Sunday, 26 December 2010

Danger Man

St Joseph and the Child, Oil on canvas, Museo ...Image via Wikipedia

In arguing against religious influence in the public sphere I think it's important to distinguish between the right of the religious to express their opinion in a democratic society, which should be defended, and any undue influence their opinion carries, or privilege allowed to their opinion, which should be resisted.

The unfortunate case of St. Joseph's Hospital in Arizona highlights the undue influence religion can have. A hospital that chose to save a mother's life and abort her child has been condemned by the Bishop of Phoenix, and he is withdrawing its Catholic status. This barmy and misogynist decision is, nonetheless, in accordance with Catholic doctrine. A hospital losing Catholic status should be treated as of no consequence - there is no direct funding involved, although indirect funding may be affected - and yet letters have been exchanged between health authority and Diocese as if these things mattered. It's laughable that officials should be wasting their time responding to this deluded cleric. In the Bishop's letter to Catholic Healthcare West (CHW), who run St Joseph's, in November, he said this, in response to CHW's decision to disagree with his judgement on the abortion case:
But this resolution is unacceptable because it disregards my authority and responsibility to interpret the moral law and to teach the Catholic faith as a Successor of the Apostles.
Note the capitals on 'Successor'; he's referring to the supposed Apostolic Succession claimed by the Catholic Church. We see the privilege demanded by this priest for his moral authority, over and above the rest of us. This is quite simply unacceptable in a modern liberal democracy; no one person and no organisation can claim moral authority just because.

Now, in one sense I would grant he has authority; he is responsible for his Catholic Diocese so he has every right to give and withdraw Catholic status as he sees fit. However, writing to the responsible authority and badgering them to change their medical procedures because of some bogus authority *he* claims is fundamentally anti-democratic, and he should be roundly condemned for it. Unfortunately, too many people are still in thrall to his bogus authority, so by dint of popular support he still has undue influence. But one day such interventions in the running of our every day institutions will be regarded as ludicrous, and no attention will be paid.

This is the goal of new atheists, and gnu atheists, and accommodationists should also be looking to achieve this aim.

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Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Irrational Animal

Bertrand Russell 1893Image via Wikipedia

Man is a rational animal - so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favor of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents.

This sentiment is often expressed (usually a little more forcefully) in pub conversations among the like-minded, referring to any number of examples, such as support for Chelsea FC, the charms of Katie Price, or the attraction of Strictly Come Dancing.

In Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, an excellent exploration of the anthropological evidence for the origins of religious thinking, chapter 5, Why do Gods and Spirits Matter?, includes a discussion of morality. He talks about moral reasoning and feeling:
We all have moral intuitions (“My friend left her purse here, I must give it back to her”), moral judgements (“He should have returned his friend’s purse”), moral feelings (“He stole his friend’s purse, how revolting!”), moral principles (“Stealing is wrong”) and moral concepts (“wrong”, “right”). How is all this organized in the mind? There are two possible ways of describing the mental processes engaged. On the one hand, moral judgements seem to be organized by a system of rules and inferences. People seem to have some notion of very general principles (e.g., “Do not harm other people unless they harmed you”; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; etc.). These provide very general templates. If you fill the placeholders in the templates with particular values—the names of the people involved, the nature of the action considered—you reach a certain description of the situation with a moral tag. This is called the moral reasoning model. On the other hand, in many cases people just seem to feel particular emotions when faced with particular situations and particular courses of action. Without having a clear notion of why we have a particular reaction, we know that doing this rather than that triggers emotional effects that goad us in one direction rather than the other, or that make us proud to have done the right thing, guilty if we did not, revolted if others did not, etc. This is a moral feeling model.

All well and good, and certainly I've often thought that morality arose from a confluence of these two forces. There are some intriguing problems, however, that show us that our moral feelings can be a little inexplicable, when we try to reason them through.

I was sad to hear of the death, recently, of Philippa Foot. She was the philosopher who first introduced the Trolley Problem, to throw the spotlight on our moral intuitions. The basic formulation is:
Photo of Philippa Foot 1942Image via Wikipedia
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?
I think most people would flip the switch, but one can nurdle out the sort of moralist one is by the answer one gives. Some would consider themselves infected by the ongoing moral wrong if they participated, apparently. The thought experiment becomes more interesting when comparing different scenarios with the same participants and potential outcomes. Judith Jarvis Thompson suggested this:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
Brilliant! I think most would feel more resistant to this second act than the first; perhaps it's the direct action on the person, or his proximity? Or maybe even his fatness. Anyway, the point is, we do have feelings about these scenarios, that aren't necessarily easy to reason through. The naturalist considers such feelings to be evolved, combined with cultural reinforcement in childhood. Or perhaps the cultural reinforcement simply hooks into an evolved mechanism for distaste - Boyer discusses childhood development, so it's worth a read. But I was more intrigued by the drivers that are proposed for the altruism:

