Sunday, 9 April 2017

Arguments for a Designer Revision Notes

I produced a number of revision documents for my degree course, and maybe someone will find them useful. This is for A222 Exploring Philosophy, Book 2, The Philosophy of Religion.


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Sunday, 26 March 2017

Would an Immortal Life be a Meaningless Life?

The Chaplain in The Meaning of Life

Bernard Williams (1929-2003) famously discusses this question in his essay The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality. I shall defend one particular premise in Williams’s argument that an immortal life would be meaningless against Donald Bruckner’s objections, to highlight some reasons for thinking Williams is correct.

Meanings

While non-human life might have some meaning, I shall only discuss the issues as they relate to individual human lives. I shall assume that the life is to be embodied, since some considerations, such as personal identity, are slightly different if the life is to be unembodied. Maybe mortal life has no meaning either, but, if it does, I take that to mean that there is, in fact, a reason to get up in the morning, to earn a wage, to maintain oneself and to carry on living. The sort of meaning we need is some ‘point, purpose, significance or value’ (Belshaw, 2014, p.136).

There are subjective and objective accounts of meaning. Life’s meaning seems heavily tied to a personal valuer, but such values may disappear once the valuer dies. A more objective account is sought which stands outside of individual lives. Timeless value might more easily offer meaning to immortal lives, being independent of life, continuing or not.

Williams’s argument

Bernard Williams suggests that ‘[i]mmortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless’ and ‘intolerable’ (Williams, 1973, p.82). The intolerability follows from the lack of meaning a person would inevitably (Williams thinks) experience in an eternal life; boredom would result. He presents a dilemma:

1) Eternal life is either one person’s life, and therefore inevitably boring, or
2) Eternal life becomes a series of unconnected person’s lives, so one would not be immortal.

I’m not sure that even the second option escapes inevitable boredom, and bodily continuity may provide a reason to care about future identities; but, granting Williams’s claim, I shall concentrate on the first horn.

Williams makes a distinction between categorical and contingent desires. The categorical/contingent distinction is conditional on life; desires that are not contingent on being alive are categorical. Contingent desires might include eating or reading a good book. Categorical desires are those that would drive one through life even if no contingent desires were being met. Williams illustrates this through the example of a man contemplating suicide:
If he does decide to undergo [what lay before him], then some desire propels him on into the future, and that desire at least is not one that operates conditionally on his being alive, since it itself resolves the question of whether he is going to be alive. He has an unconditional, or (as I shall say) a categorical desire. (p.85-86)
I’m not sure this distinction is altogether valid. For example, someone might judge that some contingent desires will be satisfied tomorrow; one might not be hungry today, since one's appetite has been satisfied for the moment, but one knows that, come tomorrow, hunger will return, so a fresh opportunity to satisfy one's renewed appetite can be anticipated. Is that not then a categorical desire? Williams suggests this may be when he says that a basic categorical desire might be one ‘that future desires of mine will be born and satisfied’ (p.87). If the categorical desire is to acquire or satisfy future contingent desires then those contingent desires surely become categorical (being the object of a categorical desire)?

Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty, aka Elina Makropulos, in Věc Makropulos.
Photo by Cory Weaver.
Nevertheless, the idea that some desires are independent of one’s own temporal existence is plausible; examples include the desires to nurture family, foster community and build legacies. Williams needs this distinction to combat the idea that more life is always better than less life, which follows if desires can only occur when one is alive. Because categorical desires do not depend on life, looking forward one can bridge periods of ennui with categorical desires and so retain the will to live. But immortality causes stasis; Williams suggests this through the repeated use of ‘froze’ and ‘frozen’ (p.91) when referring to the life of Elina Makropulos (EM), a fictional character who takes an elixir of life. The second horn of Williams’s dilemma would not engage, because life’s processes would stop. Looking forward, all categorical desires would be exhausted so nothing could bridge the periods of ennui.

Williams says:
The point is rather that boredom, as sometimes in more ordinary circumstances, would be not just a tiresome effect, but a reaction almost perceptual in character to the poverty of one's relation to the environment. (p.95)
This ‘almost perceptual’ response is a reaction to eternity: what happens to the categorical desires, such as nurturing family, when there is no end in sight? His suggestion is that they will inevitably evaporate, and unless there is a guarantee against this, we should reject immortality. Formally the argument can be stated:
Premise 1: In order for one’s life to be meaningful (and ‘recognisably human’ – Angelic lives are irrelevant), one must have a set of categorical desires that one wishes to satisfy.
Premise 2: Contingent desires alone cannot make life meaningful.
Premise 3: If one lived forever in a recognisably human form, one would exhaust one’s set of categorical desires and become bored and apathetic as a result.
Conclusion: Living forever in a recognisably human form would not be meaningful.
(Sinnicks, 2015)
Bruckner’s objections

Bruckner challenges P3 and suggests that categorical desires will not run out. He offers three objections:
1) That ‘the natural degradation of our memories would help to keep endlessly repeated experiences interesting’ (Bruckner, 2012, p.626)
2) That people naturally regain a taste for an activity once some time has elapsed.
3) That human ingenuity will generate new categorical desires.
Memory decay

Bruckner makes the reasonable point that our memories are not perfect and we would forget the experiences that had once satisfied categorical desires, so they would become unsatisfied once more. He gives the example of 20 careers of 40 years each, which would give a gap of 760 years between careers:
So pursuing that career again would provide a new-feeling, worthwhile, and enjoyable experience. One would be coming at it fresh. (p.630)
Wikipedia
This doesn’t capture the full potential horror of the eternal situation. Certainly one might forget one’s previous career, but this would not mean that one would not discover that one had already ‘been there, done that’. Imagine you are an accountant who discovers 760 year-old notes in your own handwriting on some arcane interpretation of the tax laws of the time. One might think, how interesting to now be making similar interpretations of new tax laws; or, perhaps more reasonably, one might wonder how to get off this infernal merry-go-round.

