Sunday, January 30, 2011

presentism and the conflict thesis

Even the most well-founded, well-argued, and well-intentioned ideas about science and religion are liable to later change or eventual rejection. The same is true for historiographical positions, including, of course, the complexity thesis itself.
David Wilson, 'The historiography of science and religion'

Wilson's essay in the Science and Religion collection is certainly more thought-provoking than the previous one, though the view is much the same - that a conflict thesis has operated largely among non-historians, and particularly among scientists, but that historians of science have largely come round to a 'complexity thesis'. Again, though, its many examples point to a complexity of understandings of both science and religion between individuals, and often within particular individuals, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The fundamental philosophical issues are not discussed.
Having said that, Wilson does highlight some important themes. Particularly pertinent is the issue of 'presentism'. Wilson explains it in contrast to contextualism. I'll provide a lengthy explanatory quote from early in the essay:

Although historians have espoused various approaches to the past, it will make our subject more manageable if we concentrate on the polar opposites around which views have tended to cluster. One approach has been to examine past ideas as much as possible in their own context, without either judging their long-term validity or making the discussion directly relevant to present issues. Another approach has been to study past ideas from the perspective of the present, taking full advantage of the hindsight provided by later knowledge to judge which ideas have proven to be valid. The second approach has apparent advantages. It does not exclude current knowledge that can assist us in the historical task. It also keeps present issues to the fore by insisting that historians draw lessons from the past that are relevant to current issues. However, historians have tended to regard the second approach as precariously likely to lead to distortion of the past in the service of present concerns. Dismissing this as 'presentism', therefore, historians of science have come to favor the first, or contextualist, approach.
 Presentism isn't a term I've heard before, but the problem is familiar enough. we find it in fiction too, of course, when we find modern writers of historical romances getting not just the tone but the whole seventeenth century context wrong - sometimes deliberately. Or we have new dramatic interpretations of such perennial faves as Jane Austen which 'tease out' feminist undertones claimed to be found in the original. It raises the obvious question of whether we can ever really recapture the context of the times [I think of Borges' character writing an exact replica of Don Quixote which critics find disturbingly other than the previous version]. Here, though, the distortions of presentism are said to feed into a progressivist view of science and knowledge, what historian Herbert Butterfield called 'the whig interpretation of history' [he published a book with this title in 1931]. 
Were I a historian, I would heed the warnings, while also recognising, for example, that the rigorous exclusion of non-natural explanations in the sciences [meaning, essentially, a tightening of the definition of scientific praxis] has been a great boon in the advancement of knowledge over the past few hundred years, an advancement that has been truly sensational. We should indeed guard against what Maurice Mandelbaum called 'the retrospective fallacy', in which we lose sight of the groping, uncertain nature of the past as it was lived for those who felt it as present and future. For that would be to destroy empathy and to judge harshly. Many great past scientists 'transcended' their times, but only to a limited extent, and to see them as our contemporaries would be to do them a great disservice. Sometimes, in reading them or reading about them, we wish we could free them from the context of their times and show them how times have changed, partly as a result of their own achievements. That's only human, but it's fantasy, after all. 
So, it's true that the earliest practitioners of what we 'retrospectively' call modern science were not atheists, secret or otherwise, and that they were seeking to comprehend the glory of their god's creation, but I'm not so sure that it's a 'presentist' distortion to point out that they were, in fact, contributing to a loosening of the grip of theology and religion upon our modern understanding of how the world works, to a degree that, a few hundred years later, that grip is but a memory trace in the collective scientific consciousness. Or is that going a bit too far? 
Again the point I'm making is that there's plenty of complexity in the relations between and among scientists and believers, but science and religion have ceased to mix sociably since science has refused to, or forgotten to, keep to its circumscribed territory, and has shrugged off its dress-up as some deity's hand-maiden.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

more on the history of Jesus

how old was this corpse?

But thou, Bethlehem, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel.
Micah 5:2

I try to limit myself to reading six books [slowly] at a time, but I must admit that two books occupying me at present are not on the six-list, which is all a bit of a worry. One is the collection of essays I've been criticising, and the other is a new addition to my library, Robin Lane Fox's The unauthorized version: truth and fiction in the Bible [1991]. I've had a few things to say already about Fox's monumental work of scholarship, Pagans and Christians [1985], which provided a fantastically detailed background to the world that Christian belief was disgorged into, as well as a rich account of the differences between 'pagan' and Christian belief, and how the different beliefs interacted. However, I found the work heavy-going at times because of my unfamiliarity with much of the material. I have no such problem, so far, with The unauthorized version, the first chapter of which throws fascinating light on the two creation stories in Genesis, and the jumbled nativity stories in the gospels [largely as result of ensuring that Jesus of Nazareth should be connected, in birth, with Bethlehem, to fulfil the prophecy from Micah]. The second of these themes covers much the same ground as my two-part, and unfinished, post 'how real was their Jesus?', but of course Fox is a much more thorough scholar than I am. Still, he only focuses on a few problems, such as the census, the different birth datings of 'Matthew' and 'Luke', the star and the maji, Jesus's age at his death, and the date of the crucifixion. He doesn't enter into the problem of the massacre of the innocents, the genealogies, the miracles and so on. Some of these are hardly worth refuting of course, but I'm surprised that, as a historian, he didn't get stuck into the massacre of the innocent legend [maybe later?], and 'Matthew's' penchant for linking Jesus's story to Old Testament prophecy - though he did mention one that I wasn't aware of. Matthew is at pains to mention that the star guided the cognoscenti to Bethlehem, and I wrote about modern astronomical exploration of this star recently, but I didn't realize that Matthew may well have been providing a link to Numbers 24:17 - 'a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel', again revealing that gospeller's concern to present Jesus as a king rather than a god.
Considering the endless disputation over such matters, Fox does occasionally surprise with definite conclusions. He's convinced he's found the right dating of the crucifixion - at the end of March in the year 36, the last year of Pontius Pilate's governorship. He works it out by the Passovers in the gospel of John, as well as from the described incarceration of John the Baptist, at which point Jesus's 'ministry' began [Mark 1:14]. John the Baptist was jailed for criticising Herod Antipas's marriage to Herodias, and his consequent abandonment of his first wife, events described in Josephus with enough detail that a date can apparently be put on it. There are three distinct Passovers mentioned, and Fox believes they were consecutive, covering, essentially, the three years of Jesus's ministry. However, he inclines to the belief that Jesus was older than popular mythology has it, leaning heavily on a passage in John [8:57], and inclining also, it appears, to the view that the star of Bethlehem was in fact Halley's comet, definitively dated as appearing in Rome in 12BCE.
Anyway, it's all good fun, and just what the doctor ordered as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

'The conflict of science and religion' - a critique

bulldog Huxley

For nearly a century, the notion of mutual hostility [the Draper-White thesis] has been routinely employed in popular science writing, by the media, and in a few older histories of science. Deeply embedded in the culture of the West, it has proven extremely hard to dislodge. Only in the last thirty years of the twentieth century did historians of science mount a sustained attack on the thesis, and only gradually has a wider public begun to recognise its deficiencies.
Colin Russell 'The conflict of science and religion'

Colin Russell's contribution to the book of essays I've been reading was a dismal one, as I will show. His bias struck me as so clear and manifest that I had to check out his bio. He's very much an elder, born in 1928, and he's been admirably prolific in the promotion of science and its history, especially in chemistry, his chosen field. However, as I suspected, he was at one time president of Christians in Science, and vice-president of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. Always useful to have these things out in the open.