Kin selection
Reciprocal altruism
Commitment gadgets

Kin selection and reciprocal altruism are fairly well-known, but I was less familiar with the commitment gadgets. These are fascinating, because they show how an irrational element to our behaviour could, perhaps, be beneficial. As Boyer points out:
People behave in altruistic ways in many circumstances where no common genes are involved and no reciprocation is expected. They refrain from extracting all the possible benefits from many situations. It would be trivially easy to steal from friends, mug old ladies or leave restaurants without tipping. Also, this restraint does not stem from rational calculation—for instance, from the fear of possible sanctions—for it persists when there is clearly no chance of getting caught; people just say that they would feel awful if they did such things. Powerful emotions and moral feelings seem to be driving behaviour in a way that does not maximize individuals’ benefits.
Boyer gives the example of a shopkeeper and his assistant; why does the assistant refrain from stealing from the till? If it was known that the shopkeeper would react intemperately and irrationally to such a thing, that would be a deterrent to the assistant. If the assistant thought that the shopkeeper would reasonably see that he's simply lost some takings, and a murderous attack is not appropriate, the assistant might well risk the theft. But he is less likely to take the risk if the downside might be his murder. So we can see how irrational behaviour could be beneficial in a society that demands cooperation. Boyer says:
So to be known as someone who is actually in the grip of such passionate feelings is a very good thing as long as they are, precisely, feelings that override rational calculations.
He continues to describe the problems of honesty; there is a cost to it. We have many opportunities to be dishonest but most of us don't take them. On the individual level, this is irrational, but in a society where cooperation is paramount, having humans with strong feelings driving them to be honest becomes a net benefit.

One of the studies cited by Boyer in his discussion is Boyd and Richerson's Punishment allows the evolution of cooperation (or anything else) in sizable groups (1992), which includes this in the abstract:

We show that cooperation enforced by retribution can lead to the evolution of cooperation in two qualitatively different ways. (1) If benefits of cooperation to an individual are greater than the costs to a single individual of coercing the other n − 1 individuals to cooperate, then strategies which cooperate and punish noncooperators, strategies which cooperate only if punished, and, sometimes, strategies which cooperate but do not punish will coexist in the long run. (2) If the costs of being punished are large enough, moralistic strategies which cooperate, punish noncooperators, and punish those who do not punish noncooperators can be evolutionarily stable.

Coincidentally, I posted a comment on Russell Blackford's blog about Tom Clark on Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape (if you can follow that!). Tom Clark was kind enough to point out a problem with my use of retribution:
Mark Jones: “So we must (perhaps only for the sake of a workable society, which seems to be Dennett's thought) include some element of retribution, but craft the entire justice system in the full knowledge that a person is not a self-made thing.”
Keep in mind retribution is defined as punishing without *any* regard to good consequences, such as having a workable society. The retributivist has to justify punishing the offender as *intrinsically* good. If you can supply a convincing justification for that, I’ll sign up as a retributivist.
I replied:
Yes, retribution seems pointless from my world view, in isolation, but surely when one is deciding policy one cannot discount the fact that millions believe in its intrinsic good? Unfortunately, people behave based on what they believe rather than the truth of the matter. So my point was pragmatic rather than principled - it seems to me that in these circumstances retribution delivers an extrinsic good *because* many people believe in its intrinsic good - perhaps this then falls out of the definition of retribution? I'm not sure what it is then.
And isn't Dennett's quote pointing out that we tend to *feel* that retribution is good, rather than it *is* good? I would argue against retribution in *principle*, despite plotting revenge against my enemies.
It seems to me that retribution might be an example of how our intuitions are out of step with our reasoning, but may have a beneficial effect in a cooperative society. Our demand for retributive justice appears irrational to me, but I can't help feeling it's a good thing! Maybe this is another irrational gadget which is beneficial in a cooperative society.

Before this realisation I'd assumed that irrationality was just a symptom of our imperfect processing, and that evolution had yet to fine-tune it. But now it's clear that some irrational feelings may be beneficial in themselves. And these will occasionally conflict with our better thought out positions. In the first place, we could not be blamed for following our feelings. In the longer term, I think we all have the responsibility to justify many of our intuitions through reason, especially in the knowledge that our feelings may be justifiably irrational, in the survival strategy sense.

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Sunday, 21 November 2010

Garrow's Humour

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I wrote about the first series of Garrow's Law, and a second series has now started, which I'm pleased to report maintains the same high standards. It follows the partly true exploits of William Garrow, London barrister at the end of the eighteenth century, who practically invented cross-examination and appears to have played a great part in removing many injustices from the UK legal system. It's a triumph for writer and creator Tony Marchant.

Consider the second episode of series 2; in this, Marchant notes the iniquity of harsher sentences for women than men for the same offences. Phebe Harris was condemned to death by burning for counterfeiting coins (for which men would be hanged), and the sentence was executed on 21st June 1786. Thankfully, by 1790, when Sophie Girton was sentenced the same, she was pardoned (although still transported to Australia!), and the abolition of burning was well on the way.

He also weaves a story about a gay relationship uncovered by a spurned wife with the apparently widespread practice of blackmailing men by threatening to report them for sodomy (which carried the death sentence, even if consensual). Needless to say, a proportion of the male population indulged and discovery was much feared. Really thoughtfully done, although possibly a little anachronistic occasionally.

It highlights, I think, how far we've come in this country in a comparatively short time, but also how far we can fall, if primitive forces are allowed to prevail in our modern, liberal, secular societies. We have the prospect of an old man in a hat telling 1 billion people that they can now use condoms 'in certain cases'. Well, I don't think it should take a William Garrow to sort out these 'cases'; Catholics should tell the Pope to stick his 'certain cases' where the sun don't shine, and tell him to start thinking rationally and not doctrinally, where people's health is concerned.