Further, forgetting one’s own children, as EM does, illustrates how immortality would strip life of meaning. Perhaps EM could experience afresh the pain and joy of childbirth, but if she is at the same time forgetting the ends of that pain and joy, she is replacing an independent-of-self meaningful value (family) with a dependent-on-self less meaningful one (pain and joy). In Williams’s terms, she is losing a categorical desire while retaining a less meaningful contingent one.

Rejuvenation of Desire

Bruckner writes that ‘careers, ways of life, and other long-term pursuits are correctly classed as repeatable pleasures that would keep our immortal lives interesting.’ (p.632). He observes that short term desires, such as sex and eating revive after being satiated, and so too can longer term desires, such as gardening and teaching.

This is another reasonable observation about normal life but I’m not sure it entirely engages with Williams’s distinction between categorical and contingent desires. No doubt contingent desires can be satisfied and then rejuvenated after a while, but can the same be said for categorical desires eternally? Williams’s challenge is that if it cannot be shown that this is the case, immortality should be rejected (‘Nothing less will do for eternity than something that makes boredom unthinkable’ – Williams, p.95). If there is the chance that categorical desires can be exhausted at any time, then one should not want an eternal life. And since eternity is forever, it is inevitable that at some point there will be no categorical desires, even if they could be rejuvenated at a later time.

How plausible is this claim? Bruckner suggests it is holding immortal lives to a standard that we do not demand for mortal lives ‘which we think are perfectly worth living even given the risk of reaching a state of chronic boredom.’ (Bruckner, p.637). But Williams is pointing out that it is inevitable that one will exhaust categorical desires, not that there is a risk of it, in an immortal life, because we know some people do appear to exhaust their categorical desires in less than 100 year-old lives (and commit suicide). Therefore, there is a quantifiable risk per year, so in an eternity of years, there will be an incidence of categorical desire exhaustion.

So Williams demands that boredom be unthinkable. One episode of categorical desire exhaustion must be avoided even if some desires might subsequently be revived. I suggest this is because meaning involves looking forward with hope, and should categorical desires (the reasons that drive us on) be exhausted at any time, we will fall into despair, with nothing to bridge the period of ennui until a categorical desire rejuvenates. What is the attraction of an immortal life if we know at the outset that we will, definitely, fall into despair at some point?

Human Ingenuity

While the first two objections address the question of the exhaustion of similar experiences, the third suggests that ‘human ingenuity changes them and creates new ones’ (p.632-633).  Looking at my life today compared to my life as a teenager illustrates the point. I engage in many activities reliant on technological innovations, such as social media and 4GL computer programming, which were almost inconceivable when I was a teenager. Innovation generates new experiences that might provide a basis for new categorical desires. As Bruckner writes:
Riding a bicycle is good as a means of transportation and of exercise, but is also enjoyable in its own right. (p.634)
True enough, but there are at least two objections here:
1) We are not making the right evaluation of our categorical desires, and
2) We are assuming infinite human ingenuity.
First, if we take computer programming, for instance, our categorical desire may be to write a ground-breaking piece of software that mediates all international disputes to the satisfaction of all parties. Or, it may be to achieve world peace. The first looks like a new desire, but is in fact a way of achieving the second, pre-existing, desire. The suspicion is that however much technology advances it just provides new ways to pursue a finite list of human categorical desires. Unless the nature of humanity changes, these desires will not, and part of being recognisably human is to have a certain limited set of categorical desires.

But even if we allow that we can create new human categorical desires, there is a second objection: while human ingenuity seems capable of expanding our desires for a very long time, it’s not obvious that human ingenuity can increase them ad infinitum. We have finite tools at our disposal; a brain limited to the power of its thinking ability, a body limited to its physical constraints, so it may be safer to conclude that our ingenuity is finite too.

Conclusion

Williams provides an account of meaning which exists outside individual lives but is not everlasting. Bruckner counters by offering reasons to believe that desires giving meaning will recur indefinitely. But Williams’s ‘almost perceptual’ response takes human nature into account, suggesting such recurrences will become tiresome and meaningless. Bruckner’s objections are unconvincing because they address the lengthening of life but don’t full engage its eternity. There may be other, more convincing, objections, and the other premises may be problematic, but from this limited analysis I think there is some truth in the statement ‘an immortal life would be a meaningless life’.


