Category Archives: Personal

Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination now published

Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination
My new book, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics, has just been published by Springer in trade paperback and Kindle editions. You can find the book on Springer’s own site or via online retailers such as Amazon.

Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination does offer my own potted account of the nature of philosophy (in general) and of moral philosophy (in particular) in order to assist the argument. It does not, however, belong to the genre of pedagogical books that aim to introduce philosophy through science fiction. If anything, it is more an exercise in the history and philosophy of science fiction. More specifically it examines the intersection of science fiction and moral philosophy. Putting it another way, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination examines ways in which science fiction novels, stories, movies, etc., engage with metaethical and normative ethical themes that are also of interest to moral philosophers. I hope to have discussed this in a reasonably lively, clear, and accessible way, but readers will have to judge that for themselves.

— Russell Blackford

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2016

Today marks the start of 2016. One tradition of New Year’s Eve is to make resolutions. One tradition of the New Year is to break those resolutions. I am proud to say that I kept my 2015 resolution and plan to keep my 2016 resolution. The secret to this success is, of course, accepting a very low standard for resolutions.

In 2015 I resolved to not die in 2015. Up until midnight, the year could have won by killing me. But, the year failed. Once again. As such, I have made my 2016 resolution: do not die in 2016. I plan to make this sort of resolution every year.

This resolution has many virtues, but I will only consider the two most important. The first is that I really do not need to do anything-not dying is a fairly automatic sort of thing. Mostly.

Obviously enough, one year (hopefully not 2016, but I’ve had a pretty good run) will end with my resolution being broken-or, rather, I will end before the year does. This is where the second virtue comes into play. When I finally break the resolution by dying, I will not be around to face the judgment of those who rather like to judge people for breaking New Year’s Resolutions. Also, even such judgmental folks might feel it a bit too harsh to judge a person for breaking a resolution to not die. Or maybe not. People can be rather harsh.

On a more positive note, here is to a great 2016. Still waiting for that moon base-I really want that before the robot apocalypse. So, Elon Musk, I am counting on you to get it done before Google’s kill bots kill us all.

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The Left’s Defection from Progress

Note: This is a slightly abridged (but otherwise largely warts and all) version of an article that I had published in Quadrant magazine in April 1999. It has not previously been published online (except that I am cross-posting on my own blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club). While my views have developed somewhat in the interim, there may be some advantage in republishing it for a new audience, especially at a time when there is much discussion of a “regressive left”.

I.

In a recent mini-review of David Stove’s Anything Goes: Origins of Scientific Irrationalism (originally published in 1982 as Popper and After), Diane Carlyle and Nick Walker make a casual reference to Stove’s “reactionary polemic”. By contrast, they refer to the philosophies of science that Stove attacks as “progressive notions of culture-based scientific knowledge”. To say the least, this appears tendentious.

To be fair, Carlyle and Walker end up saying some favourable things about Stove’s book. What is nonetheless alarming about their review is that it evidences just how easy it has become to write as if scientific realism were inherently “reactionary” and the more or less relativist views of scientific knowledge that predominate among social scientists and humanities scholars were “progressive”.

The words “reactionary” and “progressive” usually attach themselves to political and social movements, some kind of traditionalist or conservative backlash versus an attempt to advance political liberties or social equality. Perhaps Carlyle and Walker had another sense in mind, but the connotations of their words are pretty inescapable. Moreover, they would know as well as I do that there is now a prevalent equation within the social sciences and humanities of relativist conceptions of truth and reality with left-wing social critique, and of scientific realism with the political right. Carlyle and Walker wrote their piece against that background. But where does it leave those of us who retain at least a temperamental attachment to the left, however nebulous that concept is becoming, while remaining committed to scientific realism? To adapt a phrase from Christina Hoff Sommers, we are entitled to ask about who has been stealing socially liberal thought in general.

Is the life of reason and liberty (intellectual and otherwise) that some people currently enjoy in some countries no more than an historical anomaly, a short-lived bubble that will soon burst? It may well appear so. Observe the dreadful credulity of the general public in relation to mysticism, magic and pseudoscience, and the same public’s preponderant ignorance of genuine science. Factor in the lowbrow popularity of religious fundamentalism and the anti-scientific rantings of highbrow conservatives such as Bryan Appleyard. Yet the sharpest goad to despair is the appearance that what passes for the intellectual and artistic left has now repudiated the Enlightenment project of conjoined scientific and social progress.