From the quotation above, taken from early in the essay, one might expect a laying out of the deficiencies of the conflict thesis, but it doesn't happen - apart from the usual stuff about the religiosity of Boyle, Newton, Pascal, Gassendi, Faraday and so on, none of which is dwelt on in any detail. It might've been useful for example, to be made aware that Blaise Pascal, a mathematical wunderkind, gave up doing mathematics because he believed the severe migraines he suffered from were his god's punishment for indulging in such a frivolous pastime. We now know, though, that Pascal's sufferings were due to a deformed skull, probably resulting from a forceps delivery. If only Pascal had been armed with such scientific knowledge, instead of the religious 'knowledge' he thought he had direct from his god, his own personal history would have been much altered.

Russell tries to be systematic in his undermining of the conflict thesis, giving six 'problems' with it, which I'll summarize.
1. The conflict thesis hinders the recognition of other relationships between science and religion.
2. It ignores the many documented examples of science and religion operating in close alliance.
3. It enshrines a flawed view of history in which 'progress' or [in this case] 'victory' has been portrayed as inevitable.
4. It obscures the rich diversity of ideas in both science and religion.
5. It engenders a distorted view of disputes resulting from causes other than those of religion versus science.
6. It exalts minor squabbles, or even differences of opinion, to the status of major conflicts.

So let's look at these problems. As to [1], what about these other relationships? It's true that, in earlier times, much scientific work, and science-talk, was conducted within a religious framework. The writings of Francis Bacon provide a good example. Nowadays, though, science and religion have little to say to each other, and I don't see any harmonious relations in the offing. Again, Russell avoids looking at science and religion as 'ways of knowing' [he doesn't ever attempt a definition of either], he just talks about relations between scientists and believers, which is an entirely different matter. The same goes for [2], he really means scientists and believers operating in close alliance, by avoiding all the issues.
Problem 3 is of course familiar, and more or less identical to what Marilynne Robinson says in her talk, in which she accuses 'new atheists' of having a defunct enlightenment view of science, in which mystery after mystery will fall like so many dominoes before the winds of scientific explanation. Exactly how flawed is this view, though? The scientific explanatory framework does seem to be cumulative. The mystery of lightning gets explained by theories which gradually become more comprehensive, covering electricity, magnetism, the behaviour of matter inside stars and so forth. Scientific analysis has also proved fruitful in categorising the kinds of supernatural concepts that are found to be viable for religious practice, and in detecting patterns in religious thinking. I don't think victory over religious modes of thought and practice is inevitable, but I do think it is desirable, because religious ways of thinking profoundly interfere with a comprehensive understanding of how the world works - precisely because it provides an alternative, competing view, which is inadequate and stunting, but highly appealing to some.
Problem 4 speaks of diversity, but scientific diversity is necessarily circumscribed by the need for hypotheses to pass certain crucial and stringent tests. Religious or theological diversity has no such tests - which is precisely why heresies are dealt with so harshly. Orthodoxy can only maintain itself through repression, and through the gaining of popular support [often through a kind of demagoguery that whips up a frenzy of opposition to 'heretics']. Russell, though, is again largely speaking of personal approaches to religion. He does claim that it was only the Catholic Church, and then not uniformly, that sought to condemn Galileo, while the Protestants had no problem with heliocentrism. This may well be so - and after all, accepting heliocentrism doesn't really concede much, for scriptures really have little to say about the relationship between the earth and the sun, but the problem really is whether scriptures are acceptable as a way of knowing how the world works. It's the methodologies being developed by Galileo and other pioneers that were the real challenge to the religious, and this was a challenge perhaps barely recognized at the time. Russell uses much the same argument regarding the response to Darwin [though without the sharp division between Catholic and Protestant], but he has nothing whatever to say about the challenge to human 'in God's image' specialness that Darwin's theory represented. It's hard to understand how so central a point could be so completely overlooked.
Problem number 5 is one well-recognized, I think, by many observers. The rise of anti-scientific fundamentalism, particularly in the US in recent decades, cannot be attributed wholly to religious belief, few of us are unaware of this. The causes are complex and multi-faceted, and have much to do with a new-found 'tradition' of insularity, and the indoctrination of children. However, religion has always provided a haven for this kind of inward-looking community spirit, which is why cults are perennially attractive to the culturally alienated.
Problem number 6 is perhaps a matter of opinion. Russell it seems wants to minimise the issues involved because he wants to see a harmonious relationship between religion and science, something that he has perhaps managed in his own life. However, I suspect that he has achieved this by ignoring much that looms large in those with a different perspective. I cannot say more as I don't have any idea what Russell is left with in his religion if he accepts the findings of biology, genetics, cosmology and the methodologically rigorous analysis of texts presumed to be sacred.
In his conclusion, Russell presumes that he has proven the 'warfare model' to be manifestly inadequate, and he gives the example of Thomas Huxley as an explanation for its continued success:
By establishing the conflict thesis, [Huxley and his friends] could perpetuate a myth as part of their strategy to enhance the public appreciation of science. Thus, Huxley could write, with a fine disregard for what history records: 'Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that wherever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter have been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched if not slain'.
This is surely the shout of science triumphant, and I'm pretty sure that Russell quotes it with a sneaking admiration in spite of his criticism. And the question of whether Huxley really did disregard history, in its broad sweep, is far from decided.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

science and religion again

Andrew Dickson White - early proponent of the conflict thesis

The Draper-White thesis, as it has come to be known, was enormously influential. For the past century it has been the predominant view of the relationship of science and religion among scientists and laymen alike. It wedded a triumphalist view of science with a patronizing view of religion. Popular misconceptions doubtless underlay the widespread presumption that religion was opposed to science. Grounded in faith, religion seemed bound to suffer when confronted by science, which was, of course, based on fact.
Gary Ferngren, 'Introduction', Science & religion: a historical introduction