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Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Interrogative Moo?

h/t and apologies to Padgett Powell - The Interrogative Mood

Do cows ask each other questions? Are you cowed by questions? Do bears shit in the woods? Does a falling tree in an empty wood make a noise? Do we hear what we want to hear? Are we here because we were meant to be? Are we here because we had to be? Does a puddle have to be puddle-shaped? Do we have to be human-shaped? Does thinking have to be thinking-shaped? Do we have to be shaped? Does thinking about it make it different?

If we mishear, what misses the ear? If something misheard means something else, is that meaningful? What is the meaning of life? What is six times nine? When does life start? What about the meanness of life? Who will think of the children? What do the children think of Will? Will they ever freely think of Will? Is their will free?

When did you last see your father? When did you last see your Father? Where's your cap? Where's your gym kit? Where's your homework? Where's your shame? Where's your innocence? Wears the soap?

What's the time? Does time fly? Do flies time? Does time travel? Can the time be written down on a piece of paper? What is time's arrow? Can it fly backwards? Can things be undone? Can zips be undone? Can zip be undone?

What do you call two grains of sand? What do you call three grains of sand? What do you call four grains of sand? What do you call five grains of sand? What do you call six grains of sand? What do you call one hundred grains of sand? At what point does this amount to a paragraph? At what point does this amount to a blog?

Do all novels sound like The Interrogative Mood to Australians?

(Well, you get the idea with that one)
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Wednesday, 3 November 2010

If not Phlogiston, is this Supernatural?

This image was selected as a picture of the da...Image via Wikipedia

The natural/supernatural debate rumbles on.

Chris Schoen responds to Coyne, Blackford, Boudry et al whilst sort of agreeing with Steve Zara, PZ et al, but also gets it wrong, in my opinion:
But I'll allow that just as it's a tautology to say "if we define the supernatural as that which science can't examine, then science can't examine it," so too is it a tautology to say that "if we include the supernatural among that which science can examine, then science can examine it." 
Both of these are word games. The question is whether there is a category of phenomena (empty or otherwise) which science is not equipped to study, and the obvious answer to this is yes.
But surely that's just a word game as well, because a 'category' is just a human construct, so he's defining the problem into existence too, and begging the question. Steve is much closer to this, I think, by insisting science investigates reality; the rest is arbitrary categorising. We cannot know a priori what exists, or if "a category of phenomena (empty or otherwise) which science is not equipped to study" exists. That our mind is capable of imagining such a category is no more proof of its existence than it is of Guanilo's Island. It just means our minds are capable of imagining the non-existent. And this is backed by cognitive and other studies of supernatural thinking (see Boyer's Religion Explained, for example). Of course, if in fact science cannot investigate something, we have no other way to investigate it either.
Science can't study what it can't define, quantify and observe.
Which just defines the problem into existence, which he mentioned earlier.
Since it is predicated on revealing laws, science cannot study that which is lawless ("capricious," in Russell's words.)
Well, surely it can; it can study anything that has an effect in reality. We may not be able to draw conclusions from those studies, however, and in particular I don't think we can conclude in favour of, or even prefer, a supernatural explanation.

I've often said, in response to theists who question how science has any jurisdiction over God, that it is so because theists say their God makes a difference in the world. That *difference* can be studied (and so far dismissed, as it happens). So science has historically dismissed claimed 'differences', and the vast number of these debunkings suggests that it's *reasonable* to infer that it will always be so. Not that it *will* always be so, but that it's a reasonable inference that it will always be so.

Realising their claims have been debunked, theists then look around and find some phenomenon that science has yet to explain and re-attach their theology to that phenomenon (consciousness, for example). And this will continue ad nauseam, since there will no doubt always be unexplained phenomena.

The claim that supernatural explanations cannot be accepted fundamentally derives from the simple observation that the phrase supernatural explanation is an oxymoron, and I don't see a way past that. 

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Monday, 18 October 2010

That Obscure Subject of Desire

inverted quaia of colour. 色の反転クオリア。Image via Wikipedia

There have been many more posts arising from Steve Zara's strident proposal on supernatural evidence, including PZ Myers in support and Jerry Coyne against. In a discussion of this on Butterflies and Wheels, Steve said this:
The supernatural isn’t a thing, but a desire...
Ophelia Benson pointed out how quotable it was, so here I am! Philosophical naturalists must lean towards this view, of course, but it always seems a little bald when stated so straight-forwardly.

We know that absolutely everything we experience of the world is subjective, but most of us consider that some of these subjective experiences reflect an objective reality. So because our entire perception is a creation of our neuroscience based on our senses, we try to figure out which bits derive from real objects and which bits are just  creations of our neuroscience, as a consequence of our evolved biology. In principle, it is easy to understand how these subjective elements evolved. A mutation leads some members of a population to like the taste of sugary things, which provides life-sustaining energy; their behaviour is modified accordingly and they survive better than those members who don't like sugary things. Whilst most agree that sugar is an object, most would agree that there is no object of 'sweetness'. The evolutionary advantage needn't be so obvious, since pre-adaptations can cause changes to our biology too.