Many theorists in the social sciences and humanities appear obsessed with dismantling the entirety of post-Enlightenment political, philosophical and scientific thought. This is imagined to be a progressive act, desirable to promote the various social, cultural and other causes that have become politically urgent in recent decades, particularly those associated with sex, race, and the aftermath of colonialism. The positions on these latter issues taken by university-based theorists give them a claim to belong to, if not actually constitute, the “academic left”, and I’ll refer to them with this shorthand expression.

There is, however, nothing inherently left-wing about wishing to sweep away our Enlightenment legacy. Nor is a commitment to scientific inquiry and hard philosophical analysis inconsistent with socially liberal views. Abandonment of the project of rational inquiry, with its cross-checking of knowledge in different fields, merely opens the door to the worst kind of politics that the historical left could imagine, for the alternative is that “truth” be determined by whoever, at particular times and places, possesses sufficient political or rhetorical power to decide what beliefs are orthodox. The rationality of our society is at stake, but so is the fate of the left itself, if it is so foolish as to abandon the standards of reason for something more like a brute contest for power.

It is difficult to know where to start in criticising the academic left’s contribution to our society’s anti-rationalist drift. The approaches I am gesturing towards are diverse among themselves, as well as being professed in the universities side by side with more traditional methods of analysing society and culture. There is considerable useful dialogue among all these approaches, and it can be difficult obtaining an accurate idea of specific influences within the general intellectual milieu.

However, amidst all the intellectual currents and cross-currents, it is possible to find something of a common element in the thesis or assumption (sometimes one, sometimes the other) that reality, or our knowledge of it, is “socially constructed”. There are many things this might mean, and I explain below why I do not quarrel with them all.

In the extreme, however, our conceptions of reality, truth and knowledge are relativised, leading to absurd doctrines, such as the repudiation of deductive logic or the denial of a mind-independent world. Symptomatic of the approach I am condemning is a subordination of the intellectual quest for knowledge and understanding to political and social advocacy. Some writers are prepared to misrepresent mathematical and scientific findings for the purposes of point scoring or intellectual play, or the simple pleasure of ego-strutting. All this is antithetical to Enlightenment values, but so much – it might be said – for the Enlightenment.

II.

The notion that reality is socially constructed would be attractive and defensible if it were restricted to a thesis about the considerable historical contingency of any culture’s social practices and mores, and its systems of belief, understanding and evaluation. These are, indeed, shaped partly by the way they co-evolve and “fit” with each other, and by the culture’s underlying economic and other material circumstances.

The body of beliefs available to anyone will be constrained by the circumstances of her culture, including its attitude to free inquiry, the concepts it has already built up for understanding the world, and its available technologies for the gathering of data. Though Stove is surely correct to emphasise that the accumulation of empirical knowledge since the 17th century has been genuine, the directions taken by science have been influenced by pre-existing values and beliefs. Meanwhile, social practices, metaphysical and ethical (rather than empirical) beliefs, the methods by which society is organised and by which human beings understand their experience are none of them determined in any simple, direct or uniform way by human “nature” or biology, or by transcendental events.

So far, so good – but none of this is to suggest that all of these categories should or can be treated in exactly the same way. Take the domain of metaphysical questions. Philosophers working in metaphysics are concerned to understand such fundamentals as space, time, causation, the kinds of substances that ultimately exist, the nature of consciousness and the self. The answers cannot simply be “read off” our access to empirical data or our most fundamental scientific theories, or some body of transcendental knowledge. Nonetheless, I am content to assume that all these questions, however intractable we find them, have correct answers.

The case of ethical disagreement may be very different, and I discuss it in more detail below. It may be that widespread and deep ethical disagreement actually evidences the correctness of a particular metaphysical (and meta-ethical) theory – that there are no objectively existing properties of moral good and evil. Yet, to the extent that they depend upon empirical beliefs about the consequences of human conduct, practical moral judgements may often be reconcilable. Your attitude to the rights of homosexuals will differ from mine if yours is based on a belief that homosexual acts cause earthquakes.

Again, the social practices of historical societies may turn out to be constrained by our biology in a way that is not true of the ultimate answers to questions of metaphysics. All these are areas where human behaviour and belief may be shaped by material circumstances and the way they fit with each other, and relatively unconstrained by empirical knowledge. But, to repeat, they are not all the same.

