Author Archives: Russell Blackford

Charity to those we oppose

I have a couple of old blog posts, one from mid-2008 and the other from early 2010 in which I am highly critical of Australian journalist Guy Rundle. In both cases, particularly the second, I’m quite snarky about Rundle – but I’m not going to apologise about either. Neither goes beyond my rather loose standards of civility; the criticisms are of substance in each case; and there is no realistic possibility that even a large number of posts of this level of aggression would tend to intimidate Rundle, someone with considerable cultural influence and easy access to very large platforms.

By all means, make up your own mind about that. As for me… these days, my language might or might not be slightly more temperate, but I’m still fairly comfortable, even five or six years later, with the two posts as they stand.

So far, so good. Nonetheless, these posts were on subjects that I felt passionately about. In the first case, it was about the heated public debate in Australia during 2008 on the art of Bill Henson (a celebrated Australian and international photographer who’d been accused of, in effect, creating and exhibiting child pornography); in the second case, it related to the debates, throughout the relevant period, about the “New Atheism”, during which “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins received a great deal of hostile criticism, including from other atheists who wished to take a softer approach to religion. I somewhat angrily defended Henson in one post and the New Atheist crew in the other. Again, you can make up your own mind about the cogency or otherwise of my defence, though (again) it was of substance on both occasions.

Still so good. But I’ve been very aware of late of how easily we (or some of us) find ourselves reaching for vitriolic and potentially silencing language when confronted by people who disagree with us on issues that we feel passionately about. When someone made a comment on Twitter yesterday, recommending Guy Rundle’s new book, I immediately found myself replying with a pair of vitriolic tweets about Rundle which I’ve since deleted. Having made them, I found myself going into a mode of rationalising it in my mind. When I woke up this morning I realised this was nonsense and that I’ve held a somewhat irrational grudge against Rundle based on nothing more than disagreement on a couple of things (again, things that I felt passionately about) a few years ago. That’s just silly and unfair.

It’s no use saying that my original remarks in 2008 and 2010, linked to in the tweets, were substantive. The fact is that it’s easy to judge someone in an unfair and sweeping way based only on a couple of disagreements in the past. I’d fallen into exactly that trap.

I deleted my remarks on Twitter, made a couple of tweets explaining why I’d done so, and apologised privately to the person whose original tweet I’d reacted to (who was cool with it). There’s no use in apologising to Rundle himself – i.e. there was no real prospect that he’d been harmed or seen the offending tweets.

I could pat myself on the back for reacting fairly quickly and well in this case, but still… I didn’t meet my own standards in the first place. I regret that. More importantly, the incident underscores that I, like many others, can be tempted to unfairness and a lack of charity toward other individuals provided only that they have, perhaps on more than one occasion, taken what I see as the “wrong” approach to an issue that engages my passions. If I can do this so easily, while already being aware of the problem, it’s no wonder that I see so much of this sort of thing happen in social-media interactions. Well-meaning, decent people can quickly find themselves demonised, portrayed as morally corrupt, etc., over good-faith differences of view. Even if the latter seem (as Rundle’s did to me) to be ill-informed and simplistic, they may turn out to have an element of truth, and even if that’s not so they probably at least are the views of someone trying to sort through an issue in good faith.

In Rundle’s case, he especially bothered me back in 2008 and 2010 because he was attacking targets who were already under serious public attack (especially in the case of Henson) and put arguments that had already been used, and in my mind refuted, many times (especially so in the case of the New Atheists). But there’s another factor here. Rundle is a very well-known journalist in Australia. As mentioned above, he has access to large platforms and carries considerable influence. He’s a major left-wing public intellectual in his own country. It can seem fine to make unfair and vitriolic attacks on such a person on the basis that it’s “punching up”.

This business of “punching up” and “punching down” merits more thought. First, Rundle really would be far better placed to do significant harm to my reputation than I am to harm his. He has much bigger platforms and many allies who also have bigger platforms. (For whatever it’s worth, he also doubtless has enemies who are much more of a concern than I am.) There is definitely something in the idea that two antagonists in public debate can be greatly out of balance in power. In such cases, vitriol is far more damaging and potentially silencing when resorted to by the person with (considerably) more power. Indeed, people with large platforms should, arguably, be very reticent in what they say about relatively powerless individuals.

