Monthly Archives: March 2007

Unfashionable Sense about Asylum

Apparently, I am “a member of a group of freelance intellectuals who gather round The Philosophers’ Magazine and live by their pens.” Sounds very glamorous, in a bohemian kind of way. If you said three people who sit alone in front of computers all day in their underwear, it wouldn’t have quite the same ring.
The three said people are myself, my fellow TPM editor, Jeremy, and Butterflies and Wheels editor and TPM deputy, Ophelia Benson. We are all, says Nick Cohen. “suspicious of intellectual orthodoxy” which is probably why we don’t even agree among ourselves.
This is all very flattering and makes me feel self-important for about five seconds, but the question of the power of orthodoxy is a serious one. The extent to which some very cogent criticisms, albeit rather aggressively put, made by Jeremy on this blog has attracted nothing but indignation from people on the “side” of humanism is but one example of how unwilling people are to accept challenge.
But this is insignificant compared to the difficulty of changing people’s minds about asylum seekers. I’ve been involved with a commission of enquiry into the plight of refused asylum seekers in the UK. No one knows how many of them there are: there could be up to 450,000, and there are certainly around a quarter of a million at least. Because of the way the system works, when asylum claims are refused, most asylum seekers simply vanish off the radar, for fear of being forcibly deported. They have no income or means of support and rely on friends, charity or the shadow economy.
You might argue, so what? They’re refused asylum seekers aren’t they, which means their claims are bogus. The solution to this is just to lock them up as soon as their claims are turned down.
It’s not that simple. Many decisions are just wrong. Many other refused asylum seekers are being asked to return to countries like Eritrea, Iraq or Sudan, where they are clearly not safe. Other cannot return because their own governments won’t provide the paperwork. Hence they are left in limbo.
But even if you do think that the number of bogus claimants is high and that the processing of claims needs to be tougher, it still remains the case that there are hundreds of thousands of “legacy” cases already here, invisible. What do you do about them?
Our key recommendation, which echoes that of countless other experts, is to get them back into the system by granting a revocable right to work. Evidence suggests that this, combined with non-coercive voluntary returns programmes, will actually result in more people going “back to where they came from” than an apparently tougher system. Plus it is more humane, if you care about that.
Our report was actually very careful not to be a sort of wishy-washy, liberal, hug-an-asylum-seeker effort. It’s actually pretty robust in places. But still, it has been dismissed pretty brusquely by the government. Indeed, I suspect some sharp practice made sure the report was effectively buried. The Home Office (the government department responsible for all this) made two different announcements on issues related to migration and borders on the day our report was published, which pushed it off editors’ agenda. For instance, I was due to talk about it on the BBC’s flagship morning radio news programme, Today. I was phoned at 6am to be told, however, that overnight breaking news meant they were dropping the item. At the time I was due to go on, there was another report about visas for nannies which had its source in, yes, the Home Office.
Meanwhile, a piece I wrote about it on the comment is free blog got over a hundred replies, almost all of which were extremely critical. You would not have thought the Guardian was a left-liberal newspaper.
It seems to me that in the UK the very phrase “asylum seeker” elicits such strong reactions that getting anyone to reconsider their views on the subject is almost impossible. I found the reaction to Jeremy’s blog depressing, but I found this even more so, because here we are talking about people’s lives.
For instance, I heard the other day about a refused asylum seeker who was sent back to Burma. On arrival, he was sentenced to seven years hard labour, simply for applying for asylum. Yet still people think refused asylum seeker = bogus economic migrant, and that all we need do is make border controls tougher.
It may be fun to be “a member of a group of freelance intellectuals” but we should not flatter ourselves that we make much difference, or that our battles against orthodoxy matter compared to the battle some people face just for survival and legitimacy.

More British Humanist Association folly

David Pollock of the British Humanist Association (BHA) complains about my (and other people’s?) ‘unforgiving onslaught of abuse against an unassuming opinion poll‘. He has since been joined by a Jemma Hooper (also of the BHA), who thinks ‘professionals should applaud quantitative data’ (more of which later); and Caspar Melville at New Humanist magazine, who seems to be blaming Julian for all this [quite right too!]).

So right now I must confess to feeling a lot like Denis Healey did after he had been set upon by Geoffrey Howe.

I’ll deal with some of the points of my critics in turn.

David says this:

even without any pretensions to being serious sociological research (on a budget of £5,000?), the poll is surely indicative.

No David, it is not indicative. I don’t think you quite understand the abject hopelessness of your poll. If an A-level Sociology student had come up with this piece of research then they would have failed (hopefully). It is interesting that nobody has cared to respond to my substantive points. Here are a few more.