Where this appears to lead us is that, for complicated reasons and in awkward ways, there is much about the practices and beliefs of different cultures that is contingent on history. In particular, the way institutions are built up around experience is more or less historically contingent, dependent largely upon economic and environmental circumstances and on earlier or co-evolving layers of political and social structures. Much of our activity as human beings in the realms of understanding, organising, valuing and responding to experience can reasonably be described as “socially constructed”, and it will often make perfectly good sense to refer to social practices, categories, concepts and beliefs as “social constructions”.

Yet this modest insight cries out for clear intellectual distinctions and detailed application to particular situations, with conscientious linkages to empirical data. It cannot provide a short-cut to moral perspicuity or sound policy formulation. Nor is it inconsistent with a belief in the actual existence of law-governed events in the empirical world, which can be the subject of objective scientific theory and accumulating knowledge.

III.

As Antony Flew once expressed it, what is socially constructed is not reality itself but merely “reality”: the beliefs, meanings and values available within a culture.

Thus, none of what I’ve described so far amounts to “social constructionism” in a pure or philosophical sense, since this would require, in effect, that we never have any knowledge. It would require a thesis that all beliefs are so deeply permeated by socially specific ideas that they never transcend their social conditions of production to the extent of being about objective reality. To take this a step further, even the truth about physical nature would be relative to social institutions – relativism applies all the way down.

Two important points need to be made here. First, even without such a strong concept of socially constructed knowledge, social scientists and humanities scholars have considerable room to pursue research programs aimed at exploring the historically contingent nature of social institutions. In the next section, I argue that this applies quintessentially to socially accepted moral beliefs.

Second, however, there is a question as to why anyone would insist upon the thesis that the nature of reality is somehow relative to social beliefs all the way down, that there is no point at which we ever hit a bedrock of truth and falsity about anything. It is notorious that intellectuals who use such language sometimes retreat, when challenged, to a far more modest or equivocal kind of position.

Certainly, there is no need for anyone’s political or social aims to lead them to deny the mind-independent existence of physical nature, or to suggest that the truth about it is, in an ultimate sense, relative to social beliefs or subjective to particular observers. Nonetheless, many left-wing intellectuals freely express a view in which reality, not “reality”, is a mere social construction.

IV.

If social construction theory is to have any significant practical bite, then it has to assert that moral beliefs are part of what is socially constructed. I wish to explore this issue through some more fundamental considerations about ethics.

It is well-documented that there are dramatic contrasts between different societies’ practical beliefs about what is right and wrong, so much so that the philosopher J.L. Mackie said that these “make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths.” As Mackie develops the argument, it is not part of some general theory that “the truth is relative”, but involves a careful attempt to show that the diversity of moral beliefs is not analogous to the usual disagreements about the nature of the physical world.

Along with other arguments put by philosophers in Hume’s radical empiricist tradition, Mackie’s appeal to cultural diversity may persuade us that there are no objective moral truths. Indeed, it seems to me that there are only two positions here that are intellectually viable. The first is that Mackie is simply correct. This idea might seem to lead to cultural relativism about morality, but things are not always what they seem.

The second viable position is that there are objective moral truths, but they take the form of principles of an extremely broad nature, broad enough to help shape – rather than being shaped by – a diverse range of social practices in different environmental, economic and other circumstances.

If this is so, particular social practices and practical moral beliefs have some ultimate relationship to fundamental moral principles, but there can be enormous “slippage” between the two, depending on the range of circumstances confronting different human societies. Moreover, during times of rapid change such as industrialised societies have experienced in the last three centuries – and especially the last several decades – social practices and practical moral beliefs might tend to be frozen in place, even though they have become untenable. Conversely, there might be more wisdom, or at least rationality, than is apparent to most Westerners in the practices and moral beliefs of traditional societies. All societies, however, might have practical moral beliefs that are incorrect because of lack of empirical knowledge about the consequences of human conduct.

Taken with my earlier, more general, comments about various aspects of social practices and culturally-accepted “reality”, this approach gives socially liberal thinkers much of what they want. It tends to justify those who would test and criticise the practices and moral beliefs of Western nations while defending the rationality and sophistication of people from colonised cultures.

V.

The academic left’s current hostility to science and the Enlightenment project may have its origins in a general feeling, brought on by the twentieth century’s racial and ideological atrocities, that the Enlightenment has failed. Many intellectuals have come to see science as complicit in terror, oppression and mass killing, rather than as an inspiration for social progress.