Still, I noticed one person toward whom I feel nothing but good will announcing a break from Twitter a few days ago, having endured too much abuse from others who disagreed with certain of her views on feminism. What she found especially hurtful was the large amount of abuse she’d received from other feminist women, as opposed to whatever she’d received (and been braced for) from anti-feminist men. As was noted in the brief Twitter discussion around her departure, some of those women may have thought that they were “punching up” at her… but what feels like punching up to the person doing the “punching” may feel very different to the person being “punched”, especially if it’s from more than one source and it’s continuing. That can soon become exhausting and can be silencing.

There’s no exciting moral to all this. I don’t intend to turn into the civility police, and I don’t suggest that we all walk on eggshells even when criticising very powerful individuals, institutions, ideologies, and ideological tendencies. That said, it’s well to remember that even seemingly powerful opponents can be psychologically hurt and reputationally harmed. Furthermore, it does nothing to advance the search for truth and wisdom when we interpret opponents uncharitably or draw unfair, sweeping inferences about their intellectual ability and moral character, perhaps based on no more than a couple of disagreements. Indeed, many opponents may turn out to be correct; even the ones who don’t may have something cogent and useful to say if they are allowed to discuss the merits of the issue rather than being subjected to tactics that silence their contributions.

To rally supporters and succeed in their struggles, political organisers may well need to pretend that their opponents are 100 per cent wrong. Yet, as Saul Alinsky notes in his celebrated (or notorious) Rules for Radicals, the opponent in a particular situation may actually, on an objective assessment, be more like 40 per cent right. But that message, alas, never rallied anyone. At the same time, Alinsky tells us, the organiser should be able to see things from both viewpoints once a dispute reaches the final negotiation phase. Here, tactical trade-offs can be made, which requires a more objective understanding of all the underlying interests and merits.

While those might be good rules for political radicals trying to achieve victories against slum lords, business corporations, or oppressive governments, it would take a rather extreme situation before philosophers ought to start thinking in that way. In normal circumstances, there’s much to be said for searching out that 40 per cent, or even 4 per cent, of truth in an opponent’s position if we want to make intellectual progress – and that includes trying to see the opponent fairly as a person. (If the opponent actually turns out to have 60 per cent of the truth, or perhaps more than that, even better.)

Again, I’m not the civility police. But rules for philosophers should involve attempts to be charitable and fair. This is a word to the wise… or in my case the not-always wise.

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Robert Pollack’s The Faith of Biology & The Biology of Faith

Some time ago now, I was sent a review copy of The Faith of Biology & The Biology of Faith: Order, Meaning, and Free Will in Modern Medical Science, by Robert Pollack (Columbia University Press, 2013 – first published 2000). Pollack is a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University, and the main content of the book consists of three public lectures that he gave at Columbia in 1999 as that year’s Schoff Memorial Lectures. His main subject matter for the lectures was the relationship, as he saw it, between science (especially medical research and practice) and religious faith.

As one might hope, given that background, the book is thoughtful, well-written, and accessible. It provides an interesting case study of an eminent scientist’s attempt to reconcile his scientific understanding with his religious faith. It is not, however, philosophically sophisticated, and I doubt that it will persuade anybody who is not already committed to the idea that science and religion are in some way compatible. Indeed, I expect that I could deliver a better argument for their compatibility if called upon to do so.

Refreshingly, Pollack does not fall back on contrived theological arguments. Although his book contains a certain amount of theology, he bases his continued religious belief squarely on the emotional unacceptability of the alternative – all while conceding that science not only provides no good evidence for the existence of a divine intelligence, but actually provides evidence to suggest the opposite.

Strictly speaking, he may be correct that what he calls “matters of personal belief” (he means supernatural or otherworldly beliefs) “cannot finally be tested by science”; there are notoriously many ingenious moves available to protect “personal belief” from empirical refutation. The emphasis should, however, be on the word finally. Someone who is not emotionally committed to a religious worldview may see a great deal in the history and findings of science that at least makes religion (and particular religions) far less psychologically and intellectually attractive than would otherwise be so.

Pollack does not really deny this. On the contrary, he concedes that “[t]he molecular biology of evolution, in particular, has uncovered facts about me and the rest of us… that fit badly, if at all, into my religion’s [i.e. Judaism’s] revelation of meaning.” After some discussion of the detail, he concludes: “These facts from science tell us, in other words, that our species – with all our appreciation of ourselves as unique individuals – is not the creation of design but the result of accumulated errors.”