Being dirt poor, I can't afford to buy the latest texts, assuming there are any, on the topics that most interest me, such as the science/religion conundrum [conflict, compatibility, incompatibility, complementarity, complexity], and I still have difficulty reading long screeds online, so it was with some interest that I uncovered a text at my local library, Science & religion: a historical introduction, which was published not so very long ago, in 2002 [actually, all but one of the essays was written before 2000]. I realized, of course, that the book wouldn't take into account the resurgence of interest in this subject due to the publication of such 'new atheist' works as Breaking the spell and The god delusion, but I was hoping for some really stimulating discussion about these two 'ways of knowing'. I have to say that after reading the intro and the first essay, I've been sorely disappointed.
My expectations were too high perhaps. These are essays by historians of science and religion, not by scientists or philosophers. They're really looking at the way the relationship has played out in the public arena, rather than the central philosophical and theological issues involved. Still, I detect an irritating bias. I'll probably write a few posts as I read my way through the essays.
The quotation at the top of the post gives an indication of the approach, which I suspect will persist throughout the book. Triumphalist and patronising - where have I heard that before? More importantly, terms such as 'popular misconceptions' litter this introduction and the following essay. The conflict thesis persists due to 'popular misconceptions' or it persists 'in the popular mind', condescendingly referred to in contrast to the sophisticated mind. There is no attempt to present these popular misconceptions for our examination, there's just a lot of telling and no showing. More to the point, the conflict thesis is presented as warfare between personalities, and so it's easy for the historian to show that, in fact, there isn't just warfare, there's tension, there's accommodation, there's mutual ignorance, there's collaboration, there's a whole variety of positionings which amount to a complexity thesis which more accurately reflects the relationship.
All of this, though, seems utterly irrelevant to the issue. At no point in the introduction or the first essay [by Colin Russell - and he's much more biased in his approach than Ferngren] do the writers address the basis of the conflict between religion and science. They make no acknowledgement whatever that, personalities aside, the aims of science in general clash with the aims of religion as explanations of how things are. The community benefits of religion, the sense of group or tribal identity generated by these beliefs are well understood by most non-believers, but what gripes us is that the beliefs that the religious share are very unlikely to be true, and they clash head-on with scientific theory and scientific evidence. The closest that either of these two writers come to even considering this fundamental issue is in the last sentence quoted above -  Grounded in faith, religion seemed [and forget about the past tense] bound to suffer when confronted by science, which was, of course, based on fact.
Too right, but then this possible starting point is abandoned, and particular struggles or accommodations are focused on again. No attempt is made to examine what faith is, and of course no notice is made of the fact that faith is used precisely to justify belief in stuff that isn't backed up by any evidence - that there's an afterlife, for example, or that a dissident preacher who may or may not have lived 2000 years ago was the offspring of the supernatural creator of the world/universe/multiverse. Along with many people, I just don't accept that science and the rules of evidence have nothing to do with these claims. Most believers don't believe in this separation either - they're often intensely concerned with finding proof, of the power of prayer, of the existence of life after death, of miracles and so forth.
Anyway, what I've read so far has only underlined for me the considerable limitations of taking a purely historical approach to this subject, with little thought for the philosophical. As to Colin Russell's infuriating first essay, I'll deal with that next time.

By the way, here's a much more informative, and plausible, account of the conflicts between science and religion, especially in the US.

Friday, January 21, 2011

something to crow about

It took scientists the better part of the twentieth century to fully develop the mathematics for describing such quantum activity of the electromagnetic, and strong and weak nuclear forces. The effort was well spent: calculations using this mathematical framework agree with experimental findings to an unparalleled precision [eg calculations of the effect of vacuum fluctuations on the magnetic properties of electrons agree with experimental results to one part in a billion].
Brian Greene, The fabric of the cosmos 

In my internet to-ings and fro-ings I recently came across a piece from 1991, written by a creationist, warning a Catholic educational institution of the dangers of having invited that apostle of scientism, Carl Sagan, to speak at a seminar or conference. It was interesting to me that the term was being used twenty years ago, and of course it was also interesting to note who was using it. All of this relates to a recent post in which I noted the term 'parascience', apparently used by Marilynne Robinson to indicate the prideful stories scientists tell each other to keep up morale. The implication seemed to be [nay, more than seems] that science was generally getting too big for its boots and becoming tediously self-important.
The thing is that too many non-science, and genuinely anti-science people have willfully cut themselves off from the extraordinary advances that have been made. There is really a lot to crow about, and the results are so self-evident that little propaganda is required, all that's needed is a clear statement of the facts. Take this little piece from the latest issue of Cosmos magazine, accompanying a tech-blue photo of the installation:
Housed within a 10 storey, 70,000 square metre building, the US National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California, is the biggest and highest-energy laser in the world, designed to produce limitless, self-sustaining energy. On 8 October 2010, all of its 192 giant lasers were combined to form a single beam - 10 billion times stronger than an average household light bulb - and sent through almost 1.6 kms of lenses, mirrors and amplifiers into a fingernail-sized capsule filled with hydrogen fuel. The reaction delivered an explosion of neutrons so powerful it produced a tiny man-made star.   
Now think of a nineteenth century technogeek reading this. What would impress her most? Well, there would be the Big Numbers - a 10 storey building just to house some piece of techno wizardry? Wow. 10 billion times the average household light bulb? Sounds impressive, but it wouldn't mean much to someone of the nineteenth century, as there was no such thing as an average household light bulb then. Patents had been taken out throughout the second half of the nineteenth century for various kinds of incandescent bulbs, but mass-produced, standardised globes were very much a thing of the future. And 1.6 kilometres of lenses, mirrors and amplifiers - hard to conceive in the nineteenth century, even for a science nerd.
Two words would also completely discombobulate such a nerd - laser and neutron. The laser might well rank as the most powerful technological development of the twentieth century. There's lots of competition of course, but the laser is right up there. And like so many modern developments in physics, technological or theoretical, its development can be traced back to Einstein, who wrote a paper in 1917, 'On the quantum theory of radiation', which conceived of probability coefficients, since known as Einstein coefficients, for the absorption, spontaneous emission and stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. Such an invention was inconceivable of course without the revolutionary developments in quantum mechanics of the early twentieth century. As for neutrons, their existence wasn't confirmed until the 1930s, some ten years after they were theorized by Ernest Rutherford.
All of this new knowledge and these new developments are combining in experiments which actually reproduce the activity inside stars, an activity about which nothing was even known in the nineteenth century. A nineteenth century geek would be totally flabbergasted.
The general point I'm making is captured largely in the quotation at the top of this post. Quantum mechanics and relativity have transformed our understanding of the physical world more comprehensively than any other scientific developments in human history. Not enough people fully understand the monumental achievement of these developments, together with the massive advances made in our understanding of the living world, from the theory of natural selection through to molecular biology and genetics. The theories underpinning these developments have been experimentally confirmed to the nth degree, and they present a complex and comprehensive account undreamed of in previous centuries. I don't deny that there can be such a thing as scientific hubris and triumphalism, but even if it isn't always justified it's surely understandable, and the fact is that many of those most critical of science, those most loudly bemoaning such supposed triumphalism, are in denial, or are just plain ignorant, of the giant strides we've made.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Aristotle, his god and the primum mobile