The left’s hostility has surely been intensified by a quite specific fear that the reductive study of human biology will cross a bridge from the empirical into the normative realm, where it may start to dictate the political and social agenda in ways that can aptly be described as reactionary. This, at least, is the inference I draw from left-wing intellectuals’ evident detestation of human sociobiology or evolutionary psychology.

The fear may be that dubious research in areas such as evolutionary psychology and/or cognitive neuroscience will be used to rationalise sexist, racist or other illiberal positions. More radically, it may be feared that genuine knowledge of a politically unpalatable or otherwise harmful kind will emerge from these areas. Are such fears justified? To dismiss them lightly would be irresponsible and naive. I can do no more than place them in perspective. The relationship between the social sciences and humanities, on the one hand, and the “hard” end of psychological research, on the other, is one of the most important issues to be tackled by intellectuals in all fields – the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities.

One important biological lesson we have learned is that human beings are not, in any reputable sense, divided into “races”. As an empirical fact of evolutionary history and genetic comparison, we are all so alike that superficial characteristics such as skin or hair colour signify nothing about our moral or intellectual worth, or about the character of our inner experience. Yet, what if it had turned out otherwise? It is understandable if people are frightened by our ability to research such issues. At the same time, the alternative is to suppress rational inquiry in some areas, leaving questions of orthodoxy to however wins the naked contest for power. This is neither rational nor safe.

What implications could scientific knowledge about ourselves have for moral conduct or social policy? No number of factual statements about human nature, by themselves, can ever entail statements that amount to moral knowledge, as Hume demonstrated. What is required is an ethical theory, persuasive on other grounds, that already links “is” and “ought”. This might be found, for example, in a definition of moral action in terms of human flourishing, though it is not clear why we should, as individuals, be concerned about something as abstract as that – why not merely the flourishing of ourselves or our particular loved ones?.

One comfort is that, even if we had a plausible set of empirical and meta-ethical gadgets to connect what we know of human nature to high-level questions about social policy, we would discover significant slippage between levels. Nature does not contradict itself, and no findings from a field such as evolutionary psychology could be inconsistent with the observed facts of cultural diversity. If reductive explanations of human nature became available in more detail, these must turn out to be compatible with the existence of the vast spectrum of viable cultures that human beings have created so far. And there is no reason to believe that a lesser variety of cultures will be workable in the material circumstances of a high-technology future.

The dark side of evolutionary psychology includes, among other things, some scary-looking claims about the reproductive and sociopolitical behaviour of the respective sexes. True, no one seriously asserts that sexual conduct in human societies and the respective roles of men and women within families and extra-familial hierarchies are specified by our genes in a direct or detailed fashion. What, however, are we to make of the controversial analyses of male and female reproductive “strategies” that have been popularised by several writers in the 1990s? Perhaps the best-known exposition is that of Matt Ridley in The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993). Such accounts offer evidence and argument that men are genetically hardwired to be highly polygamous or promiscuous, while women are similarly programmed to be imperfectly monogamous, as well as sexually deceitful.

In responding to this, first, I am in favour of scrutinising the evidence for such claims very carefully, since they can so readily be adapted to support worn-out stereotypes about the roles of the sexes. That, however, is a reason to show scientific and philosophical rigour, not to accept strong social constructionism about science. Secondly, even if findings similar to those synthesised by Ridley turned out to be correct, the social consequences are by no means apparent. Mere biological facts cannot tell us in some absolute way what are the correct sexual mores for a human society.

To take this a step further, theories about reproductive strategies suggest that there are in-built conflicts between the interests of men and women, and of higher and lower status men, which will inevitably need to be moderated by social compromise, not necessarily in the same way by different cultures. If all this were accepted for the sake of argument, it might destroy a precious notion about ourselves: that there is a simple way for relations between the sexes to be harmonious. On the other hand, it would seem to support rather than refute what might be considered a “progressive” notion: that no one society, certainly not our own, has the absolutely final answer to questions about sexual morality.

Although evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are potential minefields, it is irrational to pretend that they are incapable of discovering objective knowledge. Fortunately, such knowledge will surely include insight into the slippage between our genetic similarity and the diversity of forms taken by viable cultures. The commonality of human nature will be at a level that is consistent with the (substantial) historical contingency of social practices and of many areas of understanding and evaluative belief. The effect on social policy is likely to be limited, though we may become more charitable about what moral requirements are reasonable for the kinds of creatures that we are.