David says this:

religious people who reject both the option of saying that ‘religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe’ and the option of saying that ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’ have at most a pretty attenuated sort of religion…


1. The poll does not give people the option to reject the view that each statement represents. That is not how it was set up. (Which is part of my complaint.) This is what the instructions say: ‘I’d like you to tell me on balance which one in each pair most closely matches your view. You might find that the statements overlap a little, however please tell me which one you feel most closely matches your view. (If you had to choose just one of the statements which one best matches your view?)’. And also: ‘Where respondents were unsure, interviewers were allowed to select “Neither” or “Don’t know”, but these options were not presented to respondents and they were encouraged to choose a statement from each set if they could.’

So nobody is rejecting anything substantive when they respond to this poll (and David, you ought to retract that statement – it isn’t fair to those who responded to this poll). People are presented with a forced choice, and then they are encouraged to answer one way or the other even though it is conceded that there might be overlap in the statements (too right there is). I still find it staggering that anybody would think that this works as a methodology. Did the BHA bother to check with a social scientist? It took me about five seconds to see that this poll was hopeless (I read about it in New Humanist magazine). And I’m a very mediocre sociologist.

2. Notwithstanding the methodological disaster, it is conceptually up the creek as well. Christians in the UK are not particularly anti-science. Most of them believe in evolution (at least, they did when I last checked). So it is entirely plausible that people whose religious belief is not attenuated – not that it is obvious that an attenuated religious belief equates to humanism anyway, but never mind about that – will choose the statement ‘Scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe’ rather than ‘Religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe’ when they are forced to choose (there’s that irritating methodological point again). Also it is possible that this is what religious people would say even if they weren’t forced to choose. It is entirely plausible that they might think that science explains what happens in the universe; religion what happens outside of it.

The statement about religious teachings, and right and wrong is also a conceptual mess. I’m an atheist, and I might think that people need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong. Sociologists in the structural functionalist tradition, for example, think something like this (not quite like this, but not far off). Not all of them are religious. Also religious people might not think that religious teachings are necessary for an understanding of right and wrong. It is easy to imagine that some religious people will think that God has granted human beings an innate ability to understand the difference between the two.

So even if the poll wasn’t a methodological disaster, it’s a conceptual disaster.

It doesn’t show what is being claimed for it.

3. Even if there were no methodological or conceptual problems, it still doesn’t suggest the conclusion that the BHA was so desperate to find. It is possible to elicit opinions on all kinds of things by the means of questionnaires. It does not follow that people have these opinions. If I go out into the street and ask people about their eschatological views, then I’ll get eschatological views, even from people who had never given this stuff a thought before. The fact that people say that they think science is the best way to understand the universe doesn’t mean that they actually think it is the best way to understand the universe. They may have no idea about what constitutes science. They may think homeopathy is science, for example. Perhaps they are amongst the one-third of British people who think that the sun goes around the earth.

Okay, so what else?

Well, David offers an instrumental reason for conducting the poll. He thinks that it will (might?) help improve the standing of the BHA at meetings with ministers. Oh dear. So the idea here is to commission the world’s worst poll in the hope that nobody will notice? David suggests that I am scornful, etc., and I guess that is kind of true. But really I am trying very hard. The poll is a disaster. If it improves the BHA’s standing, then I really am giving up all hope for the triumph of reason.

I might continue this in another post. But just let me deal with Jemma Hooper.

Jemma, whether people should applaud quantitative data depends (partly) on whether the data is any good. This poll’s data is hopeless. Therefore, it should not be applauded. Do you think that we should applaud the quantitative data that predicted a win for Thomas Dewey in 1948 US Presidential Election? It’s a famous polling error. Truman, having won, appeared on the news holding a copy of the Chicago Tribune, which had printed “Dewey Beats Truman” on its front page on the basis of polling data.

Moreover, even if quantitative data is good, not everybody thinks it is useful. This is why some people are committed to using qualitative research methods. This is very basic sociology. The kind of thing which people learn about at GCSE level. (I’m not being rude here – it is the kind of thing people learn about in GCSE Sociology.)

The most disappointing thing about this whole affair is that the BHA, an organisation presumably committed to reason, proper enquiry, etc., has been so cavalier in the way that it approaches social research. They ought to be ashamed of themselves. They should stop defending the indefensible (when you’re in a hole, stop digging). And they should apologise to their members for wasting £5000.00 on a worthless poll.

Edit: Ophelia Benson has blogged on the BHA’s ‘we’re a campaigning organisation, cannot be overly concerned with academic pedantry’ defence.

Slavery and the Walk of Witness

This business of apologising for slavery makes me feel very uneasy. But I’m not quite sure why.

