Monthly Archives: May 2007

A strange kind of belief

I’ve been musing on the nature of belief – actually I was wondering about the ontology of beliefs (is this the kind of thing that it makes sense to wonder about – no doubt there is a literature on the question) – and I was thinking about something that Norman Levitt said to me when I interviewed him for What Scientists Think. He said something to the effect that he didn’t take opinion polling about religious belief in the States at face value because he thought that people often answered in a kind of habitual fashion (BHA please take note!); so they might say that they believe in God or angels or some such, but this doesn’t necessarily add up to much in terms of having an effect on their lives, etc.

So I got to thinking about a conversation I once had with my partner’s father. Ostensibly he was (is) a devout Catholic. He had gone to Church twice a week for fifty years. My partner was sent to Catholic schools (where she was terrorised by assorted nuns). He would attend confession. So the whole caboodle, basically.

Anyway, he was musing about death. I think a friend of his had just died or something. He was talking in a completely unselfconscious way. (This is important) He wasn’t monitoring what he was saying. He was talking as he was driving. And he said that he’d always been frightened of death, that he didn’t like thinking about it, but that he had taken a new view since he had had a couple of minor operations, and he had decided that being dead would probably be like it was when you’re under anaesthetic: there would be nothing, and it really wouldn’t be a problem…

So, of course, I did a double-take at this, and said something like, “But Roy, you’re a pretty orthodox Catholic! You believe in life after death, don’t you?”

“Oh yes, so I do” was his reply.

But it’s a rather strange belief if you can forget that you have it…

More generally, when you begin to think about the nature of belief carefully, then complication upon complication soon pile up. I’ll probably talk about some of the complications in another post. But there are a couple of more obvious questions first:

1. How much religious belief is of this kind?

2. Is it the case that there is something about the Western experience which means that religious belief rooted in the Western tradition is likely to be less intense or (let’s say) efficacious than say Islamic religious belief?

Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (Digested)

Continuing the series in which philosophical classics are reduced to their elements as a somewhat dubious service to students and scholars.

#4: Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature

Tis to be observed, that nothing be known to the mind of man that is neither an impression; being a perception or sensation of the body or mind, of a lively or vivid nature; or, contrariwise, an idea; being a fainter or less lively representation of an impression; or a new idea comprising a composite of simpler ideas derived from simpler impressions; and that the mind contains nothing that is not owed to these perceptions of the mind, namely, ideas and impressions, among the number of which cannot be found any simple impression of cause and effect, without which the idea of cause and effect, which with resemblance and contiguity in time and space completes all the ways in which ideas may be related one to the other, having no corresponding impression, requires us to locate the source of the idea in the operation of the mind itself, leading to a scepticism which is consequent rather than antecedent; and mitigated by the need to get on and play billiards.
If this doesn’t fly hot off the presses, then I’m not Scottish!

Is God a relativist?

I’ve just had an article published in Dialogue, a journal for schools, on relativism. What people usually mean by relativism is, I think, pernicious nonsense, which encourages the myth that no view is superior to any other. But in a deeper, subtler sense of the word, I think relativism is probably true, in some non-trivial sense. It just has nothing to do with nonsense about “anything goes” and “Science is just another story”.
In my piece, I point out something that can’t possibly be original, but is not stated as often as you might expect. I’d be interested to know of any major precedents:

Less often discussed is the problem that, actually, all the evidence points to the fact that God, if he exists, is the greatest relativist of them all.
Let’s say, for example, that you are a Christian. In the Book of Leviticus, there are all sorts of bizarre sounding rules, laid down by God, which Christians no longer feel themselves obliged to follow. These include the death penalty for homosexuals and children who do not respect their parents, bans on eating hares and calamari, prohibitions on men trimming their beards and approval for slavery. Most Christians believe, however, that the New Testament supersedes the old and that these rules no longer apply. What this adds up to is the belief that what was wrong for the ancient Israelites is not wrong for modern Christians, on God’s command. That seems to me like a clear combination of relativism and the belief that God’s will underpins ethics.
In many ways this should not be surprising, since many have argued that the trouble with divine command theory – the idea that what is right or wrong is what God commands – is that it leaves open the possibility that God could command what is currently wrong to be right and vice-versa. Christian texts seem to provide evidence that this is precisely what Christians should believe.
There are many people who also, rather hopefully in my view, hold to the view that God makes himself manifest to people in different ways, and so it’s not the case that only one of the world’s religions is right and the rest are wrong, but that all are right in their own ways. But again, since they make different moral demands of people, if that is true, God must be a relativist, for he requires different things from Jews, Hinduism, Sikhs, Muslims. Christians and members of any other religion.
The strange thing is that I have often found religious people very sanguine about the idea that, as circumstances change, God might require different things of different people in different places at different times. But these same people are horrified by the idea of relativism. There seems to me to be a very clear contradiction between these two sets of attitudes.