If he’s right that this is the implication of our scientific knowledge, why not accept it and build our self-understanding from there? Nothing in the evolutionary account contradicts other facts about the world, such as our responsiveness to each other, our status as social animals, our ability to communicate through language and other means, and our capacity to produce art and culture, and to create societies and civilisations. Even if we are “the result of accumulated errors”, I see no reason to deny the possibility of a rich humanistic understanding of ourselves and each other: one that need include nothing that fits badly with robust findings from the physical and biological sciences.

For Pollack, nothing like this would be good enough. For him, the idea that we live in a world without transcendent meaning is emotionally unbearable, so he relies on what he calls “the irrational certainty that there must be meaning and purpose to one’s life despite these data.” He is talking, in this passage, about meanings and purposes that transcend the natural world, including the world of socially constructed institutions.

Having come so far, Pollack then has much to say about how the emotional certainties offered by religious faith might shape biomedical research and medical practice. Some of his recommendations may be defensible on other grounds, while some may not be (for example, he adopts what strikes me as an unnecessarily negative attitude to reproductive cloning and other technologies of genetic choice). Most fundamentally, however, he offers nothing to suggest that religious faith does, after all, fit well with scientific knowledge. The irrational certainty that there must be transcendent meaning, emanating from an “unknowable” divine source, should cut no ice for anyone who approaches the question rationally. The fact, if it is one, that science cannot disprove the existence of such a source in a final, knock-down, logically demonstrative way is scarcely more impressive.

Pollack suggests that religious faith should inform scientific practice, even as scientific understandings inform religious doctrine. But there is nothing in The Faith of Biology & The Biology of Faith to make religious faith attractive to a rational, reasonable, scientifically informed person who currently lacks it. There is not even anything to stand against the claim that scientific information will tend to make religious faith less intellectually attractive to such a person.

The book may give permission to people with similar emotional responses to Pollack’s to continue their religious practice in the face of scientific evidence. It may offer them something of a template for thinking about science in the light of irrational, emotionally driven, faith. Perhaps The Faith of Biology & The Biology of Faith is a success in those terms. But its arguments tend to suggest that scientific findings are more a stumbling block than otherwise to a life of faith. Pollack continues to maintain religious beliefs more despite what he knows from science than because of it.

That’s okay, as long as he does not expect others to follow policy recommendations based on his faith position. Meanwhile, The Faith of Biology & The Biology of Faith does little, if anything, to support the accommodationist position that religion and science are fully compatible. A position that it is possible for someone sufficiently emotionally driven to maintain faith despite the scientific evidence is hardly one of full compatibility between religion and science.

Again, that’s okay – Pollack does not really argue otherwise. Still, his book can easily be read against its grain as an example of the contortions needed to maintain serious religious faith while also being well-informed about science. In that respect, it should give religion/science accommodationists pause.

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Transhumanism and The Journal of Evolution and Technology

This piece was first published over on the IEET site (and I’ve also just reblogged it at my personal blog, The Hellfire Club). It sets out briefly what The Journal of Evolution and Technology is all about, for those who might be interested.

I’ve had the honor of serving as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology (henceforth “JET”) since January 2008 – so it’s now approaching seven years! Where did the time go? Having been invited by Kris Notaro to write something about an aspect of transhumanism as it involves me professionally, I’m taking the opportunity to reflect briefly on JET and its mission. We have a great story to tell, and perhaps we should tell it more often.

JET was founded in 1998 as The Journal of Transhumanism, and was originally published by the World Transhumanist Association. In November 2004, it moved under the umbrella of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which, of course, seeks to contribute to understanding of the impact of emerging technologies on individuals and societies. This year, then, we are celebrating the first decade of the journal’s publication by the IEET.

My four predecessors in the editorial chair – Nick Bostrom, Robin Hanson, Mark Walker, and James Hughes – have each contributed in distinguished ways to the transhumanist movement and transhumanist thought. They developed the journal as a leading forum for discussion of the future of the human species and whatever might come after it.

JET is now one of the IEET’s flagship operations. It maintains standards of scholarship, originality, intellectual rigor, and peer review similar to those of well-established academic journals. It differs in its willingness to publish material that comparable journals might consider too radical or speculative. The editors welcome high-quality submissions on a wide range of relevant topics and from almost any academic discipline or interdisciplinary standpoint.