I suppose the (very) obvious point is that nobody alive today is responsible for what happened two hundred years ago. Therefore, pictures of campaigners sporting slogans such as “So Sorry” are a little disconcerting. What is their culpability so that they are entitled to apologise? Also, in my more mean spirited moments, I can’t help but wonder about their motivations. There is a certain frisson associated with taking part in a public activity such as the Walk of Witness. Your life takes on a significance that it (normally) otherwise lacks. You are connected, albeit briefly, to the grand sweep of history, and you are able to tell yourself this story:

I am the kind of person who cares deeply about the suffering of my fellow human beings.

Well, perhaps this is true. It is possible that people take part in events such as these because they care deeply. The trouble is that it is also possible that they participate because they want to be able to tell themselves that they care deeply. Or perhaps just because they have a good time. (And, of course, there is the further possibility that people’s motivations are mixed.)

The Walk of Witness wasn’t really about people apologising personally for the slave trade. Here’s what the organisers say:

There will be an acknowledgement of the past and its continuing legacy, and recognition of what God requires of us, through to repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation…

The event is intended to be the beginning of a healing process and provide a foundation for future relationships. We hope it will serve as a public acknowledgement of a time in history when people of African origin were barbarically treated…

This seems unobjectionable (apart from the God bit). But there are complexities here.

First: How is repentance relevant? Is it even possible to repent on behalf of other people? (There’s an interesting echo here of the Christian thing about original sin.)

Second: The stuff about forgiveness is interesting. There is a complicated issue here about harms done to (relatively) distant ancestors. The moral calculus that makes ‘forgiveness’ appropriate is not obvious. Is it the simple fact of harm? This would be odd because it seems to privilege blood lines for reasons that are not immediately obvious. It’s not clear how relatedness on its own puts one in a position to forgive (notwithstanding, of course, that in this particular case there is nobody obvious to forgive). So perhaps instead the thought is that it is a legacy thing: people in the present are often harmed by what has happened in the past. But then what about the person who hasn’t (obviously) been harmed – the millionaire descendent of an enslaved person? Are they entitled to forgive? Their ancestors suffered too.

Third: The thing about reconciliation is perhaps easier to understand. To the extent that society is institutionally racist then reconciliation is arguably desirable. But the link to the slave trade is complex. The problem is causal arrows. The slave trade will be part of the causal nexus of racism, but only part of it. The suggestion that institutional racism is straightforwardly a product of the legacy of slavery is sociologically and psychologically naïve.

I ought to finish by saying that none of this is to underestimate the harms perpetrated by slavery (or indeed the harms that occurred in its aftermath – e.g., the Jim Crow laws). It is simply to question whether notions of culpability are transitive in the way that the organisers of Walk of Witness (sometimes) seem to think.

The truth is I’m not quite sure why this apologising stuff makes me uneasy. But it does.

Moral Sense Test

Still busy putting together the next issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Mathew Iredale’s latest Sci-Phi column is extremely interesting (no surprise there). It’s about moral reasoning, and he mentions (in a part we had to cut for length) a test you can take to be part of a fascinating psychological study into the subject. If you want to take part, have a go here. Better to do so before you read Mathew’s piece.
Even though you don’t get to find out what the conclusions are yet (or even the hypotheses) you can have a pretty good guess, and it gets you thinking about why you make the moral judgements you do: a subject we can no doubt return to later.

Ambassador Dawkins

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Richard Dawkins. But he has the knack of bringing out the worst in atheists. I’ve had a couple of emails recently asking me to pledge to send my member of Parliament a copy of Dawkins’ God Delusion. I’m simply baffled as to why people think this would be a good idea, because the reasons why it is a bad idea are so obvious, for instance:

1) Mature adults rarely change their fundamental commitments about religion. Even if all 650 MPs read the book, the odds of any of them thinking “Oh my God – religion is evil!” is almost zero.
2) The God Delusion has had plenty of coverage. Any MP who knows about it and wants to read it will have done so already. They’re not going to think, “I’d like to read that. £14.99 is a bit pricey though. But maybe someone will get it for me as a present! I’ll wait and see”
3) MPs get tons of email. It will be opened by civil servants and they will probably be sent a standard reply. The book may not even get into the MPs hands.
4) Dawkins is notoriously hard-line and the person least likely to get people to think more kindly of atheism. Indeed, for many he has the effect of making people think atheists are a belligerent bunch of zealots.

Can anyone explain to me why anyone would think this campaign was a good idea? It seems to me that it makes the suggestion to rename atheists “brights” seem more mad than ever.

Placebo Studies

This is terribly depressing.