I should add that evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are not about to put the humanities, in particular, out of business. There are good reasons why the natural sciences cannot provide a substitute for humanistic explanation, even if we obtain a far deeper understanding of our own genetic and neurophysiological make-up. This is partly because reductive science is ill-equipped to deal with the particularity of complex events, partly because causal explanation may not be all that we want, anyway, when we try to interpret and clarify human experience.

VI.

Either there are no objective moral truths or they are of an extremely general kind. Should we, therefore, become cultural relativists?

Over a quarter of a century ago, Bernard Williams made the sharp comment that cultural relativism is “possibly the most absurd view to have been advanced even in moral philosophy”” To get this clear, Williams was criticising a cluster of beliefs that has a great attraction for left-wing academics and many others who preach inter-cultural tolerance: first, that what is “right” means what is right for a particular culture; second, that what is right for a particular culture refers to what is functionally valuable for it; and third, that it is “therefore” wrong for one culture to interfere with the organisation or values of another.

As Williams pointed out, these propositions are internally inconsistent. Not only does the third not follow from the others; it cannot be asserted while the other two are maintained. After all, it may be functionally valuable to culture A (and hence “right” within that culture) for it to develop institutions for imposing its will on culture B. These may include armadas and armies, colonising expeditions, institutionalised intolerance, and aggressively proselytising religions. In fact, nothing positive in the way of moral beliefs, political programs or social policy can ever be derived merely from a theory of cultural relativism.

That does not mean that there are no implications at all from the insight that social practices and beliefs are, to a large degree, contingent on history and circumstance. Depending upon how we elaborate this insight, we may have good reason to suspect that another culture’s odd-looking ways of doing things are more justifiable against universal principles of moral value than is readily apparent. In that case, we may also take the view that the details of how our own society, or an element of it, goes about things are open to challenge as to how far they are (or remain?) justifiable against such universal principles.

If, on the other hand, we simply reject the existence of any objective moral truths – which I have stated to be a philosophically viable position – we will have a more difficult time explaining why we are active in pursuing social change. Certainly, we will not be able to appeal to objectively applicable principles to justify our activity. All the same, we may be able to make positive commitments to ideas such as freedom, equality or benevolence that we find less arbitrary and more psychologically satisfying than mere acquiescence in “the way they do things around here”. In no case, however, can we intellectually justify a course of political and social activism without more general principles or commitments to supplement the bare insight that, in various complicated ways, social beliefs and practices are largely contingent.

VII.

An example of an attempt to short-circuit the kind of hard thinking about moral foundations required to deal with contentious issues is Martin F. Katz’s well-known article, “After the Deconstruction: Law in the Age of Post-Structuralism”. Katz is a jurisprudential theorist who is committed to a quite extreme form of relativism about empirical knowledge. In particular, his article explicitly assigns the findings of physical science the same status as the critical interpretations of literary works.

Towards the end of “After the Deconstruction”, Katz uses the abortion debate as an example of how what he calls “deconstructionism” or the “deconstructionist analysis” can clarify and arbitrate social conflict. He begins by stating the debate much as it might be seen by its antagonists:

One side of the debate holds that abortion is wrong because it involves the murder of an unborn baby. The other side of the debate sees abortion as an issue of self-determination; the woman’s right to choose what she does to her body. How do we measure which of these “rights” should take priority?

In order to avoid any sense of evasion, I’ll state clearly that the second of these positions, the “pro-choice” position, is closer to my own. However, either position has more going for it in terms of rationality than what Katz actually advocates.

This, however, is not how Katz proposes to solve the problem of abortion. He begins by stating that “deconstructionism” recommends that we “resist the temptation to weigh the legitimacy of . . . these competing claims.” Instead, we should consider the different “subjugations” supposedly instigated by the pro-life and pro-choice positions. The pro-life position is condemned because it denies women the choice of what role they wish to take in society, while the pro-choice position is apparently praised (though even this is not entirely clear) for shifting the decision about whether and when to have children directly to women.

The trouble with this is that it prematurely forecloses on the metaphysical and ethical positions at stake, leaving everything to be solved in terms of power relations. However, if we believe that a foetus (say at a particular age) is a person in some sense that entails moral regard, or a being that possesses a human soul, then there are moral consequences. Such beliefs, together with some plausible assumptions about our moral principles or commitments, entail that we should accept that aborting the foetus is an immoral act. The fact that banning the abortion may reduce the political power of the woman concerned, or of women generally, over against that of men will seem to have little moral bite, unless we adopt a very deep principle of group political equality. That would require ethical argument of an intensity which Katz never attempts.