Bibliography:
Belshaw, C. (2014) The Value of Life (A333 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Bruckner (2012), ‘Against the Tedium of Immortality’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies vol.20, no.5.
Sinnicks, M. (2015) A333, 4. The Value of Life [Powerpoint presentation to A333 tutor group, Tonbridge]
Williams, B. (1973) ‘The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality’, in Williams, B. (ed.) Problems of the Self, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 82–100.

Notes:

For further reading on Bernard Williams's argument, and the challenges and refinements to it, I recommend the following pieces by John Danaher:

http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/would-immortality-be-desirable-part-one.html

http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/would-immortality-be-desirable-part-two.html

http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/would-immortality-be-desirable-part.html



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Friday, 3 March 2017

Theresa May Sings the Benefits of Economic Union


Some ironic quotes from Theresa May's speech to the Scottish Tory party:
One of the driving forces behind the Union’s creation was the remorseless logic that greater economic strength and security come from being united. Not the transient and shifting benefits of international alliance, but the fundamental strength of being one people. Those enduring economic strengths are obvious. Our wholly integrated domestic market for businesses means no barriers to trade within our borders. That has always been of immense value to firms here in ?.
They think independence is the answer to every question in every circumstance, regardless of fact and reality. It simply does not add up and we should never stop saying so.
The broad shoulders of ? provide enviable security for businesses and workers alike.
Ten years ago, banks headquartered in Edinburgh and London, which employ tens of thousands of people and look after the savings of millions, were rescued by the ?. Action that was only possible because of the size and strength of the ? economy.
In the oil and gas sector – a vital industry on oureast coast, from Aberdeen to Lowestoft – the broad shoulders of our wider economy have allowed the ? to take unprecedented action to support the sector following the decline in the international oil price. And public spending here in ? has been protected, even as North Sea tax receipts have dwindled to nothing. Time and again the benefits of the Union – of doing together, collectively, what would be impossible to do apart – are clear. Indeed the economic case for the Union has never been stronger. There is no economic case for breaking up the ?, or of loosening the ties which bind us together.
The ? has led the world in developing a strategy for preventing violent extremism, and we are working with our allies to take on and defeat the ideology of Islamist Extremism. It is firmly in our national interest to defeat Daesh and the ideology of Islamic extremism that inspires them and many others terrorist groups in the world today. In this task, we are fortunate to draw on intelligence provided by the finest security agencies in the world and the greatest armed forces anywhere.
The pooling and sharing of risks and resources on the basis of need across our ? is the essence of our unity as a people. All of the practical benefits which flow from our Union, and which are hallmarks of it, depend on that deep and essential community of interest which we all share. It has been shaped by geography and refined by history. And it has shown itself to be adaptable.
A tunnel vision nationalism, which focuses only on independence at any cost, sells ? short. As Unionists, our job is clear. We know we are united together by a proud shared history, but we are also bound together by enduring common interests.
The ? we cherish is not a thing of the past, but a Union vital to our prosperity and security, today and in the future. The Union I am determined to strengthen and sustain is one that works for working people across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
A ? which everyone can feel secure in. A Union in which our national and local identities are recognised and respected, but where our common bonds are strengthened. Where difference and diversity are celebrated, but where those things we share are celebrated just as much.
Because at the heart of the ? is the unity of our people: a unity of interests, outlook and principles. 
The question marks refer to Scotland and the UK, or stand-in's for, and their institutions. These can be swapped for the UK and the EU and the arguments stand pretty much as strong. Yet May is hell-bent on ensuring a hard departure from the EU. Strange times.

In her conclusion, she said:
Because politics is not a game and government is not a platform from which to pursue constitutional obsessions.
Ha!

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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Immaterial Soul Revision Notes

I produced a number of revision documents for my degree course, and maybe someone will find them useful. This is for A222 Exploring Philosophy, Book 1, The Self.


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Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Ideology Driving Faith Schools Initiative

On 13th September this year I wrote, with the help of the BHA, to my MP, Jeremy Quin, about the recent announcement on faith schools to abolish the 50% cap on entrance faith requirements:

Dear Jeremy Quin MP,

I am writing to you as a constituent to ask you to oppose the plans to allow new and existing religious free schools to discriminate against all your constituents who happen to fall outside a school's denomination. I have at least 3 objections:

1) Principles of fairness: it cannot be right that my tax money, and that of most taxpayers, goes towards educational establishments that would bar our children and grandchildren. In fact, of course, equity dictates quite the opposite; that the public funding of schools should require that they are open to all, in principle.

2) Integration: we should all know by now that a major challenge to us in the modern world is to effectively integrate our multi-cultural populations. Secularism has proved the best approach to this problem, for the religious and non-religious alike. Gandhi, recognising the challenge that faced the Indian subcontinent, was religious and a secularist, and said that the state should never promote denominational education out of public funds. As I'm sure you know, David Cameron said about the existing 50% rule:

‘It cannot be right…that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths. That doesn’t foster a sense of shared belonging and understanding – it can drive people apart.’

Well, he was wrong about Brexit, but I hope you’ll agree that on this score he was absolutely right! The evidence tells us that religious selection in schools entrenches religious segregation in the community, and reduces social cohesion.