(And just in case anybody is tempted: No, I don’t think this is the same as teaching theology at university; and no, I’m not going to explain why!)

But I must say that I don’t think much of Professor Colquhoun’s suggestion that complementary medicine courses should be taught under the rubric of sociology. It does make me wonder what the hell he thinks sociology is about…

Anyway, my proposal is that all of these courses should be confined to Placebo Studies departments, which themselves would be incorporated within Wishful Thinking faculties (in which one would also find various postmodernists, dialectical biologists, Marxists and difference feminists).

Edit: Apologies to Professor Colquhoun. The sociology thing was an example of bad reporting. Here’s what he actually said (Hat Tip: Paul Power):

They are not being taught as part of cultural history, or as odd sociological phenomena, but as science”.

So I’m now wondering what the hell the BBC journalist thinks sociology is about…

The (apparent) veridicality of psychotic experience

This is from my book What Scientists Think. I’m talking with Robin Murray, Professor of Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry.

‘So,’ Murray continues, ‘people have these strange experiences, they search for meaning in them, and the delusions arise in the context of their belief system to explain their experiences, and probably to reduce the anxiety associated with having such experiences.’

One interesting thing about this process is that people don’t jump to what would seem to be the obvious conclusion when they have these hallucinations, namely, that they’ve got some kind of mental illness. After all, it probably is the case that most people know that mental illness is associated with hearing voices. Isn’t it a bit odd that they can’t draw upon this knowledge?

‘Well, I can think of a chap who was in the middle of doing a BSc in psychology when he started hallucinating,’ Murray responds. ‘He heard voices speaking to him. He thought that other people were out to harm him. When he recovered, after getting treatment, he said that it was amazing that there he was, a psychologist, and he knew all about the symptoms of schizophrenia, and when it happened to him it never crossed his mind that he might be suffering from the illness. He knew they were out to get him. He knew that these voices were real. Presumably it is something about the nature and intensity of the experiences which makes them so hard to resist…’.

Hat tip: PM

Philosophy, death and other cheery links

An article I strongly recommend you read is by the philosopher and friend of mine, Havi Carel in the Independent. Havi has a rare, almost always terminal, lung disease and this is an incredibly honest and thoughtful piece about coming to terms with it.
The irony is that Havi had an academic interest in philosophy and death way before she learned about her own condition. Indeed, she had not long finished her first monograph, Life and Death in Freud and Heidegger. Havi talks about how philosophy has helped her, and I’m sure it has. But I wonder how much the details of her own research has been of assistance? The things she says about Epicurus and Heidegger, for instance, seem to be points that could made in few words (as Havi does) and useful for all of us.
Because philosophy can help us come to terms with mortality, it doesn’t of course mean that the more philosophy you study, the better you come to terms with it. (Havi doesn’t suggest it does.) To borrow an economics terms, the marginal utility of more philosophical study after a certain initial amount might be quite limited.
People find all sorts of things useful to them when facing death. Some of you may remember Shaun Williams – aka Stamp – whose hilarious cartoons used to grace the pages of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His Buddhist beliefs helped him deal with his terminal leukaemia as well as anyone could. For others, children or grandchildren help them through.
I would like to think philosophy can help us deal with hard things in life, and Havi’s testimony suggests that true. But so can many other things, so we shouldn’t get too precious about how wonderful our subject is.

A couple of more cheery links. You can listen to me talk about my new book with the ever entertaining Stuart Maconie and Laurie Taylor on BBC Radio Four’s Thinking Allowed here. If you’re moved to buy it, however, I should warn you Amazon are out of stock for a few weeks, so you might try one of these alternatives. I’ve also written in defence of lengthy lists of acknowledgements on the Guardian‘s arts blog.

Philippa Foot, Michael Dummett and religious experience

Julian and I have put together another edited collection of interviews – What More Philosophers Think – which will be out in May.

It has an interview with Philippa Foot, which includes the following:

Some of Philippa Foot’s closest philosophical friends have been Roman Catholics. The late Elizabeth Anscombe, her colleague and inspiration, was one, as are the Dummetts. Foot herself, however, is a ‘card-carrying atheist’. I asked her about the role of fundamental, non-philosophical convictions in the formation of philosophical beliefs.

‘Both Elizabeth Anscombe and Michael Dummett are much, much better philosophers than I am,’ she says. ‘You can be a jolly good philosopher and still not be in their league. I once asked Michael, “What happens when your argument goes one way and your religious belief goes the other?” And he said, “How would it be if you knew that something was true? Other things would have to fit with it.” That I take it is the clue, that they think they know that and could as little deny it as that I am talking to someone now.’