If we take it that the foetus is not a person in the relevant sense, we may be far more ready to solve the problem (and to advocate an assignment of “rights”) on the basis of utilitarian, or even libertarian, principles. By contrast, the style of “deconstructionist” thought advocated by Katz threatens to push rational analysis aside altogether, relying on untheorised hunches or feelings about how we wish power to be distributed in our society. This approach can justifiably be condemned as irrational. At the same time, the statements that Katz makes about the political consequences for men or women of banning or legalising abortion are so trite that it is difficult to imagine how anyone not already beguiled by an ideology could think that merely stating them could solve the problem.

VIII.

In the example of Katz’s article, as in the general argument I have put, the insight that much in our own society’s practices and moral beliefs is “socially constructed” can do only a modest amount of intellectual work. We may have good reason to question the way they do things around here, to subject it to deeper analysis. We may also have good reason to believe that the “odd” ways they do things in other cultures make more sense than is immediately apparent to the culture-bound Western mind. All very well. None of this, however, can undermine the results of systematic empirical inquiry. Nor can it save us from the effort of grappling with inescapable metaphysical and ethical questions, just as we had to do before the deconstruction.

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Running Down the Hill of Life

Turkey Trot 11-27-2008Each of us has their own hill (or mound or even mountain) that is life. I can see the hills of other people. Some are still populated, some still bear the warm footprints of a recently departed fellow runner (goodbye Eric), and so very many of the others are cold with long abandonment. While I can see these other hills, I can only run my own and no one else can run mine. That is how it is, poetry and movies notwithstanding.  In truth, we all run alone.

I am in fact and metaphor a distance runner. Running the marathon and even greater distances, gave me a sneak preview of old age. I finished my first marathon at the age of 22, at the peak of my strength, crossing the line in 2:45. Having consulted with old feet at marathons, I knew that the miles would beat me like a piñata—only instead of candy, I would be full of pain. I hobbled along slowly for the next few days—barely able to run. But, being young, I was soon back up to speed, forgetting that brief taste of the cruelty of time. But time never forgets us.

We runners have an obsession with numbers. We record our race times, our training distances and many other things. While everyone is aware that the march of time eventually becomes a slide downhill, runners are thus forced to face the objective quantification of their decline. Though I started running in high school, I did not become a runner until after my first year as a college athlete in 1985 and I only started recording my run data back in 1987. I, with complete faith in my young brain, was sure I would remember my times forever.

My first victory in a 5K was in 1985—I ran an 18:20 for the win. My time improved considerably: I broke 18, then 17 and (if my memory is not a false one) even 16. Then, as must happen, I reached the peak of my running hill and the decline began. I struggled to stay under 17, fought to stay under 18, battled to stay below 19, and then warred to remain below 20. The realization of the damage done by time sunk home when my 5K race pace was the same as the pace for my first marathon. Once, I sailed through 26.2 miles at about a 6:20 per mile pace. Now I have to work hard to do that for a 5K. Another marker was when my 5-mile race time finally became slower than my 10K race time (33 minutes). Damn the numbers.

Each summer, I return to my home town and run the routes of my youth. Back in the day, I would run 16 miles at a 7 minute per mile pace. Now I shuffle along 2 and a half minutes per mile slower. But, dragging all those years will slow a man down. When I run those old routes, I speed up when I hit the coolness of the pine forest—the years momentarily drop away and I feel like a young man again. But, like the deerflies that haunt my run, they soon catch up. Like the deerflies, the years bite. Unlike the deerflies, I cannot just swat them down. Rather, they are swatting me down and, like many a deerfly, I will eventually be crushed and broken by a great hand. In this case, not the hand of some guy from Maine, but the hand of time. Someday, as has happened to friends, I will go out for a run and never come back. But until that day, the run goes on. And on.

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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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Defining Our Gods

The theologian Alvin Plantinga was interviewed for The Stone this weekend, making the claim that Atheism is Irrational. His conclusion, however, seems to allow that agnosticism is pretty reasonable, and his thought process is based mostly on the absurdity of the universe and the hope that some kind of God will provide an explanation for whatever we cannot make sense of. These attitudes seem to me to require that we clarify a few things.