We have a publication schedule that assigns one volume to each year, with an irregular number of issues per volume. Each issue contains a mix of articles, reviews, and sometimes other forms such as symposia and peer commentaries. We publish both regular issues – based on submissions received from time to time – and special issues. The latter may, for example, take the form of edited conference proceedings, or they may result from calls for papers on a designated topics.

Recent special issues have covered such topics as Nietzsche and European posthumanisms, machine intelligence, and basic income guarantee schemes in the context of technological change.

Generally speaking, we publish individual articles as they are received, peer-reviewed, and edited, which allows a quick turnaround from acceptance to publication. With our relatively modest resources and the challenges inherent in a journal with such a wide interdisciplinary agenda, we are sometimes slower than we’d wish in making initial decisions to accept or reject, but we strive to overcome those problems and we give careful attention at all stages to each submission that we receive. We work closely with authors to get published articles into the best possible form to communicate to a highly educated but diverse audience, and we’ve often received grateful thanks for our editorial input. In short, we have much to offer potential contributors who are producing research at the leading edge of transhumanist thought. If that sounds like you, please think of submitting to JET.

Central to our thinking, and implicit in the title “evolution and technology,” is the idea – increasingly familiar and plausible – that the human species stands at the threshold of a new form of evolution. This is very different from the slow Darwinian mechanisms of differential survival and reproduction. It is powered, rather, by new technologies that increasingly work their way inward, transforming human bodies and minds. According to this idea, technology can do more than merely give us tools to manipulate the world around us. It can actually alter us, and not just by shaping our neurological pathways when we learn to handle new tools. Our future may, in part, be the product of emerging technologies of human transformation, ranging from genetic engineering to pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement to such radical possibilities as mind uploading and all that it might imply.

This idea of a technologically mediated process of evolution is, of course, familiar to transhumanists, who envisage (and generally welcome) the emergence of intelligences with greater-than-human physical and cognitive capacities. Even outside the transhumanist movement, however, there’s an increasing familiarity with the general idea of a new kind of evolution, no longer the product of Darwinian mechanisms but driven by technology and deliberate choices.

At the same time, this idea, in all its forms, remains controversial. Even if we grant it our broad acceptance there remains much to debate. It is unclear just how the process might be manifested in the years to come, just where it might take us or our successors, and what downsides there might be. No serious person should doubt that there will be risks, possibly on a global scale, in any path of transition from human to posthuman intelligence.

The idea of technologically mediated evolution, perhaps with a great transition from human to posthuman, merits careful study from all available viewpoints. Among writers and thinkers who take the idea seriously, there are bound to be disagreements. To what extent is the process already happening? If it accelerates or continues over a vast span of time, will this be a good thing or a bad thing – or is it a phenomenon that resists moral evaluation? What visions of the human or posthuman future are really plausible: for example, does the idea of mind uploading make good sense when subjected to scientific and logical scrutiny? Reasonable answers to such questions range from radical transhumanist visions of sweeping, rapid, entirely desirable change to various kinds of skepticism, caution, or concern.

JET welcomes a spectrum of views on all this, and we have been willing to publish intellectually serious critiques of transhumanist views alongside radical manifestos by transhumanists. We are unusual, though, in providing a forum for radical proponents of new technology to develop their visions in detail, and with a rigor seldom found elsewhere. Their ideas are then available in their strongest form for scrutiny from admirers and critics alike.

As I said at the start, there’s a great story to tell about JET – the journal has a rich history and exciting prospects for the future. If you’re not familiar with what we do, please check us out!

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13 Reasons to Doubt

Reasons to DoubtThe long-awaited (yes, it’s been in the works for some time) anthology from bloggers at the Skeptic Ink Network, 13 Reasons to Doubt, has finally appeared. It is published by Onus Books and is currently available in a Kindle edition, though other formats will also be appearing.

13 Reasons to Doubt is described in this way by its back-cover blurb:

Extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence.

The mainstream and social media feed our minds a diet of fringe science and outright pseudoscience. They relentlessly stream paranormal, supernatural, and otherwise extraordinary claims. Where do all these come from? They’re spread by shysters and charlatans, by corporate propagandists with cynical eyes on the bottom line, by priests and preachers of all kinds, by axe-grinding cranks and ideologues, and frequently by well-meaning dupes.