More controversially, we are faced with this problem when considering morals, and, as with Steve's quote, the supernatural. There is no evidence to show the supernatural exists, so sceptics can agree that it is reasonable to discount its existence. If one is being cautious, one would agree to examine any more incoming evidence for supernatural traces, ignoring the fact that one cannot know in advance what it would mean to be 'evidence of the supernatural'.

But we have the hypothesis that the supernatural is a figment of the human psyche. And the evidence supports this hypothesis. Nothing supernatural has ever been uncovered, and we have the evidence of thousands of years of human beings adjusting their supernatural ideas according to our understanding of the world - I mean, adjusting them to be beyond our understanding of the world (moderate theists), repeatedly, or simply asserting that their claims are beyond our understanding of the world (fundamentalists).

In the light of this evidence and history, I think any reasonable person should accept that there will never be any evidence for the supernatural. And this is before we allow that Hume on testimony shows that we could never accept any evidence for the miraculous, since our own perceptions are simply testimony.
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Wednesday, 6 October 2010


Livre DraperImage via Wikipedia

The criteria for the £1,000,000 Templeton Prize are laid out as:
The qualities sought in a Templeton Prize nominee include creativity and innovation, rigor and impact. The judges seek, above all, a substantial record of achievement that highlights or exemplifies one of the various ways in which human beings express their yearning for spiritual progress. Consideration is given to a nominee's work as a whole, not just during the year prior to selection. Nominations are especially encouraged in the fields of:

Research in the human sciences, life sciences, and physical sciences.
Scholarship in philosophy, theology, and other areas of the humanities.
Practice, including religious leadership, the creation of organizations that edify and inspire, and the development of new schools of thought.
Commentary and journalism on matters of religion, virtue, character formation, and the flourishing of the human spirit.

So, anyone who writes about science and religion could receive a £1,000,000 prize. Quite an incentive. What impact would that have? I wonder.

Science and religion have fundamentals at odds with each other. Science attempts to draw models of the world based on the best evidence that human methodology can uncover. In principle it is contingent, and never a complete explanation, since it's always open to variation based on new evidence. Religion settles arbitrarily on some preconceptions, vows never to examine those and proceeds to draw inferences about reality based on those preconceptions. In principle it is not contingent but a complete explanation; no evidence could gainsay its preconceptions.

Much has been written about their compatibility, including by me, which, considering the above, is surprising. It's understood that *people* can be scientific and religious, happily, but that's not the same. People can be adulterous whilst thinking it's wrong to be adulterous too. People can hold contradictory positions; it's a 'feature' of our thinking. But it's trivially true that science and religion contradict each other as world views at the above fundamental level. A test of someone's theism would be to ask them if they would revise their beliefs if evidence came in to shake their preconceptions; if they say they would revise their beliefs, they aren't really theistic, but scientific. If they say no, they wouldn't, then Don't Pass Go, go Straight to Jail; they're not scientific.

So why is there so much 'science and religion' talk going on? Consider this:

Ophelia Benson talks about some strange developments, including...

The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, by Peter Harrison, from the Ian Ramsey Centre at Oxford University. The Ian Ramsey Centre has links with Templeton.

A BBC program on science and religion by historian Dr Thomas Dixon, which suggests more harmony than there is. His published work includes Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, with this blurb:

As Thomas Dixon shows in this balanced and thought-provoking introduction, many have seen harmony rather than conflict between faith and science.

Harmony? What does that mean? It means religion before science, so science doesn't get to tell religion it's wrong. As Ophelia points out, both Harrison and Dixon are members of the The International Society for Science & Religion, a Religion in Science organisation, founded by Anglican priest and Templeton Prize recipient, Sir John Polkinghorne. Dixon's also contributed to Science and Religion, New Historical Perspectives, with fellow ISSR members Geoffrey Cantor and Stephen Pumfrey, which has this blurb:

The idea of an inevitable conflict between science and religion was decisively challenged by John Hedley Brooke in his classic Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, 1991). Almost two decades on, Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives revisits this argument and asks how historians can now impose order on the complex and contingent histories of religious engagements with science.

Great, no conflict between science and religion, because they disallow science as an arbiter of religious claims. So who else belongs to this Society?

Michael Reiss, who recently wrote about Creationism in the classroom:

Effective teaching in this area can help students not only learn about the theory of evolution, but also better appreciate the way science is done, the procedures by which scientific knowledge accumulates, the limitations of science and the ways in which scientific knowledge differs from other forms of knowledge.
Oh yes, the *limitations* of science and those other forms of knowledge. Not really science *and* religion then. Religion, then science.

Here's another article, by Cathy Lynn Grossman; she's connected to Templeton too. She asks:

Do you think a baby conceived in test tube is still a child in the eyes -- or mind or hands, depending on your theology/philosophy -- of God? Does the science behind this merit the Nobel Prize for Medicine or condemnation in the realm of faith and ethics?

This sickening question doesn't seem to be about science and religion, but religion, then science.

As Jerry Coyne notes as well, there's a lot of accommodationism about. Elaine Ecklund has conducted a survey of scientists and religion that shows that scientists aren't very religious, but against her own data she says:

As we journey from the personal to the public religious lives of scientists, we will meet the nearly 50 percent of elite scientists like Margaret who are religious in a traditional sense...
So religion, then science again. Her work was funded by Templeton, you'll not be surprised to hear.