This is interesting on many different levels. For example:

  1. It shows (presumably) that religious experience can be veridical (okay – can seem to be veridical);
  2. Which (probably/partly) explains why many religious believers find the argument for God from religious experience to be persuasive (whereas atheists find it baffling that it can be found to be persuasive);
  3. It means that it is possible to be just about as good at philosophy as it is possible to be, and yet still believe in God (which is interesting if belief in God is manifestly absurd);
  4. It gives ammunition to those people who think that (often) there isn’t anything at stake in theological arguments about the existence of God, etc – that it’s just a kind of hand waving;
  5. It makes one think that maybe the Plantinga-like idea that religious believers will give up their beliefs when presented with ‘defeaters’ is somewhat naïve;

The religious experience as veridical thing is interesting. If the experience genuinely has that quality – is it rational to take it at face value? Okay, I guess most people reading this will answer ‘no’ (and tell me off for suggesting such a thing). But I wonder…

Isn’t there an argument against epiphenomenalism that goes something like that the idea that mental things have no causal efficacy is so rebarbative when one holds it up against our experience of the world that it simply cannot be true? I’m sure Ted Honderich once said something like that in an interview.

[Epiphenomenalism] is essentially Huxley’s nineteenth century view, which is not a denial of consciousness, but a denial that it does anything, that it is explanatory. It is the view that although the mental property exists, it is just a side-effect. And that, I put it to you, is unbelievable.

Mind you, that’s not really an argument at all.

Dawkins, Fred Hoyle and ‘The Evolution Delusion’

Okay, so here’s a thought experiment. Imagine that something like this is true of the world: Most people believe in evolution (in the sense of common ancestors, genetic inheritance, etc). It is also happens that horrible things are done in the name of evolution (not because any logical connection between evolutionary beliefs and horrible things; it’s just a sociological fact about this world that people offer evolution-type justifications for the horrible things they do). However, there is a curious thing about this common belief in evolution. It holds that evolutionary change is random. So it is kind of Fred Hoyle writ large: you know, evolution proceeds by means of a series of tornados assembling (the biological equivalent of) jumbo-jets out of the materials of a junk yard. So there is no real understanding of natural selection, and the efficacy of tiny cumulative changes.

Now in this world there is a fellow – let’s call him Dick Dawkins – who believes that all this evolution stuff is nonsense. He’s a theist, and for a variety of reasons – e.g., fossil rabbits in the Precambrian (aliens put them there to confuse us), direct experience of God in prayer, ruminations on the ontological proof (hey, come on, this is a thought experiment!) – is convinced of his theism. So he writes a book – and it’s called… wait for it – yup, ‘The Evolution Delusion’. In this book, he tears apart the Fred Hoyle-type idea of evolution; he also scorns the idea that genetic drift could account for the emergence of the eye; that sympatric speciation could account for the entirety of biological diversity (for some reason notions of allopatry, parapatry, etc. haven’t reached the masses, whereas ruminations on sympatry are common); and he writes about other things that I can’t think of at the moment.

This book sells hundreds of thousands of copies. But it attracts fierce criticism. The defenders of evolution complain that whilst Dick Dawkins’s arguments are well-put, he’s criticising a version of evolutionary theory that sophisticated believers in evolution don’t accept anyway. He doesn’t mention natural selection, for example; he ignores allopatry and parapatry as explanations of speciation; he underplays the extent to which the fossil record supports common descent; and so on.

His supporters reply variously: his arguments are not directed towards sophisticated believers, they are aimed at the most common beliefs about evolution, and he correctly criticises these beliefs (which is right – he does correctly criticise these beliefs); horrible things happen in the name of evolution (which in this world is true), therefore, there are good utilitarian reasons for the strategy Dick Dawkins employs; and anyway, common culture is suffused with references to evolution (of the Hoyle kind), so it is entirely reasonable for him to redress the balance.

Are Dick Dawkins’s supporters wrong to make these arguments? Dawkins’s arguments against the view of evolution which prevails in this world are on the mark. He has good utilitarian reasons for making these arguments. And, in public discourse terms, his opponents normally make all the running. Is it okay that he doesn’t deal with the more sophisticated ideas about evolution?

Of course any responses to these questions should not themselves beg the question. In other words, it’s no good simply replying – ‘Ah, but Dick Dawkins isn’t justified because he’s wrong’. Well, you can say that, but it misses the interesting point about this thought experiment, and remember in this particular world Dick Dawkins has what he takes to be good reasons for his theism (remember aliens have put rabbit fossils in the Precambrian!).

I should also mention that Dick Dawkins tends to say something about fairy-tales when he is criticised for his strategy. But I have no view about that…