3) Educational standards: faith schools have a worse record than other schools in teaching anti-science, such as creationism, and promoting views that discriminate against minorities, like the LGBT community. Despite the teaching of creationism being banned, this still didn't prevent Ofsted awarding a status of 'Good' to a school that censored questions on evolution in a science exam and admitted to teaching creationism (https://humanism.org.uk/2014/11/13/bha-questions-school-censored-evolution-exam-questions-receiving-good-rating-ofsted-inspection/). Allowing full selection will increase the dangers of the wholesale indoctrination of children with these retrograde views. Of course, that is exactly why religious groups lobby for full selection!

So I hope you agree that on grounds of fairness, integration and educational standards, the removal of religious selection is what we should be aiming for, not its re-introduction. Thank you.

He replied on 11th October:

Dear Mark Jones 
  
Thank you for contacting me about faith schools. 

The Prime Minister has made clear that the Government is dedicated to making Britain a true meritocracy and that education lies at the heart of that mission. The Government has recently published a consultation that asks for views on a range of proposals aimed at bolstering the education system's ability to extend opportunity to all. 

While the number of children in a good or outstanding school has risen dramatically in the last few years it remains the case that too many children in this country still do not have access to either. The proposals that have been put forward look to deliver an even more diverse school system that gives all children, whatever their background, the opportunity to achieve their potential. 

Faith schools have a strong record of high pupil attainment and are often very popular with parents. Current rules, however, restrict the ability for more good faith schools to be opened, without succeeding in promoting integration. The proposals would see the current cap on the number of pupils who can be admitted on the basis of faith when the school is oversubscribed removed. 

The Government has stressed that if this rule is implemented it would be complimented [sic] by more effective requirements to ensure faith schools are properly inclusive. I can assure you that the Government will ensure that safeguards are in place to promote diversity and inclusivity in faith schools, so that pupils of all faiths and none are able to play a full part in the life of the school. 

The Government's consultation is asking for views from teachers, children and parents. If you would like to make your views known, you can do so online before 12 December. Visit https://consult.education.gov.uk/school-frameworks/schools-that-work-for-everyone

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me. 
  
Jeremy Quin 
MP for Horsham 
House of Commons 
London SW1A 0AA 

As you can see, the response does not engage with the points in my missive except in the most tangential way. How increasing the amount of faith-based discrimination faith schools can engage in will 'deliver an even more diverse school system' I cannot imagine. Unless they simply mean we will have an even more segregated school system, which is the inevitable outcome of such a measure. And I honestly don't know what 'Current rules, however, restrict the ability for more good faith schools to be opened, without succeeding in promoting integration' means!

The suspicion is that members of the Government simply want to see more children subject to faith-based education for their own religious reasons. This suspicion is not allayed by their manipulation of the statistics to serve this agenda - the Department for Education has been ordered to amend ‘misleading’ faith school figures by the UK Statistics Authority following a BHA complaint:
BHA Education Campaigner Jay Harman commented, ‘We’re glad the UK Statistics Authority has taken action on what was a clear attempt by the Government to massage the figures in a way that misleadingly presents the 50% cap as a failure. The idea that allowing schools to admit children from only one particular religion is in any way compatible with promoting integration was counter-intuitive to begin with, and it should come as a surprise to no-one that the figures demonstrate this.’




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Sunday, 20 November 2016

Why Trump won the Presidency


From Pew polling, 16th September 2016
(Warning: you are unlikely to find the reason for Why Trump won the Presidency in this post.)

Have you noticed that there seem to be as many reasons people voted for Trump as minutes in the year? Some of them contradictory. Everyone seems to have their pet theory on why the Donald is now President-Elect. Here are some of those theories, analyses of Trump voters, and some quotes from Trump voters themselves.


From the BBC, 9th November 2016:
...working-class white people, particularly ones without college education - men and women - deserted the party in droves. Rural voters turned out in high numbers, as the Americans who felt overlooked by the establishment and left behind by the coastal elite made their voices heard.
...he was bulletproof.
Mr Trump's pox-on-them-all attitude is likely to have proved his independence and outsider status at a time when much of the American public reviled Washington (although not enough to keep them from re-electing most congressional incumbents running for re-election).
...Mr Trump's sharpest rise in the standings came in the weeks between that first letter and Mr Comey's second, in which he said he had put the investigation back on the shelf.
[He t]rusted his instincts.

From The Independent, 9th November 2016:
The New York tycoon delivered a message of quick-fix solutions that many found appealing.
“We need a businessman,” [a voter] said. “I think a businessman can get things done.”
Toby and Wendy Shaw said they were tired listening to politicians promising to change things. “People are fed up with the lies,” said Mr Shaw. “How many years have we had these politicians? It’s time for someone with a backbone to stand up and do what needs to be done.”
A total of 90 per cent of his supporters listed the economy as being very important to them when it comes to making their choice, according to a recent Pew poll. (!)
Polls have shown that Mr Trump has received strongest support from white male voters without college degrees, and he has targeted communities in states such as Ohio, Iowa, West Virginia and North Carolina. Frequently he has taken his message to former industrial strongholds such as Youngstown, Ohio, that over the past 20 years has witnessed economic devastation and population decline.
“I think he will do the right thing for America,” [a voter] told The Independent. “He is going to knock the hell out of Isis. He says he will build a wall, I believe he will.”
...exit polling from the primaries found that Mr Trump’s voters made about as much as Ted Cruz voters, and significantly more than supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
Trump support was correlated with higher, not lower, income...
Lonnie Looney, a former miner said he would be voting for Mr Trump as he believed he was the best chance the community had of returning to its glory days of well-paid work. He said: “Hillary Clinton should be in jail.”