Not be outdone, at Cambridge we have The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, funded by Templeton. One of their aims is, supposedly:

Scholarly research and publication on science and religion, including the organisation of invited groups of experts to write joint publications.

Let's have a look; here's a paper called Nothing but a Pack of Neurons? by Dr Stuart Judge, a physiologist and neuroscientist. Scientific, is it? Well, there's a lot of expert science and intelligent discussion of the problems of dualism and non-dualism. But towards the end, Judge says:

What then of Jesus’s saying: ‘be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell’? This certainly reminds us that our Maker has the sovereign authority to do more than destroy our present embodiment. But does this use of the word soul (psyche) imply a separate kind of non-physical stuff that attaches to our bodies when we are alive and detaches from them at death, or can it be read as a way of indicating that from the point of view of the Creator our identity extends beyond space and time?
He's begging the question. So, we again have religion, then science. Perhaps that's a one-off? Well, no; here's Human genomics and the Image of God; and Creation and Evolution Not Creation or Evolution (the author gets this the right way round for a change!). It's all a travesty of science.

So, now, let it be known that wherever you see the words 'Science and Religion', what you'll actually be getting is 'Religion, then Science', and, more than likely, a link to the Templeton Foundation somewhere in the background.
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Friday, 24 September 2010

Nouvelle Atheism

Eurobarometer Poll 2005 Percentage of those wh...Image via Wikipedia
Caspar Melville followed up his poorly argued piece on new atheism with a report on the debate that took place between Marilynne Robinson, Roger Scruton and Jonathan Rée, with Laurie Taylor chairing. I'm reproducing here the comment I made on RD.NET.

What a waste of an evening that sounds. Accommodationists sitting round chundering about tone whilst slagging off new atheists in an even worse tone. Maybe one day they will actually come up with some action points that aren't self-defeating.
I presume Melville misspelled accommodationist because someone here did? I realise this is pedantic, but can we please get this right? M & M, like the chocolates, not one M.
I suppose it [accommodationist] means that I am prepared to debate with people who have views that are different from mine, including those who have religious belief and those who liked the film Amelie. If this is what it means, then I am, and proud of it.
No, that's not what it means, else Dawkins would be one and everyone who posts on this board. Sheesh; how do these people get paid employment? There are two meanings:
  1. An advocate of NOMA.
  2. A tone troll; someone who waffles on about tone (which is important), but doesn't present any evidence to back up why the tone they prefer is the best one, and constantly falls foul of her own tone rules. For an example, see the You're Not Helping debacle.
I suppose if you think that this really is some kind battle [sic] – between religious believers (all in one camp) and atheists (all in another) you could believe that, but I don't (in fact I think this is very dangerous view).
Plainly not, with milquetoasts about!
I'm suspicious of arguments that sound like they have discovered the Truth. They always sound too much like dogma for my taste, and if the non-believing gang is against anything, surely it's dogmatism?
Exactly; the problem with accommodationists is they are telling people what to do, based on nothing but, well, dogma, apparently. That doesn't go down well amongst genuine sceptics.
Subsequently Steve Zara made this point:
For people like Melville to moan because the arguments of theology aren't addressed in detail by people like Richard is like someone saying that complaints about the UK's national eating habits are absurd because the fine and rare dishes served at The Savoy aren't being considered. The "fine dishes" (actually a form of homeopathic cuisine - the plates look empty) of theology aren't what the vast majority consume. When people want to try and understand and deal with religion, they have to confront the everyday reality of religion.
Very true, but the problem with faitheists, accommodationists is their lack of substantive argument. It is perhaps only to be expected. Atheism itself is pretty empty, being a lack of belief; attacking it from another atheistic viewpoint has always seemed a pretty pointless occupation. So this allusion suggested to me another for those of an accommodationist bent - that of Nouvelle Atheism - a tiny serving of the right ingredients that doesn't satisfy.
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Monday, 20 September 2010