Descartes’ Meditations (Digested)

Continuing what, improbably, could turn out to be a series after all, in which philosophical classics are reduced to their elements as a service to students and scholars.

#3: Descartes’ Meditations

Realised that I’ve never examined the foundations of my beliefs and so I could be wrong about everything. To be honest, I don’t seriously believe I am wrong about anything, but I thought it might be fun to prove it. So, I asked myself, how might I be really, really wrong? Only if something totally far-fetched has happened, such as that I’m actually dreaming, mad or deceived by an evil demon. Still, that’s technically possible so I went to bed feeling progress had been made.

Woke up and realised one thing was certain after all: I am, I exist. (Note to self: catchier slogan needed.) Got carried away and convinced myself I was therefore non-physical and indivisible. Another productive day!

Having my own existence as the only certainty is proving to be rather limiting. Need to find some reason to think other things exist too. A benevolent God would do the job, but can’t come up with proof for his existence. Borrow argument from Aquinas instead. Hope no one notices.

I’m not exactly sure I remember what I’ve been doing all day. Probably no one else will either.

Looking back, Aquinas’s God argument seems a bit lame. Try to think of another. Fail. Steal one more proof from Aquinas instead.

Really need to wrap this thing up today. The hypothesis that God’s existence makes everything trustworthy seems a bit hard to swallow since he seems to let us make so many mistakes. Conclude that he must be doing the best he can. Also, decide that Monday’s doubt that I could be dreaming is silly. Of course I’m not! Dreams are incoherent whereas my arguments make perfect sense.
So, since I exist, God exists, and he wouldn’t trick us, it seems safe to conclude that all is more or less as it appears to be. What a relief!

Bought some lovely gladioli at the garden centre.

Opinions and expertise

At the Bristol Festival of Ideas, I chaired an event in which the psychologists Oliver James took part. James is not well known in the US, but is pretty famous over here in the UK. Although some think of him as primarily a media personality, his books, although aimed at the general reader, are actually stuffed with heavy-duty research.
After the event I asked him about his general hostility to the idea that hereditary factors are pretty important to mental illness. His view is that the genetic factors are generally pretty insignificant. This seems a bit contrarian, since in some conditions, such as bi-polar disorder, the consensus seems to be that hereditary factors are very important.
James argued that the evidence for this is actually very slim. Most is based on twin studies, but these contain a basic methodical flaw: they assume that non-identical twins have identical upbringings. But since they differ from an early age, this is a very questionable assumption, Think of how young children are when people start to label them as “the quiet one” or “the difficult one” and so on. There are some studies on identical twins separated at birth, but not enough, believes James, for any sound conclusions to be drawn.
Also, the mere fact that people with parents who suffer from a mental illness are more likely to suffer it themselves is neutral as to the causes of this: the explanation could be genetic or to do with upbringing.
James went further and said that work on the human genome project was blowing the hereditary case out of the water, as scientists were repeatedly failing to find the expected clear links between certain sets of genes and various mental illnesses.
If all this is true, why is James’s view a minority one? Well, one reasons, he says, is that the whole field of psychiatry, and its pharmaceutical industry funders, is geared towards uncovering physical causes that can be treated by drugs. This is not a conspiracy theory, just as example of “group think”. Back in the sixties, or example, most research was funded by the state and the academic consensus was very much that environment was all.
All very interesting. So what should I conclude? Well I also know that James has a political hatred of aggressive forms of capitalism, so I might factor into my assessment the judgement that people on the left tend to prefer environmental causes to biological ones anyway. But that wouldn’t be a good enough reason to dismiss what he says.
The truth is that I should probably not believe anything more than very tentatively. Yet “intelligent people” are often expected to have opinions on a whole range of topics they are not experts in. Sometimes you just have to make a judgement because action depends on it: does homeopathy work? If you’re trying to decide how to treat your illness, you have to decide what you think.
But do I need to have an opinion on the relative importance of hereditary and environment in mental illness? No. And nor should I.
Incidentally, I do sometimes hear people who are very confident on their opinions on matters they are not experts in saying, “I do know quite a lot about it, actually.” This seems to me to be very relative though. Normally, they read something, develop an interest and then read some more. Furthermore, their initial route in tends to set the course of their future reading, so there is always a risk that they get the same view reinforced. Also, with no real training in the methods of the discipline, they possibly lack the intellectual tools to assess the claims they are reading anyway. They are almost certainly less well-equipped than someone who has taken an undergraduate degree in the subject, and people don’t usually think that particularly qualifies you to have a strong opinion.
There’s a Clint Eastwood film in which his character says, “opinions are like assholes: Everybody’s got one.” True, and, I might add, assholes should not be used all the time.