absurd but influential, apparently

Despite his conviction that the world was uncreated, Aristotle did believe in a divine spirit, or God. But the attributes he assigned to his God, whom he called an 'Unmoved mover', would have been strange, and perhaps repugnant, to anyone raised in one of the three traditional monotheistic religions. Obviously, Aristotle's God was not the creator of our world, since it is uncreated. Indeed, he is not even aware of the world's existence and, therefore, does not, and could not, concern himself with anything in our world. Such a deity could not, therefore, be an object of worship. The only activity fit for such a God is pure thought. but the only thoughts worthy of his exalted status are thoughts about himself. Totally remote from the universe, Aristotle's God thinks only of himself.

Edward Grant, 'Aristotle and Aristotelianism', in Science and Religion: a historical introduction, edited by Gary Ferngren

I've long had a thing for Aristotle, especially his ethical and political philosophy, but it's all been from quite meagre gleanings. He seemed to have a common-sense empirical approach, and I like to think of him as a this-wordly philosopher through and through, making big assumptions such as that his primum mobile was just a way of kick-starting the universe, after which it could be abandoned, with all the focus being on a kind of physicalist approach thenceforward. If the above quotation is to be trusted, though, Aristotle's metaphysics are a lot weirder than I'd assumed. I was under the impression that Grant's term 'unmoved mover' was a direct translation of primum mobile, which I always took to mean 'first mover', but I'm beginning to realize my error. In fact the term primum mobile [first moved] is a medieval construction used in astronomy and having nothing to do with Aristotle's metaphysics [though it may have been indirectly drawn from him]. So enough of that concept and let's look at Aristotle's god, at least as revealed in the quotation.
How this god could even be described as a 'mover' is a mystery. He didn't create the world, he's unaware of the world, so of what theological use is he? Why even posit his existence? Clearly we would have to investigate Aristotle's metaphysics much more thoroughly to answer these questions. One possible answer is that it was impossible, in those times, for a thinker worth his salt not to have a theology or a metaphysics of some kind. So Aristotle invented a metaphysics that was beside the point. Not consciously perhaps, but just to get it out of the way, to focus on this world, a world entirely untouched by his god. Whether this answer is plausible would depend on a greater familiarity with his metaphysics, which I may or may not achieve. I actually spent some time in Borders bookshop the other day perusing a book called Aristotle's Metaphysics, a contemporary commentary [something like this one, but costing more than $50] on the works under the title of The Metaphysics [not a term Aristotle used himself]. That's essentially why I'm writing this post today.
I do find that Aristotle's strange god, as presented in the quotation, provides a salutary lesson, and an amusing one. You can create in your mind all sorts of supernatural beings, even ones that are completely irrelevant to the generally agreed purpose of supernatural beings - to give purpose and meaning to the world, or to reality. In fact, Aristotle's god is irrelevant to everything except himself. There seems something important here about theological pointlessness, but maybe not. In any case, I might just return to Aristotle's metaphysics in a later post, when I've learned more about it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

on the end of philosophy, mainly

As for the school of Gothic novelists, they didn't have anything to do with anything except their own gloomy and morbid imaginings: they were probably all opium fiends who got hopped up from daylight until moonlight and kept ravens and indulged in unhealthy thoughts. Life these days, I thought, was Real and filled with Purpose and Endeavour and Downtrodden Masses, and all that Gothic stuff was just made up.
Charmian Clift, 'On Gothic Tales'

Well, it seems that the people of Southern Sudan have voted overwhelmingly to secede from the north and to form their own nation. Obviously it's going to be a hard road to hoe, but hopefully the struggle will be relatively peaceful in the foreseeable future. This site has some useful maps giving an at-a-glance view of the ethnic, religious and language mix of the region. Australia has it so much easier in terms of governance.

Common sense atheism has a stimulating post, with comments, which touches on issues of scientism I've also been touching on in the last few posts. Of course, I'm not a philosopher, and I really don't understand the Bayesian rule [which in any case is a development of mathematics, and specifically probability, rather than philosophy], but I do know that this way of thinking of philosophy - that it's aim should be to kill itself with a thousand cuts, gradually cutting off its various issues and handing them over to science one by one - has been around for quite a while. I myself seem to remember reading something from Max Black around thirty years ago, something to the effect that problems kind of pass through the digestive system of philosophy to come out as science. But no, that probably wasn't it at all.

he says no to atheistic scientism - amen to that 

Anyway, I tend to side with the blogger, Luke Muelhauser, here. When have philosophers ever solved a philosophical problem? At best they've helped to make it more clear and distinct. And of course at worst they've done the opposite. Many issues once held in the sights of philosophers have passed over into the sciences, which have often made rapid progress towards solving them. They're no longer philosophical issues, but issues within a scientific framework - cosmology, neurophysiology, genetics and so forth. I expect that the best developments in the future, in ethics, in philosophy of mind, in philosophy of science, will come, as they have been coming, from practical developments in cognitive psychology, in AI research, in astrophysics, etc. And I agree also with Luke that those developments won't involve a dualistic approach. But what would I know?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

on supervenience

Pour qu'une chose soit interessante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps.
Gustave Flaubert