Press Ganged Up

The visit of a dictatorial absolute monarch telling the plucky Brits how to behave would normally, you would think, bring howls of outrage from the famed 'free' press of the United Kingdom and its politicians. But they, and the television media, have been falling over themselves to fawn sycophantically over one of the most harmful men alive in the world today. Armies are mobilised to track down Bin Laden, who has a few thousand deaths to his name, admittedly, but this dealer in the death of millions gets an audience with the Queen and the thumbs up from all our political leaders! Ironic, then, that Pope Benedict XVI should start by saying, in a speech where he blamed Nazism on atheism:
Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.
Secularism is the idea that *religion* be kept separate from government. It's difficult to see how this could get 'aggressive'. Secularism would protect Catholics in theocracies like Iran, if only the Mullahs believed in it.
Secular opposition to the Islamist government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been active in the country up until 1984, afterwards they were branded heretics and apostates by the clerical hierarchy, and eventually jailed and executed, or exiled.
So it would seem the Pope isn't too keen on something that would actually help some of his sheeple. Strange man. So, is the UK a hotbed of aggressive secularism? Look at this from the Daily Mail Comment page:
Doesn’t the Pope make a timely point when he warns against the march of ‘aggressive secularism’?
And this after lily-livered comments like this from the Daily Heil:
Yes, as Benedict humbly admits, the ‘unspeakable crimes’ of Catholic priests have brought ‘shame and humiliation’ on the church, while his own handling of the scandal has been lamentable.
And yes, millions find it impossible to accept the Vatican’s continuing opposition to the use of condoms in tackling Aids.
He's *so* humble, with his demands to be heard and followed, *so* humble. The Comment wibbles on:
But who can doubt that the Pope’s central theme deserves a hearing in a society increasingly devoted to instant self-gratification?
And yet what else have we seen from the Catholic hordes in the past few days but an appallingly self-indulgent festival of instant self-gratification? The fatuous Peter McKay in the same paper on the same day makes the point for me:
But those who turned out to protest about Benedict's visit, on the grounds that he held incorrect views on homosexuality, women and condoms, seemed shrill and ill-mannered alongside the hundreds of thousands of people who received obvious pleasure from seeing and hearing the Pope in Britain.
What does the Telegraph think?
In his speeches, His Holiness has shown a clarity of thought to shame the woolly utterances of Britain’s politicians, throwing down the gauntlet to our overly secularised society and insisting – as this newspaper has on many occasions – that religion still has a vital role to play within our culture.
More of that aggressive secularism the Pope was warning about? No, just more sycophantic chundering about how wonderful this professional harbourer of child abusers is:
Before the Pope’s arrival, there was one particular issue that concerned many: the vile abuse of children perpetrated in several different countries by members of the Church’s hierarchy over several decades, and the efforts that had been made to conceal those crimes. Here, the Pope has shown great moral courage. As well as meeting some of the victims, he has addressed the topic on repeated occasions, expressing his “deep sorrow” about these “unspeakable crimes”, which have caused “immense suffering”, and brought “shame and humiliation” to the institution that he leads.
What good are a few weasel words to the thousands of child abuse victims around the world? Words are not enough. And why should others care about *his* institution? It's time for the Pope to *act*, and it should also be time for journalists who have a conscience to speak up. But it seems we have very few of those. Here's the Guardian Editorial:
If the pope has not done much reconciling, then neither have his militant opponents. The thousands who traipsed through London chanting "he belongs in jail" may not see any connection between themselves and the anti-papist mobs of the past, but there is a failure to afford sincere faith the respect it is due.
So every time someone wants to protest against the Catholic Church they are automatically linked to anti-papist mobs of the past? What a disgraceful thing to say about people with *genuine* grievances.

In the Sunday Times (behind a paywall) faitheist extraodinaire Bryan Appleyard was at it again with his boring framing of the Protest the Pope demonstration:
It was noisy. A truck led the way manned by two chanters leading a quasi-religious call-and-response ritual
The crowd shrieked back in unison. It was a bizarre coalition of unreconstructed hippies, feminists, gays, condom users and all-purpose angry folk. And then there were the suddenly child-protecting zealots.
Wow; another disgusting thing to say, as if the people protesting were Johnny come latelys only interested in child abuse for politically expedient reasons. And what's bizarre about feminists, gays and hippies forming coalitions? Has Appleyard attacked the bizarre (and doomed) attempts at ecumenical coalition?

Our Prime Minister said of the visit:
The Holy See can also be a partner for us with great influence across the world and we have incredibly important work to do together on fighting poverty and disease, on winning the argument to get to grip with climate change, and on promoting a multi-faith dialogue and working for peace across our world.
Can it be a partner? Can it really? And how does one reconcile the beliefs of people who believe in things just because they do? This Conservative seems very welcoming to this absolute monarch telling us what to do, but doesn't seem so keen on the EEC doing the same:
The steady and unaccountable intrusion of the European Union into almost every aspect of our lives has been made worse by the Lisbon Treaty.
Oh for a similar injunction against this meddling Pope.

Atheist Deputy PM Nick Clegg said:
It was very exciting. Whatever your views of Catholicism, he is the leader of one of the great world religions. I can understand all the debates that are raging but we should be giving a very, very warm welcome to him.
Should we be giving a 'very, very warm welcome' to anybody responsible for the cover-up of crimes around the world, and one who hides behind state immunity to ensure he's safe from prosecution? Or just those with a significant percentage of the electorate hanging on their every inanity? Blimey, the mind boggles.

And I haven't even started on the wall-to-wall coverage of this evil man's visit by the TV networks. So forgive me for thinking that the UK is a long way from being anything like the sort of secular society that would actually *safeguard* the beliefs of lunatics like Benedict XVI.

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Friday, 3 September 2010

Philosophy is Dead; Long Live Philosophy?

Stephen Hawking NASA 50th (200804210008HQ)Image by nasa hq photo via Flickr

Stephen Hawking writes in his new book, The Grand Design:
Where did all this come from? Did the Universe need a creator?
Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.

The philos won't like that. I'm also not sure that it's quite fair. I think there's still a place for philosophising, but, as with Dennett, it must be anchored in as good an understanding of modern science as can be managed by one person. That is the challenge for modern philosophy, IMHO.
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Friday, 27 August 2010

Bishop of Durham doesn't believe in command from on high

This made me giggle; in an interview with Jim Naughtie, Tom Wright said, in response to a question about the problems the CofE were having sorting out their views on sex:
We don't believe, as some churches do, in saying, right, the big man at the top has decided, now bang, that's it, you've all got to come into line.
So, there you have it, no commands from on high; these liberal Bishops are certainly coming round to the secular way of doing things, aren't they?