Bad businesses and boycotts

An article on the long-running Nestle Boycott in today’s Guardian led someone to email me asking if it had altered my opinion on the subject. In fact, all I had said about the Nestle Boycott in a previous article was:

The boycott, of course, is over Nestlé’s sale of formula milk in the developing world, which it is claimed leads to more sickness in infants. But whatever the original rationale for the boycott, it has become an article of faith for many for whom complying with World Health Organisation guidelines, to the WHO’s satisfaction, is not enough to remove Nestlé’s guilt.

I stand by my main claim that “[the boycott] has become an article of faith for many”. Joanna Moorhead’s piece was a worthwhile contribution to the debate but didn’t actually manage to pin much on Nestle. She has one person claiming the reps are aggressive and give gifts, and much of the other stuff she mentions isn’t Nestle’s doing. She is thus forced to make quite a lot of tear off pads Nestle gives doctors which have pictures of products on them, even though these are used by doctors prescribing formula milk, where a picture might not be a bad idea in countries where literacy is low.
The piece also avoids the issue that not every mother is able to breastfeed. Formula milk remains a second-best option, which is why the World Health Organisation code doesn’t want to ban it. So when a doctor is quoted as saying “‘Do you know how many breastfed babies are admitted here with diarrhoea? The number is almost zero,” he may be right, but since breastfeeding is not always possible, it’s hardly a clincher.
Does all this mean Nestle is blameless? I wouldn’t go that far. It’s hard to get impartial information because almost all of it comes from people who have a strong investment, emotional or financial, in being firmly on one side or the other. From what I can tell, I think singling Nestle out for boycott seems to me to be a case of picking an easy, big target, not proportionate moral outrage. Campaigning (and donating money for) more clean water, a better WHO code and better education are all more important, I’d say, than not buying a KitKat.
Having said all that, my initial comment was not intended to dismiss all the claims of the Baby Milk Action group. I made it because I think that people often do stick to a cause for so long it becomes an article of faith; and it is important that they are prepared to change their minds when the facts do, and to praise big corporations when they do the right thing. If businesses feel they can’t win whatever they do, they’ll give up on all attempts at being ethical, which would be bad, even if these attempts were motivated by something other than altruism.
I’m ambivalent about Nestle rather than a supporter of it. I also respect anyone who maintains there is still a strong need to lobby them, if that is based on up to date information and not a quasi-religious adherence to a movement.
But here’s the hard question about Nestle which relates to the original purpose of my article: if you believe that what really matters is the welfare of people in the developing world, why not both praise Nestle when it introduces lines that do that (such as its Fairtrade Partner blend coffee) and criticise when it continues to sell formula milk, if you believe that is the wrong policy? Why must everyone be either a good guy or a bad guy? Bush was rightly mocked for the simplistic nonsense of “you are either with us or with the terrorists” but the same kind of black and white thinking often seems to infect discussion about businesses like Nestle.
(For discussion, I’d rather we didn’t try to get to the truth about Nestle and baby milk but dealt with the general principle of boycotts and their scope.)

Aristotle’s Ethics (Digested)

Continuing the occasional after a gap short enough that maybe “series” is the right word after all title series, in which philosophical classics are reduced to their elements as a service to students and scholars.