Letter to the Denver Post, 17th November 2016:
As the media dumped more and more on Trump while turning a blind eye towards Hillary Clinton and her many follies, people identified with Trump and it made them even madder and more determined to poke a stick into the ruling class’ eye, and they did.  Power to the people.

Per Bernie Sanders, 17th November 2016:
...the democratic party cannot talk to the people from where I came from.
...people didn’t resonate with Hillary because at a deeper level they could feel that she can’t be trusted.

From NPR, 12th November 2016:

[T]he Electoral College picks presidents.
...more voters chose third-party candidates.
Clinton did not fire up the Obama Coalition.
Whites without college degrees have fled to the GOP.
Democrats' cratering with blue-collar white voters.


Per Michael Moore:
Rust Belt Brexit.
The Last Stand of the Angry White Man.
The Hillary Problem.
The Depressed Sanders Vote.
The Jesse Ventura Effect.
From ITV, 9th November 2016:
Appealing to middle America.
A vote against the establishment.
Trump's ability to survive scandal.
Clinton's emails.
Obamacare.

From Quartz, 9th November 2016:
Silent Trump vote.
Celebrity beat organization.
A populist revolt against immigration and trade.
Outsiders against insiders.
America, the divided.

From Wired, 15th November 2016:
Facebook Actually Won Trump the Presidency.

From NY Magazine, 9th November 2016: 
Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook.

From YourStory, 11th November 2016:
Majority of Americans identified with him.
He won the hearts of Clinton’s rejects.
He fed the ravenous bellies of male and white supremacy. 
He symbolised the winds of change.
He had what Clinton didn’t – fervent supporters.
He was the ‘scandal-proof’ monk.
The fault in Clinton’s stars.

Per Julia Galef:
...humans IN GENERAL are bad at reasoning and seeing through bullshit, which caused particularly bad consequences this time via Trump fans, who made a choice that (if the human brain were better at reasoning) they would have realized was net bad for their overall goals, which presumably include avoiding nuclear war.

Per Massimo Pigliucci, 14th November 2016:
...a lot of people in the US seem to be affected by amathia, an ancient Greek word best translated as “un-wisdom.”.

Per Keith Parsons, 16th November 2016:
Donald Trump sailed into the White House on an ocean of lies.

Per Bradley Bowen, 9th November 2016:
I still believe that education has the potential to change our species into rational animals, but I fear that so long as the blind are leading the blind in our colleges and universities,  we will continue to face the threat of racist, sexist, bullies and idiots becoming elected to powerful positions where they can continue to shit on all of us.

Per Steven Novella, 17th November 2016:
The American voters essentially said – you can lie to us. You can sell us whatever fiction you think we want to hear, and we will reward you for it. In fact, we will help you spread those lies. They will become our truth.

Surely some of these (maybe even all!) are correct. The most worrying trend for me is perhaps the last one; the cavalier approach to facts and fact-checking rampant in social media suggests a distrust of science and 'experts' that has been fomented by vested interests in politics, business and the media. People discount careful examinations of our world in favour of superficial soundbites that they like the sound of and fit their personal worldviews. UPDATE: Here the New York Times shows how one conclusion-jumping tweet can become a 'fact'.

Perhaps the most unpalatable conclusion is that Trump voters simply are like Trump: racist, misogynist, shallow, bullying, authoritarian, ignorant, selfish and vain. It seems unlikely, however, that close to 50 million are like that (although perhaps we all have these traits to a greater or lesser degree). Some of them will be for sure, as the Ku Klux Klan endorsement showed. But most will have made a calculation that a racist, misogynist, shallow, bullying, authoritarian, ignorant, selfish and vain man represents the best option amongst some very bad options. Hard to believe for some, including me, but the political climate is desperate, even if the economic reality is not so. It is, perhaps, a sign that growing inequality is coming home to roost.

A bit like Brexit, there has been an unholy confluence of factors causing Trump's victory. It shows how fragile our existence and well-being are; we truly are corks bobbing on a sea of determinism, with little to no say in our destinies. Like Candide, however, I still intend to cultivate my garden.


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Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Swinburnophobia



Richard Swinburne's recent speech to a regional meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers, and the response to it, highlights how religion can support retrograde beliefs long after the rest of us have jettisoned them. I was surprised to find, for example, that Opposition to Interracial Marriage Lingers Among Evangelicals more than it does among the unaffiliated. Here a Christian continues to argue against mixed race marriage using the Bible:
Throughout the Bible interracial marriage is discouraged.
In the book of Ezra, the Israelites repented of their abandonment of God. As part of this repentance they pledged to end their interracial marriages according to God's will:
“We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.” (Ezra 10)
A similar experience is recorded in Nehemiah 13:
“Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: ‘You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves.’”
Other prohibitions against interracial marriage can be found in Exodus 34:12-16, Joshua 23:12, and Deuteronomy 7:3: “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons...”
...and the supposed problems arising from it:
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that interracial marriages end in divorce more often than same-race marriages. For marriages involving a White female and Black male the divorce rate is 200% higher than if the White female had married a White male.
I'm sure, however, that most Christians would not give any credence to these views and arguments. The views expressed on homosexual sexual acts in Swinburne's talk were discriminatory in the same way, in the sense that Swinburne identifies a group of people by virtue of an attribute that has no intrinsic moral implications (sexual orientation), and treats the group differently because of that attribute (discourages them from acting on that attribute). Swinburne thinks that this discrimination in the treatment of homosexuals is fair, and, in fact, good; I do not. The notes for his speech are here (but note that this link seems to be working at some times but not others), and there is a video here.