This may be a scientific age, but all too often, science, well-grounded scholarship, evidence, and logic are ignored—or even denied.

Scientific skepticism offers a corrective: skeptics defend science and reason, while demanding the evidence for extraordinary claims.

In this volume, we offer you thirteen ways to scientific skepticism: thirteen reasons to doubt extraordinary claims. The authors discuss groupthink and cognitive biases, science denialism, weird archeology, claims about religion and free will, and many other topics. Within these pages, there is something for anyone who wants to avoid biases and fallacies, cut through the masses of misinformation, and push back against fakers and propagandists.

13 Reasons to Doubt includes my chapter entitled “Skepticism in an Age of Ideology” – this is an original piece, especially written for the book, although it draws on my talk at last year’s TAM (the Amazing Meeting) among other things.

The following is a complete table of contents:

INTRODUCTION

A BRIEF HISTORY OF DOUBT: GREAT SKEPTICS FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE RENAISSANCE
Peter Ferguson

SKEPTICISM IN AN AGE OF IDEOLOGY
Russell Blackford

ARE YOU A SKEPTIC?
Maria Maltseva

WHY YOU CAN’T TRUST YOUR BRAIN
Caleb W. Lack

BEING SUSPICIOUS OF OURSELVES: GROUPTHINK’S THREAT TO SKEPTICISM
Jacques Rousseau

SCIENCE: A MECHANISM FOR DOUBTING; A SOURCE OF RELIABILITY
Keven McCarthy

SCIENCE IS PREDICATED ON THE NON-MAGICAL NATURAL WORLD ORDER
John W. Loftus

THE POWER OF HUME’S ON MIRACLES
Zachary Sloss

ON DOUBTING THE EXISTENCE OF FREE WILL, AND HOW IT CAN MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE
Jonathan M.S. Pearce

PSEUDOARCHAEOLOGY: SEVEN TIPS
Rebecca Bradley

THE NEW WORLD ORDER IS COMING FOR YOU!
Staks Rosch

WHY BELIEFS MATTER
David Osorio

SCIENCE DENIALISM AT A SKEPTIC CONFERENCE: A CAUTIONARY TALE
Edward K Clint

APPENDIX: SCIENCE DENIALISM AT A SKEPTIC CONFERENCE

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHIES

I haven’t yet read the entire book, but I’ve certainly read most of it (and even pitched in to help with the copyediting!). I can say that there is much strong material here, not least in Caleb Lack’s superb piece on why you can’t trust your brain (alas, your brain comes complete with all sorts of cognitive biases).

Please consider!

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Humanity Enhanced coming your way

My newest book – from MIT Press in this case – is Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies.

Humanity Enhanced is based on my PhD dissertation from Monash University, completed back in 2008. That PhD program turned out to be a big part of my life (as those of you who know me well are already aware, this was actually my second PhD, completed relatively late in life; my original PhD was an Eng.Lit. one from well over 20 years before).
Humanity Enhanced cover
The text has been reworked quite heavily since the original PhD dissertation, which was entitled “Human Enhancement: The Challenge to Liberal Tolerance”, supervised by Justin Oakley, and examined by Gregory Pence and Nicholas Agar.

Compared to the PhD dissertation, Humanity Enhanced has been expanded and elaborated in some respects, simplified in others (and especially in its language), updated, rejigged to deal with certain issues raised by the anonymous reviewers for MIT Press, and generally altered and lengthened sufficiently to be a quite separate work.

It includes a lengthy (and I hope useful) discussion of the therapy/enhancement distinction that does not appear in the original dissertation. I did write something along these lines at the time before deciding that it was not appropriate in that context. My interest was not so much in “enhancement” in some way that contrasts with “therapy”, but with the actual or postulated technologies of genetic choice that had been so controversial in the years leading up to my PhD program (notably after Dolly’s announcement in 1997). Still, the issue of a supposed therapy/enhancement boundary remains controversial, so I decided to say something about it in an appendix, if only to explain some of the problems with the idea, and why I am reluctant to see any such boundary as crucial either for the purposes of moral decision making or those of public policy.

That is not to say that no boundary line can ever be drawn. If, however, we push too hard on the concept of a therapy/enhancement boundary, we may find it very unsatisfactory for our needs. With some specific issues, it may fail to deliver any clear result or may appear to deliver one that is rather remote from what we really care about. There may be a range of cases where it provides a useful shortcut for our thinking, but I doubt that it is helpful with cases that are of genuine philosophical interest and difficulty.