Amongst a number of other no doubt fascinating potted insights at this site, Joshua Greene gives us a condensed version of supervenience. The issue of human mind and consciousness was harped on by Marilynne Robinson in her RSA talk, and at one point she ridiculed what she would describe as the reduction of the mind to that glob of grey matter inside the skull. As everyone knows, this has long been a contentious point between materialists, or to use Greene's term, physicalists, and their opponents, be they dualists or some other ists. Greene's supervenience concept - which doubtless has been around for ages - is that mind is supervenient on the brain. We can't have minds without brains, but that doesn't mean they're identical. You can have a brain without a mind, but more importantly, they operate at different levels. Greene gives the example of a computer image made up of pixels. The image was generated using pixels, but the image also exists on another, human, psychological level, imparting emotion or ideas. Altering the number of pixels might change the resolution but it won't generally alter what the image intends to convey - that 'information', if you like, operates on another level. It is supervenient on the process by which the image was generated.
Greene provides this general definition of supervenience:
Supervenience is a relationship between two sets of properties. Call them Set A and Set B. The Set A properties supervene on the Set B properties if and only if no two things can differ in their A properties without also differing in their B properties.
He then 'concretises' this piece of abstraction rather well - though you can see just by the definition how it works for the mind/brain conundrum, including the asymmetry of the relationship. Essentially the world can be seen as operating on different levels, but there's a basic level upon which everything else supervenes. This is the 'hard' level that physicists work on, and explains why physics is the most fundamental science. When physicists talk about developing a 'Theory of  Everything' [TOE] they don't of course mean this quite literally, though in a sense they do - what they mean is the possibility of developing a theory of that upon which everything supervenes.
As this isn't a new approach, no doubt philosophers have been pulling it apart for some time, though on the face of it, it seems very helpful. My strong sense from people like Robinson is that their emphasis on human brilliance and the specialness of human consciousness is really not so much to urge scientists to get their finger out and start studying this stuff, but to put a god-shaped spanner in the works, to almost sneakily claim that there's something that can't be explained, something that's god's doing. Most religious beliefs are self-aggrandising, or 'human-aggrandising' if you will. Certainly this is true of the Judeo-Christian religion, in which only humans are in the image of the creator-deity, and therefore get to lord it over other creatures and to revel in their own specialness and brilliance. Perhaps if Robinson were to focus a bit more on other species and their minds [bearing in mind my quote at the top of this post], she might start to get a clearer view of consciousness as an evolving property, and she might be more impressed with the differently evolving cognitive qualities of pigs and elephants and cetaceans and other beasties. I'm not sure though that she really wants to do that.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Roger Scruton and the atheist 'fashion'

I note that the British Medical Journal, which has spent some time investigating the controversial study of some years ago [published in the Lancet in 1998, and since retracted] linking childhood vaccination to autism, has recently come out strongly against the study [which has not been replicated by other studies], claiming, in particular, that it downplayed the already-present symptoms of autism of some of the children. There were in fact only 12 children in the study. It's reported here.

Now to the last speaker in the public talks I've been critiquing. Roger Scruton is a very well known British philosopher, of a conservative bent. Apparently he plies his trade as a philosopher in the same faculty as A C Grayling, who describes Scruton as a good friend with whom he disagrees about virtually everything. So it amuses me to surmise that he would have heard many times over what I'm going to say in criticism of his position.
By the way, the RSA actually stands for the royal society for the encouragement of the arts, manufactures and commerce, and it describes itself as a charitable organisation which encourages enlightenment thinking.
Scruton at the outset describes himself as someone who lost his faith as a youngster, but who found it again late in life through a circuitous and painstaking journey. So we're dealing with another believer. He then, referring again to Robert Elsmere, claims that the new atheists present atheism as a liberation, in which you gain much and lose nothing - contrary to the experience of Elsmere. A couple of responses to this - many atheists are acutely aware of how difficult it is, in terms of family relations, social status, even danger to one's own life - to openly declare yourself an atheist. From the awful experience of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to the awful experience of local religious sect members, horror stories abound. At the same time, for many, atheism is a liberation. It should be remembered that 'new atheism' didn't spring from nowhere, it emerged as a response. A response to one of the most troubling developments of the late twentieth century - that's to say, the rise and rise of a new, more aggressive, more primitive, more intolerant and belligerent form of religious belief, or dogmatism. Richard Dawkins would have felt it most in the rise, particularly in the US, of an antipathetic, indeed an enragedly hostile, attitude towards the theory of natural selection [or any other evolutionary theory], a theory he has spent his professional life expounding and promoting as the most profound and successful theory in the history of biology. I for one can well understand his extreme frustration, and it's hard not to imagine, even for believers like Scruton, that these kinds of rigid, aggressively primitivist belief systems are something of a prison-house, especially for women as they always seem to be profoundly patriarchal.
So, yes, liberation is a theme for atheists, but they don't see it, by and large, in simple-minded terms - at least I don't. I've attended a few atheist meet-ups, and they often feature traumatized members or visitors who have lost a great deal in coming out against the family or community faith.
Scruton points to two major features of religion. One is the set of metaphysical beliefs that point to an understanding of the world as a created, purposive entity rather than an accidental, random one. And the other, which he characterises as much more important - membership of a community of like-minded believers, and the sense of cohesion and identity this brings. He also asserts that the idea that you can be set free from religion is naive 'because it doesn't engage with that part of the human condition from which religion springs'. Now again, I can't speak for other atheists, but I know that I am very much concerned with understanding the causes and nature of religious belief, and I'm massively aware of the fact that religious beliefs or spiritual beliefs are very much at the heart of human being for a lot of people. It would be unthinkable for such people to lose their faith - which is indeed so much a part of their being that they don't even recognise it as faith.
However, it should also be recognised that these people are generally innocent of modern science. In Afghanistan, for example, you'll find virtually no atheists, and you'll also find one of the lowest levels of literacy in the world. There are no debates there, I strongly suspect, around 'intelligent design' and evolution, because the vast majority of the population, outside of some cities, haven't much of an inkling of the theory of evolution. This is important, because there's one feature of modern atheism - one of many perhaps - that differentiates it from the atheism of the nineteenth century, say, and that is the issue of the compatibilism of science with religion. No doubt this was touched on in the nineteenth century with the controversy over Darwin's theory, but today that debate is more complex, sophisticated and urgent. Most of the prominent 'new atheists' today - Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Myers, Coyne and a number of others - are incompatibilists. They see science and religion as being on a collision course, and they see religion as presenting a false understanding of our world, an understanding that is a major roadblock to the scientific view and the scientific approach. To these atheists, no amount of sophisticated metaphysics and no amount of community spirit can justify the holding of what they see as patently false beliefs. Many of the most damaging false beliefs - that children can be possessed by demons, that women who dishonor their families should be stoned to death, that those who don't believe in a particular god, or a particular version of a god, deserve death, and so on - are held to be so by the majority of religious people as well as by atheists, but modern atheists argue that a truer understanding of the nature of humanity will lessen our sense of dependence on or subjection to any supernatural agency, from which these pernicious beliefs ultimately spring.
Now, I think it's true that the rise of fundamentalism and Islamism isn't entirely the fault of religion per se. There are a number of complex forces determining this development, which we should try to comprehend and intelligently combat. Religious indoctrination, though, of the sort evidenced in the documentary 'Jesus Camp', and in the head-bobbing youths in Pakistani madrassas, is a matter of serious concern never addressed or even mentioned by the three speakers I have been critiquing.
Scruton finishes by talking of the sacred, a sense of which most people need in their lives. He talks of Weber's idea of 'disenchantment', of the desecration of sex as a formerly sacred activity, and the general downgrading of the sacred, presumably in western society.
Ah, the sacred, the sacred. How often this one is wheeled out in at attempt to diminish the experience and the aims and ambitions of atheists. Of course it's true that many atheists are contemptuous and dismissive of this catch-all term. The concept of the sacredness of sex and the sacredness of the family has been used by the Vatican to promote a homophobic and mysogynist agenda for centuries. The sacredness of life - almost always exclusively human life - has been invoked to prevent the development of medical procedures and medical research of all sorts, not to mention its sometimes pernicious influence on contraception and the treatment of the suffering and the dying. Scruton doesn't sufficiently emphasise, I think, the self-serving nature of the human concept of the sacred - it's generally about the monumental, dare I say god-like, specialness of all things human. So the concept of the sacred needs to be scrutinised much more carefully, I think - and this is being done by our best evolutionary psychologists. Meanwhile, as person who is highly sceptical of the concept of the sacred, and who doesn't feel this metaphysical need to see myself, or my sexual activity, or my impending end, as a sacred matter, I do feel the need to defend myself against the charge of crassness or superficiality that the 'pushers of sacredness' often make. A few years ago I wrote a no doubt inadequate response to two books I read in tandem - both of which were about pilgrimages of a kind, albeit secular pilgrimages. The two books were Roads to Santiago, by Cees Nooteboom, and Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban. They were both deeply reflective and contemplative works, which I found both intellectually and emotionally challenging and satisfying. They both reflected on history, religion, lifestyle, change, questing, the big issues. They were as close to spiritual works as I ever want to come - though of course there are other works of this kind out there, for which we must be grateful. I don't like to use the word 'spiritual' or 'sacred' myself - I think there's far too much baggage attached to these words that I don't want to be a part of. But I've always deeply resented the use of these terms to indicate some sort of superiority of being and feeling. I'm sure we've all met the self-described 'deeply spiritual person' who has about as much sensitivity to others as a doorknob. There are also those those who would eschew such terms as 'spiritual' and 'sacred' but who are deeply empathic to our world and its struggling, failing denizens, human or otherwise.
Finally I should make some remarks about the apparent theme of these talks - 'beyond the new atheism'. For me, what is beyond the new atheism, a term I reject, is more atheism. Modern atheism has certainly been given a shot in the arm by the anti-scientific, anti-modernist move towards religious primitivism in some parts of the world, and it has found a number of new voices, some rather shrill, some very articulate. However, Roger Scruton's description of it as a fashion strikes me as the most profound mischaracterization I've come across in a long time. Atheism is here to stay, and it's here to make itself heard. Not only are the numbers swelling and the percentages rising in the west, but most of the best and brightest are going or have gone 'secular' - not only our best scientists, but our best philosophers, our best lawyers, our best journalists - take any intellectual profession you like, and you'll find the percentage of non-believers will far exceed the percentage in the general population. We're an increasingly questioning society - a good thing, in my view - and religious belief tends to crumble under rigorous - but fair - interrogation.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