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Saturday, 21 August 2010

More Accommodating

Part of Image:Planetary society.jpg Original c...Image via Wikipedia

I discussed Massimo Pigliucci's attack on Jerry Coyne in my last blog, and coincidentally listened to Pigliucci's talk from last month on Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, discussing his new book Nonsense on Stilts. It includes a lot of interesting stuff on his speciality, the Philosophy of Science, and most of it seems eminently sensible.

He and the interviewer unfortunately go off the rails at the end when talking about the new atheists; a problem too many people have, it seems! Here's what is said, starting at 47:20:
...I find myself, on the one hand, being put into the so-called accommodationist camp - those are people who actually think that science and religion are compatible, and I don't. I absolutely do not think that they're compatible (....)
...I don't think they're compatible as a matter of approach, as an intellectual approach.
This surprised me a *little* since Pigliucci had said that Coyne was wrong to call theist scientists 'philsosophically inconsistent'. I guess if he had called them 'intellectually inconsistent', that would have been fine, since that is clearly what Pigliucci is calling them here. And he reinforces this by explaining that scientists should change their mind as the evidence comes in, whereas religion is about faith; in his book, believing things regardless of the evidence.

[Incidentally, accommodationism has come to have two meanings:
1) That science and religion are compatible worldviews.
2) The tactical view that religious believers being treated with civility at all times will achieve a better result in the public sphere for science and reason.
Pigliucci has denied he's one of the first, but I think agrees with the second stance.]

He points out that there is nothing new about the new atheism, which I certainly agree with. Their arguments are often centuries old. What makes it new is the social impact, which, he says, may be a fluke. This seems to me to be quite possible - such social movements are emergent phenomena. Pigliucci continues:
The thing that I really don't particularly care for is the strident tone (...) you can be firm about your criticism of somebody else without necessarily calling them a bunch of idiots. I think that once you start calling people names, you lost the high ground, the high moral ground. And so when Dawkins goes around saying that every religious person is stupid, er, that doesn't help.
Well I'm *pretty* sure Dawkins has never said that every religious person is stupid. He's friends with religious people who are demonstrably clever, for goodness sake. On the whole he thinks they are mistaken, although inevitably many of them are also stupid. Inevitably lots of atheists are stupid too. So Pigliucci identifies name-calling as losing the moral high ground, but is happy to misrepresent Dawkins' view of religious people. An insight into his moral standards, I suppose. It's not clear also what he means by 'the strident tone', other than name-calling - so perhaps that is all he means. But that isn't *tone*, but *abuse*. Curious. And, as I've pointed out before, Pigliucci has been called out on his tone too - "Tone matters. And sarcasm is not science.". Which leaves one wondering just what it is he wants of the new atheists, and thinking that he needs to chillax a bit over insults. For all I know it's possible that a good insult could oil the wheels of discourse, and he doesn't produce any evidence to disabuse me of this. Further, I don't like his tone! But a sarcastic, sneering tone is simply not the sort of thing that puts theists off atheism, that much should be obvious. Anyway, he moves onto another concern:
...I think that Dawkins and more recently Jerry Coyne are epistemologically naive (...) they fall into something that is called 'scientism', that is the idea that science is equated with reason, that the two are one and the same thing.
This is his accusation, but it doesn't seem to stand up, to my mind. I don't interpret Dawkins' and Coyne's comments as equating reason and science. Reason is surely part of science, and surely you can reason without doing science. But the best method of understanding the world around us is through the use of reason and evidence, which is commonly identified with the scientific outlook. If Pigliucci wants to draw an arbitrary demarcation line between philosophy and science to allow philosophers a lot more reason, and scientists a lot less, then fine; who's stopping him. But to call out Coyne and Dawkins based on his own demarcation (or, to be fair, the demarcation posited by philosophers of science) is pretty self-indulgent and, er, pointless. Well I say pointless, but it comes over as point-scoring frankly. It doesn't change the fact that the best way to discover what *is*, is through reason and evidence, and this is commonly known as the scientific outlook.
I do think that science, for very good epistemological reasons, has nothing to say about the supernatural; it can dismiss specific claims that supernaturalists make, but it cannot dismiss the God hypothesis.
This is Hume - " cannot dismiss the God hypothesis" is just what Dawkins has always said (including in The God Delusion), and Coyne, as far as I know, so one wonders what his beef is with them.
... so those are my disagreements.
But the second is patently not an area of disagreement; Dawkins and Coyne would surely agree to that statement? One has to assume he concludes that because science can say nothing about the supernatural, that somehow means it's not incompatible with the supernatural.

So I think he draws the wrong conclusions from this sensible statement; as I've said before, the reason science has nothing to say about the supernatural is because the whole notion invalidates the scientific method. Therefore, the supernatural is incompatible with science. I cannot see how it could be anything else; obviously Pigliucci doesn't think they're compatible ("I absolutely do not think that they're [science and religion] compatible"), but he also seems to be saying they're not incompatible. so he seems to be angling for some kind of agnostic compatibility status midway between compatible and incompatible; well, I have no idea what he's angling for.