While MIT Press is announcing Humanity Enhanced with an official 2014 publication date, and it bears a 2014 copyright date inside the book, it has actually been available for purchase for three or four weeks now, at least from Amazon.

Humanity Enhanced stands alone; you can read it easily without reference to any of my other work. To get a more complete picture of my position in legal and political philosophy, however, it is best to read it in conjunction with my 2012 book Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. Both deal with aspects of legal/political philosophy and liberal theory. Between them, they give a rather comprehensive picture of my position in legal and political philosophy, which is not to say that they tell you how I would vote on every policy issue that comes up.

Indeed, my philosophical position gives a quite wide discretion to voters, electorates, political parties, and legislatures to disagree reasonably on such issues as exactly what laws should be enacted, what economic policies to pursue, what punishments to impose for various crimes, etc. I don’t claim that we can simply read off “correct” answers to such issues from our philosophical positions, although I do claim that we should agree to rule out some arguments as good justifications for our laws and policies. If my arguments for that are accepted, many substantive policy positions become very difficult to justify (since the most obvious arguments are ruled out), while others become very difficult to oppose reasonably.

To take just one example, I think it would be difficult under current circumstances to put a convincing and legitimate argument against making provision to recognise same-sex marriage – we could argue about the details, perhaps, but there seems to be no good argument against providing for some kind of regime for recognising same-sex marriage under conditions identical to, or at least very similar to, those relating to opposite-sex marriage. I develop the argument in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

In Humanity Enhanced I focus on technologies of genetic choice, such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis to select embryos, human reproductive cloning to bring into the world a child with a particular genome, or genetic engineering in the sense of altering an embryo’s DNA (and hence its genetic potential). I argue that public policy in this area has shown a considerable degree of illiberalism and even moral panic. We can, I suggest, do better than this. Next time we are confronted with some apparently scary innovation we can ask whether its prohibition is really justifiable in accordance with secular and liberal principles such as we’ve inherited from the Enlightenment.

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Death of Norman Geras

I’m sad to hear from various sources of the death of Norman Geras, whom I knew for his excellent and provocative normblog – which now includes an announcement of his death by his daughter, Jenny Geras. She indicates that the blog and all its archives will remain online.

My forthcoming appearances in London

For any London-based readers who might be interested – or people who will be visiting London in November – I have a couple of appearances there later in the year. On 9 November, I’ll be at Birkbeck College speaking to the London Futurists on “Secularism, Liberalism, and the Human Future”. The talk is blurbed as follows:

Emerging and proposed technologies such as human cloning and genetic engineering have drawn a chorus of objections from politicians, pundits, and scholars. In this talk, Russell Blackford eschews the heated rhetoric that surrounds these technological developments and examines them in the context of secular and liberal thought.

Some perceive emerging technologies as challenging the values of liberal democracy. Dr Blackford argues that the challenge is not, as commonly supposed, the urgent need for strict regulatory action. Rather, the challenge is that fear of these technologies has created an atmosphere in which liberal tolerance itself is threatened. He argues that some controversial technologies would be genuinely beneficial, and that liberal democracies would demonstrate their liberal values by tolerating and accepting emerging technologies that offer prospects of human enhancement.

The next day, 10 November, I’ll be speaking at Conway Hall for the Conway Hall Ethical Society on “Science and the Rise of Atheism”. The blurb for the talk reads:

In his new book with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, Australian philosopher Russell Blackford examines myths, misconceptions, and misleading half-truths about atheism and atheists, giving each myth as fair a run as possible to see whether it might contain any grain of merit.

The book carries enthusiastic endorsements from Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, Polly Toynbee, and other high-profile thinkers and authors. In his Conway Hall presentation, Dr Blackford will focus on the much-debated connection between the rise of modern science and the rise of modern atheist thought. Although it is often claimed that religion and science are compatible, this is, at best, seriously misleading. In fact, science has contributed significantly to the historical erosion of religious belief. The more we develop a worldview based on reason, and particularly on scientific investigation, the less plausible religion becomes. The history and the specific findings of science support the conclusion that atheism is the most reasonable response to the God question.