a critique of Jonathan Ree's contribution

Don't take up golf.  James Watson

The second speaker in these talks, Jonathan Ree, is a British philosopher and historian, and an atheist who has serious doubts about 'new atheism'. He begins his talk by referencing Robinson, speaking approvingly of her term 'parascience', which is nothing like parapsychology, but refers to the tales scientists tell each other to 'gee themselves up', a kind of scientific jingoism, something like what others have described as scientism chit-chat. The idea is that 'new atheists' are particularly prone to this arrogant scientistic tone and attitude. As Ree puts it, it's rather dualistic - there's either science or ignorance. Yet, again, if you look at the people being dubbed 'new atheists', they are quite various. Certainly, such atheist advocates as Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer and Daniel Dennett are probably guilty, even self-confessedly, of scientism, but others such as Christopher Hitchens and Anthony Grayling are not so easily classified. I do have an interest in this subject, and I generally take the view that science, defined broadly as an open-ended set of methods and techniques and even ways of thinking, which involve discipline and rigour, repeatability, verifiability and testability, can contribute substantially to our understanding of any subject. It's not so much about reducing all ways of knowing to science, but expanding science to comprehend and judge all ways of knowing. Science is, to me, not just a method, but an organic, evolving set of processes. And the subject matter will determine which process or processes out of the set should be applied. If this is scientism, so be it. It's an approach that seems to be working a treat.
Ree next seeks to criticize the new atheists by arguing that there's really nothing they say that wasn't already said in the nineteenth century. So, guess what, they aren't new. An extraordinary insight, that one. Interestingly, this is one of those truisms that isn't quite true. Yes, the philosophical arguments are largely the same, and I haven't heard any of those dubbed new atheists claiming that their arguments are new. But today's atheists are able to present new evidence, the fruits of archaeology, palaeontology, genetics, particle physics, cosmology, precise evidence about when our universe was formed, when and how our planet was formed, our relationship to other species and our evolutionary history, as well as evidence relating to the authorship of sacred texts, the probable where and when of that authorship, and how the events related in those texts are verified or falsified by archaeological and other evidence. The modern atheist lives in a more globalized world, in which more is known about a variety of religions, through the media and through direct contact as well as via the fruits of twentieth century anthropology, not to mention Wikipedia. Religion can be looked at from a broader and more multi-faceted perspective than it was in the nineteenth century.
Of course, the real issue isn't newness but trueness. Atheists, new or old, are saying what they have long said, that we should look to this world for understanding and meaning, not to some putative other-worldly phenomena. Many atheists would like to say that gods just ain't true, and probably feel gyped that they can only allow themselves to say there ain't no evidence. This has nothing to do with scientism, and often nothing to do with science. Jonathan Ree himself points out that his own loss or lack of faith had nothing to do with Copernicus or Darwin or whoever, and that would be the same for me. It had to do with something ludicrous about the whole god-worshipping ritualistic paraphernalia when I was first confronted with it, a sense of profound ludicrousness which has never left me. This hasn't been a rational response, which is why I'm a little wary of those atheists who connect non-belief to a greater rationalism, but neither is it an irrational response. It's something visceral and basic. I'm reminded of Paul Valery's comment, something along the lines of the 'the nonbeliever is always convinced that the believer is being insincere, and vice-versa'. Maybe there is an unfathomable divide between 'believers' and 'unbelievers', or this-worlders and other-worlders, as I prefer to designate them, and maybe this-worlders will always be in the minority. I personally hope not, but I don't hope with a great deal of confidence.
Ree's objection to new atheism, that it isn't new, is also ludicrous - 'new atheist' is a term foisted on people like Dawkins and Dennett and Harris by their opponents, and once the term is grudgingly accepted by the culprits, since there seems no alternative but to accept it with a more or less good grace, the same opponents leap up and down shouting 'there's nothing new about you lot'. It's all very hypocritical and silly.
Ree's description of the novel Robert Elsmere sounds intriguing, but his attempt to use it in support of multifarious atheisms surely fails. He says that Robert Elsmere's objections to his church, his rejection of certain beliefs, would put him on the same level of belief as the 'reformed' Anglican Church of today, and he uses this example to suggest that there are many kinds of atheism. But this isn't true. Elsmere - and I haven't read the book - might have reacted negatively to some aspects of church doctrine, and had a 'crisis of faith' as a result, but if his belief at the end of it all was the same as what the Archbishop of Canterbury believes now, then it's clear that Elsmere never became an atheist. I'm assuming here that the Archbishop isn't an atheist, which is perhaps a big assumption. Atheism isn't many different things. Atheism is something clearly defined. It's a lack of belief in gods. You could perhaps extend this to a lack of belief in supernatural agency, which would bring ancestor spirits, rainbow serpents and even ghosts into the net, but I think it's safer to just leave it at gods. Apart from this lack of belief, atheists are of course as various as all humans are.
Ree's final remark, referring to William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, is another attempt to have a go at the 'new atheist' straw person. He says we should guard against the varieties of religious inexperience, as evidenced by some of these new atheists. What is meant by this piece of rhetoric? I have never experienced religious belief, it's true, just as, presumably, the pope has never experienced non-belief. I'm talking about direct, personal experience here, of course. There are some who've had faith, and lost it, and there are some who converted to a particular faith, from having no interest in matters religious. These are varieties of experience that we all accept and recognise. I feel no need to apologize for having no direct experience of religious belief. I've learned a lot about religion through reading anthropological essays, through talking to people of faith, through observing various rituals, through reading history and sacred texts etc etc. That's the best that I can do to try to understand religious belief. It's true that some atheists are willfully ignorant of religious practice and belief - it takes all kinds. Some new atheists may fit that description. Some may not. It's not a fair criticism of modern atheism. One is reminded, when talking of the religious inexperience of atheists, that recent research has shown that American atheists are on the whole more literate about the Bible than Christians are. So it might even make sense to talk about the varieties of religious inexperience of the professedly religious.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Marilynne Robinson tries her hand at taking on 'new atheism'