How mistaken Christianity is

In the talk he starts by noting how wrong traditional Christian teaching on sexual morals is currently considered:
As we all know, traditional Christian teaching on many moral issues, but in particular on sex, family, and life is regarded by all non-religious and some religious believers as totally and evidently mistaken.
Pretty much every non-religious organisation that comments on such things would confirm that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality per se. The WHO Bluebook says 'Sexual orientation alone is not to be regarded as a disorder', and nowhere does it say that there is anything wrong with homosexual sexual acts per se. A recent WHO policy document, noting the ruling of a previous bluebook, says:
 Although ICD-6 classified homosexuality as a sexual deviation that was presumed to reflect an underlying personality disorder, subsequent research did not support this view. 
...and continued:
Over the last half century, several classification systems, including the ICD, have gradually removed diagnoses that once defined homosexuality per se as a mental disorder. These changes reflect both emerging human rights standards and the lack of empirical evidence supporting the pathologization and medicalization of variations in sexual orientation expression. 
So, to confirm Swinburne's impression: yes, authorities agree there is nothing wrong with same-sex attraction, or same sex sexual acts, contra Christian teaching. You would hope that these rulings should drive the ethics of Christians, particularly a theologian who prides himself on his natural theology.

Homosexual sexual acts are immoral?

To his credit, Swinburne dismisses Catholic 'natural law' arguments based on function:
The Catholic ‘natural law’ tradition has sought to show that [divorce, fornication, homosexual sexual acts, contraception] are 'disordered' or 'unnatural' actions, and for that reason wrong. The best contemporary statement of this tradition known to me is Alexander Pruss’s book One Body. Pruss argues that bodily organs have ‘functions’ and they ‘strive’ or ‘try’ to ‘fulfil’ their functions. For example, Pruss argues, the penis has the function in intercourse of omitting (sic) semen into a vagina which it strives to do; and to prevent it from doing this is unnatural and so wrong. It seems to me that to ‘strive’ or ‘try’ is an intentional action which only intentional agents can do; and that even if I am mistaken about this, it still doesn’t follow that it would be morally wrong to do what is unnatural.
Quite. But he still wants to defend the traditional view that these things are immoral, so he has to make an argument to this effect. For background, he doesn't think that homosexual sexual acts are intrinsically immoral (bad in themselves), but extrinsically immoral. He says:
God, like any other benefactor such as parents or the state, has reasons also to command humans to do actions which would not otherwise be obligatory. These reasons include (A) coordinating imperfectly obligatory actions so as to ensure the realization of a good overall goal. This may involve telling different humans to do different actions...God may tell all Christians to worship together each week on a Sunday rather than on a Thursday, in order to ensure that the Christian community worship together. 
The idea here is, I think, that there are practices that will encourage good outcomes, and, further, that this practice of doing certain things, or refraining from certain things, will encourage actions over and above our normal obligations ('supererogatory'), and that is virtuous.

Homosexual orientation as a disability?

He says:
Having homosexual orientation is a disability – for a homosexual cannot beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment.
Without refinement, this looks like a definition of disability that is going to be too wide; that is, it is going to include people who would not normally be considered disabled, such as the infertile, older people, those with a low sex drive, unattractive people, and even Catholic priests and nuns (priests and nuns are people with a clerical leaning, and that leaning means they 'cannot beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment'. Should society therefore discourage the young from developing leanings to serve Christ?).

And, of course in actual fact homosexuals 'can beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment', and have demonstrated that ability throughout history. And often this has been done in response to Christian teaching on homosexuality. In his response to Martin Pleitz's paper on his homophobia, Swinburne suggest that such people are not 'fully homosexual', and should therefore restrict themselves to heterosexual acts.

This is a naive view of human nature; apart from its binary view of sexual orientation which can be challenged, it reduces sexual orientation to a physical rather than an inner reality. Humans are sophisticated beings with a rich inner life, and are quite capable of divorcing their inner life from their physical reality; we are skilled fantasists, after all. Further, we have many loving relationships, such as with siblings, children and friends, which are not sexual, so 'love' does not entail lust. Therefore, just because a woman with a homosexual orientation, for example, might have loved and married a man, and indulged in a full sex life with him, that does not render her less than 'fully homosexual'. Her sexual orientation is for her to know. Imagine someone blindfolded in a dark room being masturbated, so they cannot see who is doing the act. I suspect that some people of any orientation could be stimulated under such circumstances, and to then declare their sexual orientation based on the gender of the unknown masturbator (the physical reality) is absurd.

