Archive for October, 2006

The pleasures of argument

Monday, October 16th, 2006

I got back from the PZ Myers tour of the Natural History Museum last night with an evil shit-eating grin, saying “It was so nice to be able to argue with people” … and indeed I had been trying to defend evolutionary psychology against Larry Moran. Great fun all round, but it appears that I left too early to have the argument about religion that I had been hoping for the PZ himself, who has hoiked up from the comments at pharyngula one of my periodic defences of religion in order to sneer at it. I had written that “of course atheism is a philosophical position. So is creationism. It’s trivially true that they are both, equally, philosophical positions. To claim that belief is a position, while disbelief is not, is just ridiculous.”

He doesn’t believe me. He says

Atheism is not a philosophical belief. It is a consequence of a philosophical belief, I will grant you that: it is a philosophy that says evidence, observation, and a logical chain of reasoning are important, as is a healthy skepticism. Tunnel down through most atheists’ positions, and that is where you will find their philosophical foundation. I think it’s also why atheists sometimes find themselves exasperated with agnostics–we’re arguing for the same things, but the labels are different, and agnosticism gives far too much credit to purely hypothetical speculations about nebulous possibilities.

My reply, which may illuminate this exasperation, if only by example, is below the fold:

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600,000 and deNazification

Friday, October 13th, 2006

I like Germans; I like Americans. I’m even quite fond of the English. But when I look at the reactions to the Lancet study on Iraqi deaths. I am reminded of a photograph reproduced in Tony Judt’s Postwar. A small boy, in a knitted sweater and shorts that come down to his knees, walks down a sandy heathland road. In the background are birch trees and a couple of pines. The boy has a pained, determined expression, and is looking away from the verge, where perhaps a hundred corpses have been laid down in rows. They are former inmates of Belsen, just up the road.

Judt’s caption says "Like most adult Germans in post-war years, he averts his gaze."

One of the surprises of this really excellent history has been just how little the Germans came to terms with Nazism. When I lived there, as a teenager, between 1969 and 1971, approx, all the Germans I knew at all well were of my own generation; and the man from whom we hired our house had survived captivity after Stalingrad, and so might be considered to have expiated his crimes and then some. But Judt is full of acid little notes about the extent to which the Germans were not, as we would now say, good. "In Bavaria in 1951, 94 percent of judges and prosecutors, 77 percent of finance ministry employees and 60 percent of civil servants in the Agriculture ministry were former Nazis … Of the newly constituted West German diplomatic service, 43 percent were former SS men, and another 17 percent had served in the SD or the Gestapo."

At about the same time, a poll found that 37% of Germans thought it would be better for Germany to have no Jews on its territory, and 25% of them had a good opinion of Hitler.

This doesn’t prove the unique depravity of Germans, only their depravity. It is very hard for countries, as for individuals, to admit wrongdoing sincerely; perhaps it is harder for countries: if a language is just a dialect with an army, a nation is a dialect with defence mechanisms. We may be fairly certain that the little boy in Judt’s picture didn’t himself kill any of the corpses by the roadside, any more than you or I killed anyone in Iraq.

But it does suggest that the reaction to the Lancet’s study will be, overwhelmingly, that of George W. Bush. We won’t find it credible, because to do so would make us accomplices in something entirely ghastly. For all the people saying they predicted this horror (and I have just gone back and looked at my own predictions) I don’t think many of us thought 600,000 excess deaths were a remotely credible result of the invasion. To give an idea of what 600,000 people means, suppose that half of the people who went on the last big anti-war demo in London had died since then, as a result … that feels entirely different, even to 600,000 foreigners (of course, proportionate to Britain’s population the number should be much higher. Suppose everyone who went on the anti-war marches had died since then. That would be about the death rate proportionately.)

I doubt that even convinced opponents of the war want to believe something that terrible has happened as a result of our actions, or inactions. I don’t know whether it is worse to think now that we could have done more to stop the war, or to reflect that we could do no more than we actually did. But if we opponents must look away as they pass the rows of corpses, why should we expect that supporters of the war should face the facts when they have so much more at stake.

In his mighty name

Friday, October 13th, 2006

I know I waste a lot of time with computers; but there are some things they’re better at than humans are. For instance, could you count the number of times that the words “Richard Dawkins” appear on the front page of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason?

Yet this little program (below the fold) told me almost instantly that the name was mentioned 26 times on the front page yesterday. That may be an underestimate, since I don’t think it counts the graphical elements, where the name appears in an image; also there is the rotating flash show of pictures of Richard Dawkins up to the top right.