Marilynne Robinson - 'the world's best prose writer', according to some geezer

When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours - Stephen Roberts
I'm failing in my course, and would much much rather focus on my favourite topics, so I will. The above quote comes from the common sense atheism blog, and I love it.
I was somehow directed recently to this set of talks, hosted at the website of the RSA [the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts], and co-produced by New Humanist magazine. I want to respond to the speakers, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Ree and Roger Scruton, whose collective take on the soi-disant new atheists struck me as very limited and straw-personish. I should hope that New Humanist encourages other voices than these - and I'm sure they do.
The first speaker, Robinson, is a US novelist and essayist, and a committed Christian. She starts out very badly by making the claim that 'new atheists' are generally committed to a kind of post-enlightenment 'science is on the verge of explaining everything' view of the world. She doesn't provide any evidence for this claim. I'm not sure I've heard this one before, though I've heard much criticism of new atheism in terms of scientism and scientific triumphalism. This criticism is often levelled at Richard Dawkins in particular, and maybe there's something in this, but I've read quite a bit of Dawkins's work specifically on science, and he has often commented on the way science raises more questions, opening up ever-new fields of enquiry in a never-ending project. The more we do science the more we find things that are in need of explaining, and there's doesn't seem to be any end in sight. So Dawkins, the favourite whipping-boy of the critics of 'new atheism', takes a view of science which is precisely the opposite of the one Robinson seeks to criticize. I can't think of a single prominent modern atheist - and they're a very diverse bunch - who takes this 'everything's almost explained' view. Names and evidence are required.
After pointing out how 'fantastical' [at least she didn't say miraculous] are the findings of modern science, and arguing, or rather boldly stating, that new atheists don't appreciate this, Robinson goes on to talk about William James, obviously an important philosopher, but talked up here as the American philosopher of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her presentation of James's 'democracy of ontology', in which, according to James, we concede the mystery of everything that we encounter, sounds rather relativistic. Science, as one commentator to this discussion points out, just cannot proceed this way. Here is his comment:
  In the light of the data, we look how plausible each proposed theory/model is (using probability calculus). Redundant statements (i.e. that don't add up to the explanation of the facts) are discarded, and experiments are devised with maximal information value in it (testing limits, or rival hypotheses).
I'm not sure of the detail in this comment, but surely the point is that we have to be much much more hard-nosed in sorting out what we allow in and what we discard from an 'ontology' or a theory in order to produce reliable knowledge. And science is all about the production of reliable knowledge. Quantum theory may be 'fantastical', but more importantly, it is reliable, or it would have been discarded long ago.
Robinson speaks favourably of James's contention that you can reject a particular 'cosmology' because it offends your moral sense - another example of relativism, and Robinson's choice of the word 'cosmology' seems arbitrary here. Why not 'scientific theory'? After all, hasn't the theory of natural selection - along with every other evolutionary theory - been rejected on just those grounds by creationists? And it was largely due to this kind of rejection that 'new atheism' has grown up and come out fighting. No modern scientist and no modern philosopher of science would accept moral feelings or moral qualms as a reasonable basis for rejecting any scientific theory or 'cosmology'. The data has to be respected. And democracy is no basis for accepting or rejecting a theory. If James ever seriously put this forward, then, however pleasant and open it might sound, his philosophy of science is impossibly naive and completely unworkable.
Robinson next goes on to claim that 'new atheism', which she seems to understand as something monolithic, has ignored the issue of human consciousness and human brilliance. Again, Robinson tells us what new atheists think, or don't think, rather than showing us. And again I would counter that new atheists are a very diverse bunch. One of that bunch, Daniel Dennett, is a philosopher who has spent most of his career analysing and probing the nature of consciousness, human and non-human. I'm not sure what Robinson is trying to say, in fact, with this observation. It seems to be something about the specialness of humans, a felt specialness which is at the heart of much religious thinking, with supernatural beings generally being obsessed with the detail of human lives - they know every hair on our heads - thus enhancing our specialness to ourselves. Scientists in general seems unimpressed with this specialness, not because of obtuseness, but because they find 'specialness' - or complexity, extraordinariness, unpredictability [but also regularity] - everywhere, whether they're studying cephalopods, hadrons or plate tectonics. I do think, of course, that human consciousness is amazing, and that our achievement in discovering laws that seem to comprehend the formation and activity of our universe, the formation of complex living entities from much more simple [but in their way still incredibly complex] life forms, and which have enabled us to colonise and dominate the biosphere so effectively, all of this is a wonder. It just doesn't make me think in religious terms - let alone in Christian ones.
So much for Marilynne Robinson's brief and, IMHO, unconvincing contribution to the future of 'new atheism'. I'll deal with the other two next time.