There are a variety of different intended meanings behind the word “atheist” as well as the word “God”. I generally make the point that I am atheistic when it comes to personal or specific gods like Zeus, Jehovah, Jesus, Odin, Allah, and so on, but agnostic if we’re talking about deism, that is, when it comes to an unnamed, unknowable, impersonal, original or universal intelligence or source of some kind. If this second force or being were to be referred to as “god” or even spoken of through more specific stories in an attempt to poetically understand some greater meaning, I would have no trouble calling myself agnostic as Plantinga suggests. But if the stories or expectations for afterlife or instructions for communications are meant to be considered as concrete as everyday reality, then I simply think they are as unlikely as Bigfoot or a faked moon landing – in other words, I am atheistic.

There are atheists who like to point out that atheism is ultimately a lack of belief, and therefore as long as you don’t have belief, you are atheistic – basically, those who have traditionally been called agnostics are just as much atheists. The purpose of this seems to be to expand the group of people who will identify more strongly as non-believers, and to avoid nuance – or what might be seen as hesitation – in self-description.

However, this allows for confusion and unnecessary disagreement at times. I think in fact that there are a fair number of people who are atheistic when it comes to very literal gods, like the one Ken Ham was espousing in his debate with Bill Nye. Some people believe, as Ken Ham does, that without a literal creation, the whole idea of God doesn’t make sense, and so believe in creationism because they believe in God. Some share this starting point, but are convinced by science and conclude there is no god. But others reject the premise and don’t connect their religious positions with their understandings of science. It’s a popular jab among atheists that “everyone is atheistic when it comes to someone else’s gods”, but it’s also a useful description of reality. We do all choose to not believe certain things, even if we would not claim absolute certainty.

Plenty of us would concede that only math or closed systems can be certain, so it’s technically possible that any conspiracy theory or mythology at issue is actually true – but still in general it can be considered reasonable not to believe conspiracy theories or mythologies. And if one includes mainstream religious mythologies with the smaller, less popular, less currently practiced ones, being atheistic about Jesus (as a literal, supernatural persona) is not that surprising from standard philosophical perspectives. The key here is that the stories are being looked at from a materialistic point of view – as Hegel pointed out, once spirituality is asked to compete in an empirical domain, it has no chance. It came about to provide insight, meaning, love and hope – not facts, proof, and evidence.

The more deeply debatable issue would be a broadly construed and non-specific deistic entity responsible for life, intelligence or being. An argument can be made that a force of this kind provides a kind of unity to existence that helps to make sense of it. It does seem rather absurd that the universe simply happened, although I am somewhat inclined to the notion that the universe is just absurd. On the other hand, perhaps there is a greater order that is not always evident. I would happily use the word agnostic to describe my opinion about this, and the philosophical discussion regarding whether there is an originating source or natural intelligence to being seems a useful one. However, it should not be considered to be relevant to one’s opinion about supernatural personas who talk to earthlings and interfere in their lives.

There are people who identify as believers who really could be categorized as atheistic in the same way I am about the literal versions of their gods. They understand the stories of their religions as pathways to a closer understanding of a great unspecified deity, but take them no more literally than Platonists take the story of the Cave, which is to say, the stories are meant to be meaningful and the concrete fact-based aspect is basically irrelevant. It’s not a question of history or science: it’s metaphysics. Let’s not pretend any of us know the answer to this one.

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).
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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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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.

Athens (and what I saw there)

The World Congress of Philosophy concluded this past Saturday in Athens. This year’s theme was Philosophy as Inquiry and Way of Life. It’s a theme that is tailored to the strengths of the event. For any who are interested in seeing how philosophy is a living and global practice, the Congress is essential. This year’s Congress was also host of a significant number of Big Name Philosophers, and hence was also an attraction for philosophers whose interests are more provincially-minded.

While there were plenty of interesting talks that are worth reporting on (both good and not so good), I would prefer to take a moment to make a few personal remarks about what I saw in Athens. [Hat tip to commenters at Feminist Philosophers for the idea and encouragement.]

***

I arrive on Saturday. It is hot and arid. Looking out of my hotel window, I am at first startled by the view. The landscape looks like an overexposed photograph. The buildings are crumbling and saturated with graffiti.

Greek society is in turmoil, their government put under administration. An unhinged neo-Nazi party known as the Golden Dawn is gaining power and popularity. I make friends with one of my fellow speakers. He fills me in on the details behind Operation Zeus, a heavy-handed effort to jail ostensibly undocumented migrants at detention centres. Heavily armed officers are stationed near tourist havens and government buildings.