Obviously these are quite different topics, with the Conway Hall talk much more closely related to 50 Great Myths About Atheism, while the Futurist Society talk will foreshadow my forthcoming book from MIT Press, Humanity Enhanced. There’s nothing to stop you attending both, and I do hope to meet some of the Talking Philosophy readers.

50 Great Myths About Atheism on its way

Blackford rev 5Today is the 6th of August, so it is only a month until my new book, co-authored with Udo Schuklenk, can be purchased in the UK. It will be available elsewhere soon after, but Amazon UK is advertising a 6 September release date.

50 Great Myths About Atheism responds to many prejudices, libels, misconceptions, and half-truths relating to atheism and atheists. Udo Schuklenk and I give the “myths” as good a run as we can, identifying anything plausible, or any grain of truth, that we can find, while setting the record straight. In a long final chapter, we offer a history of atheist thought and explain why we think atheism is now the most reasonable answer to the God question.

The book carries impressive endorsements – more readable on the US Amazon site (the UK site presents endorsements in a confusing way):

“It has been my lot to have encountered all but three of the 50 Great Myths about Atheism listed by Blackford and Schüklenk, most of them many times. It is useful to have them all listed in one book – and so readably and authoritatively refuted. The long final chapter treats theological arguments with more respect than I would have bothered with, but the refutation is all the more convincing for that. The whole book builds inexorably to its conclusion: the Reasonableness of Atheism.”

—Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion

“With humor, wisdom and sound philosophy, Blackford and Schüklenk dismantle 50 important myths about atheism. In doing so, they have done atheists and religious believers a great service, for putting aside the myths enables us to see where real differences remain.”

—Peter Singer, Princeton University

“Atheists are routinely called ‘aggressive,’ but their strong values include a tolerance rarely shown them by the religious. This book’s calm ripostes defend atheists everywhere against unreasoned assaults from the dwindling faithful. ”

—Polly Toynbee, The Guardian

“Busted! Fifty times over! So say Blackford and Schüklenk — the New Mythbusters—with reason, conviction and style. I enjoyed this book immensely.”

—Graham Oppy, Monash University

“A brilliantly wide-ranging exploration of misconceptions about atheism and their relationship to our ideas about minds, human nature, morality – for pretty much everything we care about.”

—Ophelia Benson, co-author of Does God Hate Women?

“This is a book that’s as enjoyable to read as it is informative. Sharp, clever, and witty, it systematically dismantles misconceptions about atheism. Even God could learn something from it!”

—Ronald A. Lindsay, President, Center for Inquiry

Please consider, as we say.

Edit (August 19): The Amazon and Amazon UK sites are now selling the Kindle edition.

[My Amazon author site.]

New Philosopher magazine launched

cover
Over the weekend, New Philosopher magazine was launched here in Australia at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival. The magazine is edited by Zan Boag, who has ambitions for mass market penetration, with sales in shops and newsagencies. The first issue, devoted to the theme of freedom, includes an article by Peter Singer, an interview with Noam Chomsky, a (reprinted) story by Peter Carey, and much other content from people with pretty big names. The editor has aimed high, there seems to be a lot of good will toward the magazine, and I wish it every success. Printing a magazine of this kind with a run in the thousands, hoping to be picked up by a wide readership, is a risky move, so I hope it pays off.

Disclaimer-cum-announcement: this first issue also includes an article by me on the topic of propaganda (raising the vexed question of what can be done about it). My understanding of propaganda in the article is, “one-sided, emotionally manipulative, and (most especially) dishonest efforts to influence public opinion”. Current societies are awash with this sort of material, or so I argue, and we are exposed to it long before we have the intellectual tools to respond to it critically, meaning that our personalities and values are shaped by it to an extent.

I’m currently working on an article for the second issue – which is devoted to philosophy of mind, with contributions from Daniel Dennett and others. My topic is the return of panpsychism to academic interest and respectability. Panpsychism seems to be a desperate solution to the central problems in philosophy of mind, but highly esteemed philosophers such as Galen Strawson have brought it back to the table for debate. I’m still figuring out what I should say about this.

For those who might be interested, Australian and international subscriptions can be bought here.