Monday, January 3, 2011

back to training training: picking out modules

a training package

For the next month or two this blog will be devoted entirely to my tedious studies, in which I'm way behind. My first task is to find a cluster of units of competency that I can develop training and assessment for. As my community centre is seeking ACE and other funding for foundational courses or at least units in IVEC, especially relating to basic literacy and numeracy, I'll take my units from that list. So here are three - they're called modules:

Basic Reading Skills for Everyday Use. TAFE SA code: NYHC. Discipline code: 1302205 General Literacy [see Cert 1 in IVEC, p158]
Basic Writing Skills for Everyday Use. TAFE SA code NYHG. Discipline code: 1302205 General literacy [see Cert 1 in IVEC, p166]
Reading and Writing 2 (Life Skills). TAFE SA code ARYY. Discipline code: 1302205 General literacy [see Cert 1 in IVEC, p1013]

This group is called a cluster and I'm not sure if I'll be able to use them to develop an assessment plan and mapping grids, but I'll try. I've printed out and read the three modules, which are all quite similar. They each provide a module purpose, and relate them to national competency standards through the NRS. Each of them has a content section which provides a clear guide of what is expected of trainees. Next comes the assessment strategy which is divided into two sections, the method of assessment and the conditions of assessment. Emphasis in each module is given to flexibility [real life tasks, practical demos, role play, discussion, etc], a holistic approach, a strong responsiveness to need, and appropriate contextualisation. Assessment should be both formative and summative, and every opportunity should be given to the trainee to succeed. Success is the aim. Conditions of assessment are for NRS level 2, where competence is demonstrated in familiar, predictable contexts, where mentor assistance and advice is acceptable, as is recourse to a first or other language if required. 
The next section covers the learning outcome details. Four specific learning outcomes are presented [I'm looking specifically at the first module on my list, the number of learning outcomes may vary, but four is the usual number], each of which builds on the previous one. Each outcome is attached to assessment criteria, which govern what is to be assessed, and conditions and methods of assessment, which govern how assessment is to be carried out. Interestingly, assessment comes before delivery in these documents, just as it does in the course text, Training in Australia, and this is no doubt deliberate. In any case, module delivery is the next section. Various delivery modes and strategies are suggested, with emphasis on providing a mixture of strategies and options, to cover learning styles. Resource requirements are detailed, both human [the requirements of the trainer] and physical [classroom, equipment, technology for online delivery if required, etc]. Recommended texts, online resources and materials are usefully provided for all modules [though these resources are surprisingly dated]. The documents finish with OH & S requirements, pretty standard for these particular modules. 
So those are the modules, next I'll look at an assessment plan. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

touching on the Christian legacy, inter alia

ethical solutions, inc

Happy new year to all my darling fans.

Now I mustn't forget my promise about a quotation, so this time, a double dose:

I've just read Geoffrey Robertson's The case of the pope, gifted to me for Christmas. Robertson does his usual thorough job, and is very convincing on the inadequacies of Canon Law, and the abysmal record of the current pontiff in his previous role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The overall impression I get is of a profoundly insular, arrogant organisation, convinced of its moral superiority, and convinced that its 'house rules', aka Canon Law, is superior to all secular laws in dealing with every aspect of 'sin'. The result, of course, has been disastrous for thousands of children in every country the RCC has made inroads into. And there's no real sign of change in spite of the pressure being applied.

I'll review the book in more detail later perhaps. For now, I'm going to be a bit churlishly critical - I love a bit o' churlishness, especially during the festive season. In a section titled 'Reflections' at the end of the book, Robertson makes this statement, after arguing at length on the Vatican's abuses of human rights:
It should not be necessary to invoke human rights law against a great church, especially one whose founder laid down the Judeo-Christian ethics that have contributed considerably to the principles of that law.
Now, I suspect that this praise of Judeo-Christian ethics was a concessional bone thrown at the RCC after nearly 200 pages of relentless, but judicious, attack. But I must object to it on two counts. First, Robertson refers to the church's founder, by whom he clearly means the character known as Jesus. Now, the idea that Jesus founded the RCC is quite preposterous. Even if we assume that the name refers to a historically real character - a big assumption - there is no evidence from the gospels [and the gospels are all we have] that he intended to found a 'church' as such, and certainly not a church anything like the RCC. The RCC is, and has been since the beginning, a profoundly authoritarian, ritual obsessed, secretive organisation. There are certain consistent qualities of Jesus that emerge from the gospels - an impatience with ritual, a preference for substance over form, an anti-authoritarian tendency, an open simplicity of style and a preference for the company of the poor, the dispossessed and the powerless - notably women and children. His attack on the pharisees for being more concerned with dress and form than substantial teachings, for being essentially out of touch with ordinary people, gives a pretty clear indication of what he would've thought of the RCC, which raises the question of whether the RCC is or ever has been a Christian organisation.
The second point is the familiar one - that our modern ethics were 'laid down' by Jesus, as recorded in the gospels. I find it extremely difficult to comprehend how anybody reading the gospels carefully and with an open mind can find a foundation for modern ethics therein. The sayings of Jesus are not, in my opinion, particularly 'ethically rich', and the parables are often obscure and sometimes very dubious in their message. The golden rule, for example, is found in dozens of religious traditions, indicating that it transcends religion as a common-sense formula for social living. The peacemakers are, or should be, blessed, and the meek shall inherit the earth. This is wishful thinking - admirable enough, but hardly the basis of an ethical system. Love your enemies [a piece of preaching that Jesus didn't always practice himself] is merely a paradoxical remark that undermines the concepts love/hate and friends/enemies. The remark 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone' is a useful corrective against moral dudgeon, but it's hardly original [and in any case was a later insertion]. Altogether, all we have in the gospels are a few general remarks, mostly unobjectional and generally kindly, but not particularly earth-shattering. Had they never been published or bruited about, I strongly doubt that our modern ethical thinking and the laws based on it would have been any different.

My point is that Christianity continues to be over-rated from an ethical perspective, even by non-believers. We have always done better, in thinking about ethics, to leave religion out of it, as the Graeco-Romans did. It is to that tradition, more than any, that we owe the upholding of ethical standards in law.