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I decide to take a walk. It’s not until I am a few blocks away from my hotel that I notice the barking. I turn around and see that a dog has followed me all the way along my journey. The dog looks as though she is barking at any pedestrians who get too close to me. When I turn to go back to the hotel, the dog races back to reassume her place across the road, presumably to keep watch. My little protector.

The week is beautiful. The hotel is nice, and I feel reasonably safe. The people of Greece are down-to-earth, and Athens glows at night. I see the Acropolis and the temple of Apollo up close. I swallow salt water from the Aegean Sea and wash it down with iced coffee. I am genuinely happy.

Somewhere along the way, I overhear a little girl say, “It’s hot and like a dream.” I know what she means.

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But even the best of dreams have a nightmarish quality to them. The people of Greece are understandably angry, and self-aware about their anger. Most cab drivers have harsh things to say about Germany and Angela Merkel. There is also no shortage of acrimony about their own Euro-imposed government, and plenty reserved for the socialist government that led them into the collapse. (As one cab driver who spoke virtually no English memorably repeated: “Boo to Papandreou“.) The people suffer and depend on tourists with Euros.

***

Friday evening. About forty professional philosophers were traipsing merrily around the ruins of the Lyceum. While moseying around the ruins my eye caught a hold of a black rock. I picked it up and cleaned off the grass and dirt. It was thin, long, with a concave blackened surface. The edge had the colour of clay. A shard of ancient pottery.

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We should not have been allowed to walk in the pit. There should have been velvet ropes and armed guards and signs, but for whatever reason — and whatever the consequences — we were allowed to walk the grounds.

Standing there in the 34 degree heat, in the dust, listening to cicadas and sprinklers and the bustling of Athens in the background. Eventually, my new Greek friend forces me to return it to the dirt. But for a moment I was immobile, transfixed. It felt right to hold onto that little bit of history as long as I could.

The sound of an exasperated voice over the speaker system is enough to break my from the reverie. “Please don’t step on the ancient wall,” a droll voice says to some naughty wanderer.

***

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Does anyone know what this might be?

I get out of the cab into the heat, clad in a white Canadian hat and a World Congress of Philosophy lanyard around my neck. I look up at the impassive but modern-looking government building — the Kentrikou detention centre. It appears deserted. A few towels hang from the windows, but otherwise it is devoid of life.

Then I pull out my camera and start taking pictures of the empty exterior. At that point a policeman appears out of nowhere and asks me what I’m doing.

I tell him I’m interested in seeing the migrants in the facility. I say I’m writing a story about how Greece is handling the austerity crisis. The guard smiles. “Greece is on fire,” he says. I’m not sure he is referring to the weather.

He radios up and asks permission to let me in, and I am denied entry.

Just then, I look up and see some arms moving in one of the windows. I carefully step back into the street, onto public space, and snap some photos. In the first photo, it looks as though a detainee is showing me a card of some kind. Two faces emerge from behind bars, both visibly happy for my attention.

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The fact that I have taken photos of actual detainees seems to have changed the parameters of the situation. At that point, the guard says: “Wait just a moment. Someone is coming to see you to take you upstairs.”
Sure enough, a burly Greek comes down. His hand is on the butt of his pistol. He exchanges words with the guard. Eventually they decide that I’m not a terrorist, and I’m told to follow the burly Greek. I’m led inside. I pull out my camera to take some interior shots, and am immediately told to put it away: “This is a military facility.”

Inside, I meet some bureaucrats who are watching television. I notice little things: a shitty photocopier, a pile of traffic cones. They ask me for my papers. I give them my Canadian driver’s license.

While they decide what to do with me, I’m led into a dirty white room. The room is bare, apart from a table, some benches, and a desk for the cop in charge. There is measuring tape on the wall and handprints all over the wall behind me. I figure that it is the processing area where migrants have their fingerprints taken.

Not liking the direction in which matters were headed, I quietly removed the microchip from my digital camera and hid it in my pocket. Just in case they decide to start confiscating my things.

Eventually I am led back to the bureaucrats. I am told that I need an appointment in order to interview any migrants. I am given a number to call to arrange an appointment. Then I am invited to leave.

I suppose I picked the right place to visit. Later that day, on the other side of the city, the Amygdaleza detention centre broke into a riot.

***

I saw my protector dog again that day. This time it was up close. Her eyes are bloodshot to the point where they look like they are bleeding. She lay in the street baking in the hot sun. I pour some water for her, and she doesn’t move. I worry that she might be dying.

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.

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