#2: Aristotle’s Ethics
What is the good life? Some say this, some say that, some say something completely different. The point is, they’re all a bit right and they’re all a bit wrong. It’s hard to be more precise than this because ethics isn’t precise and wise people know this, so never, ever, ask me to be less vague or ambiguous.
A good life is lived according to one’s nature. Vegetables grow, so a good vegetable life is one in which it grows in a vegetably way. Animals move, so a good animal life is one in which it moves in an animally way. Fox News lobotomises, so a good Fox news programme is one which lobotomises in a foxy way. Humans think, so a good human life is one in which it thinks in a humanly way. We also kill, act with prejudice, lust, look after number one and so on, but that doesn’t define our nature, because I don’t want it to.
What is virtue? It is finding the mean. For example, generosity isn’t the opposite of greed, it’s the inbetweeny virtue between the opposite vices of greed and profligacy. Courage is the mean between rashness and cowardice. Writing well is the mean between writing badly and writing in a way that is so good it’s bad. Having good judgement is the mean between being a bad judge and what might be called over judging, if you were foolish enough to take this mean idea to its logical conclusion. You may think this golden mean think doesn’t work all the time, but it’s not precise and only stupid people expect too much precision, remember.
A few other questions answered. How many friends should you have? Not too many, not too few, but enough. When can you say if a person’s life has ever been truly happy? Who knows? Why am I renowned as a subtle thinker when I’m really just a soggy one? Well, some say this, some say that, some say something else. I say they’re all right. And wrong.

Dostoevsky and the contrarian impulse

I’ve taken to listening to audio books during my daily run. It takes my mind off the pain. Well it doesn’t really, but I keep telling myself that it might.

Currently I’m halfway through Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I can’t say it is much to my taste. I find myself squawking ‘Get over it already’ a lot (yes, I become an American twenty-something when I run). But I did notice that the book kind of relishes the contrarian impulse. Here’s a bit (he’s talking about a world governed with mathematical exactness by logic and reason).

Of course there is no guaranteeing..that it will not be, for instance, frightfully dull then (for what will one have to do when everything will be calculated and tabulated), but on the other hand everything will be extraordinarily rational. Of course boredom may lead you to anything. It is boredom sets one sticking golden pins into people, but all that would not matter. What is bad…is that I dare say people will be thankful for the gold pins then… I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: ‘I say, gentleman, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!’ That again would not matter, but what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers – such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason, which, one would think, was hardly worth mentioning: that is, that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests, and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea). One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy – is that very ‘most advantageous advantage’ which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms. And how do these wiseacres know that man wants a normal, a virtuous choice? What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. (Notes from Underground, Part 1, Chapter VII)

This business of acting simply in order to keep boredom at bay. He’s quite wise about that.

Steve Fuller

On Wednesday night I chaired a talk by Steve Fuller at the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Fuller may be known to many of you as the guy who gives credence to Intelligent Design theory through the obfuscations and scepticism of Science and Technology Studies. He is famous for speaking as a witness in the Kitzmiller trial, over the teaching of intelligent design in schools, on the wrong (i.e ID) side of the debate.
Well, talking to Fuller it was clear that whatever you think of him, it’s just not at all obvious that in the battle of reason against nonsense, he’s on the other side. Here are a few reasons why.
First, in the trial he was what is known as a rebuttal witness. Although called by the ID team, his job was not in any way to support ID but to rebut claims made by the other team. The reason he agreed to do this was that he thought those claims were weak, poorly argued and certainly wouldn’t pass muster in say, a peer reviewed journal. Now it seems to me that if you are committed to sound reasoning, this is perfectly respectable thing to do. Indeed, not to speak out against bad arguments because they come from the right team is deeply antithetical to the pro-reason cause. (Regular readers will be reminded of something here.)
Fuller was advised not even to read the textbooks the ID side were promoting before the trial, and he didn’t. When he eventually did, he could see they were bad as clearly as anyone else.
You might say that Fuller was being naïve as this debate is deeply political. Fuller would certainly agree with the latter part: part of his programme as a professor in STS is to uncover the various different, often political agenda, that underly what are on the surface, officially purely intellectual debates. Should he not then have realised that by giving evidence at the trial he was giving succour to the creationists and fundamentalists who were using ID as a trojan horse? If you think this should have stopped him exposing bad reasoning, then already you’re committed to an at best sophisticated and at worst contradictory pro-truth attitude. It seems that a committment to truth can be tactically suspended in the name of the greater campaign for truth to prevail in the end.
As it happens, Fuller is sanguine about the people behind ID, reminding us that Darwinism had some pretty unsavoury advocates in its early days. The fact that dodgy people are behind an idea is not reason enough to dismiss it, and indeed to do so is a recognised fallacy (guilt by association).
Fuller wasn’t always convincing. He argued that even evolutionists use a design-infused language. I thought this was a red herring: the key issue is whether people talk of design with the implication that an external, supernatural intelligent agent is required to intervene to bring about evolutionary change. For all his examples of evolutionists using design-laden language, I just didn’t think he showed that, or could. Since this point looks like its central to his forthcoming book, Dissent over Descent, that looks pretty serious.
But overall, Fuller is clearly a guy committed to arguing things through in an intelligent way. Like many people who are of the “wrong school” – social constructionists, deconstructionists, post-modernists or whatever – I think that he turns out to be just as fundamentally committed to the values of open rational debate as anyone else. For that reason, even if he is wrong, I don’t like him or people like him being branded as enemies of rationality.