I am wondering whether to put this into a script, so that it would keep a daily updated Dawkins Number.

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Sock Puppet with crozier

Thursday, October 12th, 2006

The front page of the Church of Nigeria’s offical website carries a news article an article (thanks) from a Nigerian Newspaper from which I excerpt the following passage:

Outside of the hallowed precincts of the Church and his Bishop’s Court, this “Lion” is self-effacing almost to the point of meekness; nevertheless, such is his aura and “presence”, that despite his elegantly casual way of dressing, especially when traveling in cognito, (in civilian mufti), no-one could fail to notice him when he passes by, or enters a room. And when he opens his mouth to speak, authority and command issue forth, to compel your attention. The magic is in his voice! His voice is a cross between a muffled trumpet sound and an Army commandant’s barking orders during parade. His English when he addresses an audience, is totally without Oxford accent affectation, yet it has the resonance and clarity of a bell. It is authoritative, yet pleasing and re-assuring. His assertions carry a note of finality –not unlike Pilate’s, “what I have written (spoken) I have written (spoken)” No listener is left in doubt, or wondering as to what is meant –he means what he says, and says what he means to say –without ambiguity. He has the spell-binding gift of the anointed, and leaves no one in doubt that he is the oracle of God, speaking the mind of Christ, especially in his prophetic pronouncements, based on the hidden truths of the Scriptures. You feel the Power in God’s Words, as they cascade and issue forth from the spiritual well-spring of his inner being.

Holy fucking sockpuppets, Batman! Who knew these things about Archbishop Akinola? Why don’t people say the same about Archbishop Rowan? Where can I get his book on humility?

Sock Puppet in a dog collar

Monday, October 9th, 2006

This (via) is a completely wonderful story. In brief, the vicar of a very high Anglo-Catholic Church in Reading has been caught posting flattering anonymous reviews of his own sermons, dress sense, and singing voice on the Ship of Fools web site. To make the whole story more exquisite, he was caught after a member of his own congregation compained that the anonymous review was too flattering …

A small ethical dilemma

Monday, October 9th, 2006

Suppose you are aware of a disreputable story about person x, known to you; you find a version of this story—entirely anonymised—on a blog kept by person y, known to both you and x, but not, so far as you know, read by x. What do you do?

The possible courses of action seem to me

  1. Do nothing. The story is true, but not attached to any kind of identifying information
  2. Contact blogger y and suggest, or demand that they remove the story lest some malicious person get hold of it and turn it to x’s disadvantage. Add, to taste, a denunciation of their cruelty, heartlesness, voyeurism, etc.
  3. Ring up x at breakfast and say “Guess what y has written about you?” Then read them the story.

I would be particularly interested in defences of option (3) because I can’t myself think of any.

An act of God

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2006

There was a sizable thunderstorm here on Sunday which took out both my router and my cable modem. The router has been replaced; the internet connection may be back on Wednesday or may not;. In the mean time, anyone who needs me urgently had best ring.

Is God a teapot?

Sunday, October 1st, 2006

It is a standard atheist trope to claim that the existence of God can no more be disproved than the existence of a teapot orbiting Mars. So why worry that he might exist?

Well, the obvious difference is that no one thinks it a matter of overwhelming moral importance that there should not be a teapot orbiting Mars, or is shocked by the absence of a teapot orbiting Mars, or regards it as normal in other people to be shocked by the Martian teapot question, or devotes 400 page books to the Martian teapot question. To claim, therefore, that the existence of God is exactly analogous to that of the orbiting Martian teapot is to miss everything that makes the status of God interesting or important.

Note: saying “they started it” does not make the question go away.

Torture: an instructional video

Sunday, October 1st, 2006

Would it help explain the issues to make a film in a prominent torture supporter is kidnapped and waterboarded, on video, until he agrees to say that he, not Monica Lewinsky, gave Bill Clinton a blow job; also that torture is wrong; that waterboarding isn’t torture and that he was right to vote for it?

After this statement has been made, and played back to him, and he has signed it, all on camera, you bring on a third party, and explain that the Senator will have to perform with them some degrading act, on camera, and then say once more that waterboarding isn’t torture, that he was right to vote for it — that is, unless he wants the treatment to resume … I don’t think it would be necessary to film much after that. .

It might work. It might, of course change nothing. If American voters really thought their enemies could be humiliated that badly, would they just be delighted to have that technique as a weapon?