Category Archives: Announcements

Evidence: a love-story

Philosophers! I have a proposition to put to you. Nowadays, we would-be rational members of the public, the intellectually-minded, many citizens, are too in love with the concept of evidence.
Perhaps this surprises you. Maybe you’re thinking: if only! If only enough attention were paid to the massive evidence that dangerous climate change is happening, and that it’s human-triggered. Or: if only the epidemiological evidence marshalled by Wilkinson and Pickett — that more inequality makes society worse in almost every conceivable way — were acted upon.
But actually, even in cases like these, I think that my proposition is still true. Take human-triggered climate-change. Yes, the evidence is strong; but a ‘sceptic’ can always ask for more/better evidence, and thus delay action. There is something stronger than evidence: the concept of precaution.
A sceptic, unconvinced by climate-models, ought to be more cautious than the rest of us about bunging unprecedented amounts of potential-pollutants into the atmosphere! For any uncertainty over the evidence increases our exposure to risk, our fragility.
The climate-sceptics exploit any scientific uncertainty to seek to undermine our confidence in the evidence at our disposal. So far as it goes, this move is correct. But: our exposure to risk is higher, the greater the uncertainty in the science. Uncertainty undermines evidence, but it doesn’t undermine the need for precaution: it underscores it! For remember how high the stakes are.
Think back to the great precedent for the climate issue: the issue of smoking and cancer. For decades, tobacco companies prevaricated against action being taken to stop the epidemic of lung cancer. How? They demanded incontrovertible evidence that smoking caused cancer, and they claimed that until we had such evidence there was nothing to be said against smoking, health-wise. They deliberately evaded the employment of the precautionary principle: which would have warned that, in the absence of such evidence, it was still unsafe to pump your lungs full of smoke and associated chemicals, day in day out, in a manner without natural precedent.
We ought to have relied more on precaution and less on evidence in relation to the smoking-cancer connection. The same goes for climate. (Only: the stakes are much higher, and so the case for precaution is much stronger still.)
And for inequality: Wilkinson and Pickett are merely confirming what we all already ought to have known anyway: that it’s reckless to raise inequality to unprecedented levels, and so to fragilise society itself (for how can one have a society at all, when levels of trust and of commingling are ever-decreasing?).
The same goes for advertising targeted at children: It’s outrageous to demand evidence that dumping potential-toxins into the mental environment actually is dangerous; we just need to exercise precautious care with regard to our children’s fragile, malleable minds.
And for geo-engineering: There’s no evidence at all that geoengineering does any harm, because (thankfully!) it hasn’t been carried out yet: in this case we must be precautious, or risk nemesis, for by the time any evidence was in, it would be too late.
The same goes for GM crops: There is little evidence of harm, to date, from GM, but evidence is the wrong place to look (http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=8071 ): one ought to focus on the generation of new uncertainties and of untold exposures to grave risk that is inevitably consequent upon taking genes from fish and putting them into tomatoes, or on creating ‘terminator’ genes, etc. . The absence of evidence that GM is harmful must not be confused with evidence of absence of potential harm from GM. We lack the latter, and thus we are direly exposed to the risk of what my philosophical colleague Nassim Taleb (see http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2.pdf for our joint work in this area) calls a ‘black swan’ event. A massive known or even unknown unknown.
Our love-affair with science, that I’ve criticised previously on this blog (see e.g. http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=8071 ), is at the root of this. Science-worship, scientism, is responsible for the extreme privileging of evidence over other things that are often even more important. So: let’s end our irrational, dogmatic love-affair with evidence. Yes, being ‘evidence-based’ is usually (though not always!) better than nothing. But there’s usually, when the stakes are highest, something better still: being precautious. (And what’s more: being precautious makes it easier to win, and quicker.)
To end with, here are a couple of my favourite quotes from Wittgenstein, on topic:
1) Science: enrichment and impoverishment. The one method elbows all others aside. Compared with this they all seem paltry, preliminary stages at best. [Wittgenstein, Culture and Value p.69]
2) “Our craving for generality has [as one key] source … our preoccupation with the method of science. I mean the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization. Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.”” – Wittgenstein, Blue and Brown Books p.23.
I’ll be elaborating on these quotes, and on the case made here, in opening and closing plenaries at a Conference in Oxford this Saturday, in case anyone happens to be in the area… http://www.stx.ox.ac.uk/happ/events/wittgenstein-and-physics-one-day-conference
Meanwhile, thanks for your attention…

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!

[Pssst… My Amazon author page]

Religion as helpful precaution

http://econjwatch.org/articles/religion-heuristics-and-intergenerational-risk-management
Colleagues may find this article of mine, co-authored with Nassim Taleb, of interest. Suitably-provocative, perhaps, for philosophers, who are often inclined to think that religion is for morons, and that we are outgrowing it. Our case is that religion is probably on balance helpful to all of us (even philosophers: it is an absurd rationalistic delusion, an utter fantasy, to suppose that everything ought to be thought through from the beginning on every occasion, as some philosophers seem to suppose is an ideal), and that it might well be essential for species-survival / for the avoidance of ruin.

(I address the standard criticism – that lots of religion has been bad – here: http://http://www.arsdisputandi.org/publish/articles/000394/article.pdf , and in my book PHILOSOPHY FOR LIFE.)

On Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA: A new article of mine offering a ‘therapeutic’ ‘reading’ thereof

My latest film-as-philosophy effort has just been published, with SEQUENCE:
http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/sequence1/1-2-an-allegory-of-a-therapeutic-reading/

Thinkingfilm: announcement of new group-blog on film-philosophy

Colleagues; check out my new blogsite, http://thinkingfilmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/
This is a site for serious film-as-philosophy type stuff. I think a lot of you will like it.

[See also my earlier post there: http://thinkingfilmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/avatar-transformed-cinema.html]

If you have comments, probably better to leave them there than here.

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.

Philosopher’s Carnival at Siris

Hey all, this month’s Philosopher’s Carnival (#152) is now online! This month it is hosted over at Siris, one of the better philosophy blogs out there. Brandon has come up with something quite special this month, and it’s well worth a gander.

Philosophy Carnival #151

Is now online, over at Camels with Hammers. Check it out here.