Ethics, the internet and sexual imagination

This is interesting.

Here’s something I wrote about the issue a number of years ago.


Operation Ore is big news here in the UK. It is, in the words of the BBC, the largest police hunt of internet paedophiles there has ever been in this country. It started after the United States Postal Inspection Service passed to the UK police a list of more than 7000 people who had allegedly used their credit cards in order to access web sites featuring child pornography. To date, some 1600 people have been arrested in the course of the investigation.

It is, of course, a good thing if this investigation prevents the occurrence of harm to children. Nevertheless, it does bring to light a number of interesting and difficult questions about ethics, the internet and sexual imagination.

Paedophilia is normally taken to mean the sexual attraction of adults to children. The first point to make, therefore, is the obvious one that viewing child pornography is not synonymous with paedophilia. Indeed, it is difficult to see how it is possible to draw any general conclusions about a person from the simple fact that they have looked at pornographic images of children. Consider, for example, that such a person: might be a regular user of child pornography and also might pursue face-to-face sexual encounters with children; might have viewed these images out of curiosity, been shocked to find that they were sexually aroused by them, but have no intention of looking at them again; or might have looked at these images because they were curious about the internet, but have no particular interest in pornography.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the internet is a new technology. Prior to its advent, possession of child pornography, correctly or incorrectly, was widely perceived to be a good indicator of a propensity to engage in the physical abuse of children. But the internet has removed many of the barriers which in the past might have deterred relatively casual “pornophiles” from amassing collections of photographs. Easier access means that increasing numbers of the simply curious will have viewed this kind of material. In sum, then, the relationship between the use of child pornography, paedophilia and child abuse is complex.

However, it is an important point that the absence of a sexual response when viewing pornographic images of children is not sufficient to guarantee that this activity is morally acceptable. There are apparently strong arguments which suggest that simply viewing child pornography is a moral wrong. For example, one such argument is that the supply of these kinds of images follows the demand for them, and that if people view these images – certainly if they pay for them – they are part of a process which necessarily involves children being harmed.

This is a persuasive argument, but it has its problems. For instance, whilst it is plausibly levelled at the person who regularly downloads child pornography from a commercial web site, it is much less convincing when applied to the person who occasionally downloads a picture from an internet newsgroup.

Also, there is a suspicion that the primary function of these kinds of arguments, regardless of their veracity, is to provide a rational underpinning for prior moral convictions. In other words, even if there was no harm associated with adults finding children sexually arousing, people would still think it wrong; but arguments which show that there is harm associated with these desires perform the useful function of solidifying this baseline moral commitment.

This line of thought raises another thorny issue which is integral to the debate about pornography on the internet. This concerns whether sexual imagination, in and of itself, is the kind of thing about which it is sensible to make moral judgements. For example, if a person fantasises that they are a rapist are they, for those thoughts alone, deserving of our moral condemnation?

Yes, is the answer suggested by the philosopher Gordon Graham, in his book The Internet: a philosophical enquiry. He argues that the causing of an outward harm is not the only mark of a moral wrong. “In an older language,” he writes, “there are gross appetites and interests. People can resist them, fail to do so or wilfully indulge them. Which they do is relevant to moral character, just as whether people’s thoughts about others are charitable or uncharitable, contemptuous or sympathetic, are morally relevant facts even if their outward treatment does not specially reflect these attitudes.”

As ever, though, these arguments are not conclusive. Most significantly, they appear to presuppose what they need to demonstrate; namely, that there are such things as gross appetites and interests where there is no outward harm. Also, it seems possible to come to the opposite conclusion to the one reached by Graham. For example, it doesn’t seem counter-intuitive to argue that the person consumed by uncharitable feelings, who nevertheless behaves charitably, in some sense behaves heroically.

The fact that there are complicated arguments to be had about the internet, pornography and sexual imagination in no way mitigates the harm that some children suffer at the hands of pornographers and predatory child molesters. However, what it does mean is that it isn’t possible to arrive at the truth about the internet, child pornography and its consumers by uncritically taking the tabloid line, and indeed it seems the BBC line, that Operation Ore is about unmasking more than 7000 dangerous perverts.