Swinburne admits himself that even homosexual couples are able to have children, with the use of surrogates, so no absolute barrier to 'begetting' exists there either. As noted above, by specifying 'loving acts', Swinburne does not restrict the acts to purely sexual ones. A person's orientation clearly does not make them physically unable to have children. The premise he defends in the response to Pleitz is:
P1 Homosexuals are “unable to enter into a loving relationship in which the love is as
such procreative”.
He thinks the words 'as such' are doing a lot of work here, but I confess I don't see it. There is no doubt that homosexuals are quite capable of entering 'into a loving relationship in which the love is as such procreative', since a non-sexual procreative act can be inspired by love, and in any case sexual procreative acts can be performed lovingly without feeling lust for the partner.

The value of having children?

A part of Swinburne's argument is the great value he places on having children. It's not clear to me how this is supposed to cash out. We know that there are many people who don't want to have children; they do not place great value on having children. Pleitz also notes that there is a global problem with the idea that having children is an unalloyed good. This sort of thinking has resulted in large families in the Catholic and Muslim communities, causing endless cycles of poverty and deprivation. China introduced a one-child policy to mitigate the effects of over-population. These factors show that the great value, if that is what it is, of having children is not universal in time and place, so having children cannot be a universal injunction, to follow in all times and all places.

A counter might be that it is not a universal injunction, but having some children is of great value, and there is a golden mean number of children that is good, that benefits humankind; surely no-one would dispute that? Well, some may, but let us grant that for the sake of argument. Evolutionary science shows that having children is a mechanism for persisting genes, and genes drive speciation. So the result of natural selection will be the most successful strategy for the environment in which the species finds itself. We know that homosexuality has persisted in homo sapiens for thousands of years, and that homosexuality persists in other species that are primarily heterosexual. This 4 billion years-long experiment shows, then, that a percentage of homosexuality in the population must, in some way, help the fitness for survival of certain species, including homo sapiens. Consequently, a natural theologian like Swinburne should look at this overwhelming empirical evidence and argue for the goodness of some people being homosexual, since it must be of great value in having the perfect number of children, overall.

Disability = immoral?

Let us allow that having homosexual orientation is a disability, again for the sake of argument. Disability does not equate to immorality, but Swinburne states that '[d]isabilities should be prevented'. This might be true, but prima facie this 'should' is not a moral 'should', but a prudent one. For example, if one can prevent someone from losing an arm, one should, because it's prudent for someone to keep two good arms (one can carry more shopping with two arms); but, there is no moral stain attached to the person for losing the arm.

So what reason does Swinburne give for going further and deciding that homosexuality is immoral, rather than just something that affects one's chances of having children?

Well, he appeals to scripture:
I’m going to assume , despite the effects (sic) of many to show that the Bible and various theologians all meant something different by (what seems to many of us to be) apparent condemnations of such acts, that some such passages as I Corinthians 6:9-10 and Romans 1:24-27 and the continuing weight of subsequent tradition does condemn such acts.
I see no more reason to think that these appeals to scripture have any more value than the appeals to scripture against interracial marriage.

He also appeals to theological authority:
Where, after all, do we ever find before the twentieth century any explicit approval of such acts by any theologian orthodox in other respects?
That, sadly, is more a condemnation of theologian orthodoxy than homosexuality; as a proponent of evidence-based thinking, Swinburne should really recognise that the opinion of the medical establishment outweighs the views of mere theologians. He chooses to demur on the evidence:
And, as I read the much disputed evidence available on line about whether children nurtured by homosexual parents flourish as well as other children, the balance of that evidence seems to me to indicate that children whose nurturing parents are also their male and female biological parents in a happy marriage flourish better than all other children.
Recall that the racist said above:
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that interracial marriages end in divorce more often than same-race marriages. For marriages involving a White female and Black male the divorce rate is 200% higher than if the White female had married a White male.
Even if these assertions were true (and that is very debatable), it would not be a reason to condemn same-sex marriage or mixed race marriages. This sort of evidence is very prone to confounding variables; most obviously with race and sexual orientation, the centuries of prejudice that forms the societal backdrop to mixed race and same sex marriages. But, more importantly, we have been given no more reason to think that we should analyse such statistics by orientation or race than we should analyse them by, say, religious belief. If the statistics showed that the children of protestant evangelicals flourish less than those of Catholics, would that be a reason to conclude that protestant evangelical sexual acts are a bad thing? No, of course not, and likewise for same-sex sexual acts.

Homosexuality is reversible?