We have the extraordinary evidence! (Part 2)

TAM talk 1Yesterday I published Part 1 of a reconstructed version of my TAM 2013 talk – presented to the 2013 instalment of The Amazing Meeting, organised by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The version I’m providing here, though a reconstruction of what I said, should be close to what you’ll hear from me when the talk appears on YouTube. Today, I provide Part 2, which concludes the content of the talk. Having discussed the way our scientific picture of the world did not come intuitively, but had to be built up over hundreds of years, I go on to relate this to contemporary scientific skepticism and the concept of denialism.

For someone in 1513, many of the most basic claims in our scientifically-informed understanding would have been extraordinary. The reason why we now, quite rightly, accept them is because we actually have the extraordinary evidence, accumulated over hundreds of years. The reason is not that our modern understanding of the world is, prior to the evidence coming in, natural or intuitive, or because the old understanding of the world was inherently, prior to the evidence, counter-intuitive or bizarre.

When it comes to intuitiveness, or otherwise, don’t even start me on relativity theory or quantum mechanics. The universe opened up to our inspection by science is very strange indeed, in the sense that much of what we have learned goes against our natural intuitions. For example, Edward O. Wilson has this to say:

The ruling talismans of twentieth-century science, relativity and quantum mechanics, have become the ultimate in strangeness to the human mind. They were conceived by Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and other pioneers of theoretical physics during a search for quantifiable truths that would be known to extraterrestrials as well as to our species, and hence certifiably independent of the human mind. The physicists succeeded magnificently, but in doing so revealed the limitations of intuition unaided by mathematics; an understanding of nature, they discovered, comes very hard. … The cost of scientific advance is the humbling recognition that reality was not constructed to be easily grasped by the human mind.

Relativity and quantum mechanics are not for, say, primary school children. Still, there is an exciting story to tell about the advance of science, about how our scientific knowledge was hard won — even in the face of human intuitions. I think we should introduce our children to this story as early as possible in their education. We can always learn more about it ourselves.

I take scientific skepticism to be essentially skepticism about claims that educated people should now regard as extraordinary — not because they are inherently bizarre but because they are anomalous within our hard-won, scientifically-informed picture of the world.

Think again of reincarnation. If reincarnation were true, if reincarnation were a genuine phenomenon, this would force us to revise our whole picture of the world to find some mechanism whereby it takes place. That makes it an extraordinary claim, and that is a reason to investigate it in a spirit of suspicion.

By way of analogy, many people make claims that run counter to the evidence from humanistic scholarship. For example, many people will not accept that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Shakespeare (though the claim being denied was never an extraordinary one in this case). They claim the plays were written by, say, Christopher Marlowe, or Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford.

Others deny terrible historical events, such as the Holocaust. There was once a time when the claim that the Nazis murdered nearly six million Jews in their concentration camps should have been regarded with suspicion, especially since much in the way of false propaganda was spread about the Germans during the first world war. We should always be cautious about atrocity propaganda, especially from our own side.

But of course, we know that the Nazi Holocaust did take place. We have the extraordinary evidence for these horrific events, and we have it in much detail. Given the picture that was built up by investigators immediately after the second world war and by historians since, we actually have the extraordinary evidence needed to believe in the occurrence of something as vast and horrific as the Holocaust. Someone who now denies those events does not deserve to be called by the honourable title of skeptic. Such a person is in denial of evidence that we actually have. Such a person is a denialist.

Initially extraordinary claims that actually acquire extraordinary evidence thereby change our picture of the world, or our understandings of ourselves and our situation. Once that happens, what were once extraordinary claims become normalised. Once they are sufficiently well established, those once-extraordinary claims can be used in arguments against new claims that are inconsistent with them. All the cumulative evidence that supports such a claim stands as evidence against any inconsistent claim.

So — the rotation of the earth was once an extraordinary claim. The onus was on proponents to gather the evidence. Skepticism about the claim was rational and warranted – though of course suppression and punishment were not. But the evidence has been gathered. Someone who denied the claim now would not deserve the title “skeptic”: such a person would be a crank or a crackpot or a denialist (don’t ask me what the difference is!).

We have, in our society, evolution denialists, Holocaust denialists, climate change denialists, and denialists of many other important claims for which we have the evidence, however extraordinary the claims might have been when first made, against the background of what it was then rational and reasonable to believe. That is a distinction that our children need to be taught, just as they need to know how hard won our current, evidentially informed, picture of the world actually was. I don’t believe these things are well understood, even by most adults.

Let’s do more about that.

Thank you, friends and colleagues. And thank you, JREF!

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Photo by Jerry Coyne.