing that just because they oppose the scientific consensus they must be right. They win credibility because their proponents gather the evidence that supports them, and evidence which conflicts with the prevailing ideas.

A minority viewpoint can and does win credibility because its proponents provide evidential support. The Galileo gambit is for losers.

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A new Cosmos Ken Perrott Jul 24

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Here’s something to look forward to. Next year a new version of the classic series Cosmos will be available. The trailer below gives and idea of its likely quality – watch it full screen. the quality is great.

Official Trailer from Comic-Con | COSMOS|

Phil Plait, writing on the Bad Astronomy blog, gives his view on what the series may be like (see Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey: Carl Sagan’s show updated with Neil Tyson).

It will be called Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey. Hosted by renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and writers Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan’s widow) and  Steven Soter. The executive producers are Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan.

Phil Plait warns agains prejudging a show a show only on the evidence of the trailer but feels it will be successful. And needed. Sagan’s original series, while still very effective, need updating to use new media and knowledge. Also, there is need for more pro-science public media which can help counter current anti-science and pseudoscience attitudes. As Plait says:

“We live in a time when the denial of reality is as prevalent (or more) than the acceptance of it. Much of that denial comes from a provincial view of the Universe, a narrowly constrained frame of mind that not just disallows but actively discourages doubt, questions, exploration, and freedom of discovery. The original Cosmos was all about those things, and not in a dry, documentary style, but from a very human viewpoint. This is why Cosmos endures, and why it needs to continue for a new generation.”

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Source of moral authority has shifted Ken Perrott Jul 16

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A recent poll in the UK confirms a trend I have noticed elsewhere – the movement of younger people away from organised religion, and to a slightly lesser extent, from religious beliefs. But also to a decline in respect for religion and its leaders.

The YouGov poll for the Sun  shows a decisive turn against religion among 18 – 24 year olds. And a very low belief in a god (see Poll: Young people turn decisively against religion).

Fifty six% of people in this age group say they have no religion while 38% don’t believe in a god.

Religion-2

In common with other polls there is still substantial support for not believing in a god but believing in “some sort of spiritual greater power” – the halfway house.

religion-4

Only 12% said religious leaders have any influence on them – lower than for politicians, who scored 38%, brands, which scored 32% or celebrities, who scored 21%. Eighty two% declared religious leaders have no influence.

religion-what

Finally, a high 41% told pollsters ‘religion is more often the cause of evil in the world’ while only 14% said it was a cause for good.

religion-3

I think we might find the same attitudes in this country.

But it does raise some important questions about the public perception of the role of religion in today’s society. It’s commonly described as a source of good. But Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association and first vice president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, won’t have it. In a commenting article, Religion is in decline – so why are people so well behaved?, he says:

 

“One of the most mystifying aspects of recent governments’ emphasis on religion as a source of individual and social values has been its total mismatch with reality. Survey after survey has shown the population as a whole, and young people in particular, increasingly turning away from religious beliefs and influences entirely – and yet there has been no detrimental effect on the wellbeing of the nation.”

He concludes “there has been a change in recognised moral authority away from religion and towards secular influences.” And asks “when a government is going to realise this change and accept the implications for public policy.”

With polling like this it is about time that we all recognised that religion is not the source of our morality and public utterances claiming it is should stop.

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