Another part of Swinburne's case is that sexual orientation is reversible, since this drives his recommendation to discourage homosexual behaviour; or, at least, to endorse his view that God commands the discouragement of homosexual behaviour (what would be the point of discouragement if it had no effect?). He says:
The evidence seems to me to indicate clearly that genes and environment (nature and nurture) both play a role in determining sexual orientation; and also that this orientation is sometimes to a considerable extent reversible.
Sadly for Swinburne's case, this is unsupported by the evidence. If sexual orientation can be conditioned in some way, then presumably heterosexuality could be conditioned away too? In fact, that's entailed by Swinburne's view that homosexual practice causes homosexuality. Many of us experience orientation differently, however, as something intrinsic to our identity, not a 'here today, gone tomorrow' preference - I can't imagine my heterosexuality being conditioned away, and I suspect those of a homosexual tendency can't imagine their orientation being conditioned away either. Philosopher Rob Hughes points out on the Leiter Report:
Swinburne's assertion is at odds with the evidence that a person's future sexual orientation is determined before school age and possibly much earlier. He provides no evidence for his assertion that sexual experimentation influences orientation, either in his 2007 book Revelation, or in his 2008 reply to critics, or in the text of his recent talk.
He notes the problem with the scant evidence Swinburne cites for his view, and quotes the apology from Alan Chambers after the closure of the 'ex-gay' organisation Exodus International. Hughes says:
After the 2013 closure of the leading "ex-gay" organization, Exodus International, no informed person can seriously entertain the suggestion that "reparative therapy" works.
Hughes concludes:
In 2016, it is intellectually and morally irresponsible to assert without evidence that sexual  experimentation causes homosexuality or that people can change their sexual orientations through "reparative therapy".
The WHO policy document quoted before cites this document on the pointlessness, and bankruptcy, of homosexual 'cures':
Health professionals who offer “reparative therapies” align themselves with social prejudices and reflect a stark ignorance in matters of sexuality and sexual health. Contrary to what many people believe or assume, there is no reason – with the exception of the stigma resulting from those very prejudices – why homosexual persons should be unable to enjoy a full and satisfying life. The task of health professionals is to not cause harm and to offer support to patients to alleviate their complaints and problems, not to make these more severe. A therapist who classifies non-heterosexual patients as “deviant” not only offends them but also contributes to the aggravation of their problems. 
“Reparative” or “conversion therapies” have no medical indication and represent a severe threat to the health and human rights of the affected persons. They constitute unjustifiable practices that should be denounced and subject to adequate sanctions and penalties.
So given this overwhelming consensus among the relevant authorities, why doesn't Swinburne defer to them? In Swinburne's response to Pleitz, he only claims that his view is 'plausible', given the evidence, but it is clear that it is not. He is far too well informed to be ignorant of this literature.

Homophobia?

Therefore, I think Pleitz's original conclusion stands:
Swinburne’s argument against homosexuality is a clear-cut case of homophobia (section 4). The criticism of the premises of Swinburne’s argument shows that some premises are wrong and badly argued for and that there is an equivocation which renders the argument invalid (section 2). If Swinburne’s conclusion gained wider acceptance in the contemporary Western societies, this probably would lead to grave consequences for homosexuals (section 3). Thus, there is an extreme imbalance between Swinburne’s brief argument and the great harm that the endorsement of its conclusion would probably lead to. I conclude that Swinburne in his argument against homosexuality has moved beyond the limits of scientific philosophy, and into the realm of homophobia.
Christian response

As with mixed race marriage, research shows there is a similar reluctance amongst Christians to accept homosexuality as something that is not wrong in some way, and the controversy after Swinburne's talk shows that Christians tend to take such arguments more seriously than the non-religious. Not all of them, though, and it is to the credit of Michael Rea (the president of the SCP) that he expressed regret  on Facebook for the hurt caused by it. He paints the SCP as committed to diversity and inclusion (two of the good Christian traits!), so, perhaps understandably, distanced the SCP from Swinburne's views.

But this apparently innocuous paragraph has been cast by some of the more splenetic members of the Christian community as an assault on free speech and academic freedom (see here and here). Even one of the more reasonable Christian thinkers, Randal Rauser (a champion of analytic philosophy and defender of atheists, whilst being a strong critic of atheism), has called out Rea for his Facebook comment:
If Christian philosophers face censure within the Society of Christian Philosophers for articulating a dispassionate philosophical critique of homosexuality, then where can they express those views?
...and many, often thoughtful, commentators agree with him. I think, rather, that if Christian philosophers should expect no censure when discussing their views amongst other Christian philosophers then that discipline would have stagnated, signalling an end to normal debate on such matters among thoughtful Christians. Rea's comment is not the severest censure, in any case, and pales against the censure delivered to homosexuals by Swinburne in his talk. Imagine being a practising gay Christian in the audience listening to the professor blithely describing her having a homosexual orientation as a 'disability', and that she should be 'cured'.

Such censuring talk is surely inevitable when norms are being challenged, and whilst I can imagine it being abused (such as unreasonable claims of Islamophobia in response to criticisms of Islam, unreasonable claims of Christian persecution in response to judgments of secular law, and perhaps even the framing of reasonable moral censure as an attack on academic freedom), there seems little chance that Rea's comment will threaten Swinburne's, or other Christians', academic freedom, given how overly deferential even countries in the enlightened West are to religion. Religious discrimination against homosexuals is a completely appropriate target for opprobrium, just as religious discrimination against non-whites is. It's just part of the cut and thrust that determines the Overton window of what is acceptable in society.

The modern world has figured out that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, and Christians should accept that they are on the wrong side of history on this one, and that people, hopefully including other Christians, will call out bad arguments against homosexuality as homophobic, even if they are made behind the privileged screen of religion. Unfortunately at the moment anti-homosexual sentiment is normalised in the Christian community to an extent that would be challenged in non-religious public fora. Comments such as Michael Rea's are, therefore, to be welcomed.

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