The interviewer, Luke Muehlhauser, then says:
...a lot of people have said that not only could the new atheists take a different approach and not name-call everybody, but also maybe they're not really putting forward the best intellectual case for atheism or naturalism that they could, and that wouldn't be that surprising because none of them are scholars of religion or these arguments, but I wonder if you might say a few words on how you think atheists in general might make a better intellectual case for atheism or naturalism.
A high error count; First, Pigliucci has already pointed out that the new atheists are only using the old arguments, so how could they *not* be putting forward the best intellectual case? The matter's been settled for the vast majority of intelligent thinkers. Second, again, they *don't* name-call everybody. Third, they plainly *are* scholars of 'these arguments', as much as anyone, including Pigliucci, is. How much theology does one have to suffer before one is allowed to say 'enough, already'? There's no evidence for it, so any theology is *arbitrary*.

It's disappointing to see this; these assertions seem to have become an article of faith amongst accommodationists - they simply don't entertain the idea that they might be mistaken, and glibly carry on as if they're a given.

And indeed, Pigliucci does glibly carry on, overlooking the contradiction to his earlier statement.
... I don't think that religion is the root of all evil, as Dawkins famously said., that's another example of an exaggeration that doesn't help anybody...
Well, quite the opposite, actually, so ...'that's another example of an exaggeration that doesn't help anybody':
(Dawkins - "I do not believe that religion is the root of all evil, thank you Channel 4. Religion is the root of quite a lot of evil, but that didn’t make for a catchy title.")
Pigliucci then goes on to make the bogus comparison between atheistic Stalinism and Maoism 'group-think' and religious ideologies, which makes one question how much he's really thought about this subject. He then  makes vague accusations that some atheists aren't very clever or thoughtful, which seems to be stating the obvious, as well as irrelevant. Oddly, he then points out, correctly, that atheism isn't a positive thing, but an absence of belief, which renders his previous ramble about atheist group-think incoherent. And this is confirmed when he compares atheism to a-unicornism.

So he points out the positive *philosophies* that arise from the evidence based worldview, such as secular humanism and naturalism, but is keen to emphasis that they are *philosophies*, even if they are informed by science. But the whole point of them is that they are informed by science; that is their defining feature, and why they're *compatible* with science, and other philosophies aren't. And we are back wondering again, just what his beef is, and how such a scholar could make such basic errors.

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Saturday, 7 August 2010

Nature and Supernature

There is a common disjunct between scientists, philosophers and theologians about the purview of science; can science pass judgement on matters religious? Massimo Pigliucci has attacked Jerry Coyne in a blog post comparing a comment of Coyne's from 2007 to a more recent one:
Science simply doesn't deal with hypotheses about a guiding intelligence, or supernatural phenomena like miracles, because science is the search for rational explanations of natural phenomena. We don't reject the supernatural merely because we have an overweening philosophical commitment to materialism; we reject it because entertaining the supernatural has never helped us understand the natural world.
A typical acknowledgement of Hume's analysis Of Miracles; that no evidence *could* be presented that a reasonable person *should* accept for a miraculous event. Compare with:
Anybody doing any kind of science should abandon his or her faith if they wish to become a philosophically consistent scientist.
Pigliucci considers this 'naive and pretentious', perhaps because of the 'philosophically' that Coyne has added. Coyne is a scientist and not a philosopher, like Pigliucci. He thinks Coyne is overreaching too, I think. And he also sees a contradiction with the first statement. So is there a contradiction? It's something that has given me some trouble over the years, so I'm hoping to be able to organise my thoughts on the subject in this piece.

Philosophical naturalism is almost *forced* onto non-theists, since there appears to be nothing else for them to adopt, but I don't really like it; it's an unhelpful concept. In fact, Hume's point renders *naturalism* unfalsifiable, just as much as supernaturalism, for if one could prove naturalism false one would presumably have to provide some evidence for supernature which, as Hume shows, we cannot. I see no great need for a *philosophical commitment* to materialism either; I would think immaterialism *could* be part of reality - we just have no evidence for it, but could have, surely? I think Carrier argues quite convincingly along these lines. But he defines the supernatural as immaterialism, which doesn't seem right to me either; consider these points by commenter bart_klink:
In fact, multiple studies on the effect of intercessory prayer have been published in respected journals, for example this one. What if this study showed a (huge) effect of prayer? And what if other studies confirmed these results? A naturalistic explanation would be very improbable indeed. The most reasonable conclusion would be that some supernatural force, probably (a) God, did interfere in our world.
Other examples could easily be given. What if, after saying some Christian prayer, water could be really turned into wine? This also could be scientifically demonstrated, one could even do chemistry experiments. Again a natural explanation is very unlikely and a supernatural one, presumably the Christian God, is likely. Or what if it could be scientifically demonstrated that the mind could function in separation form the brain, as many people of faith claim? The experiment is not hard to set up, but the results would be hard to explain naturalistically, and a supernatural explanation would be reasonable.
But this is very problematic; if prayer showed a huge effect, a naturalistic explanation would be very improbable? Compared with what? If water was turned to wine, would a natural explanation be very unlikely? Compared to what? Even if one did accept a supernatural explanation as reasonable (again, how??), why would one then 'presume the Christian God'? If one is accepting a magical effect, then one is allowing for *anything* to be possible, in principle, so there could be any number of magical explanations, regardless of the Christian God.

Last Thursdayism is often cited as an example of something that science cannot pronounce on, and that's true. But the reason it's true is because methodological naturalism would be invalidated, since evidence would be meaningless. But what would that mean? Simply that we would have *no way* of determining the nature of reality, and this would apply to theists as much as atheists. We would all simply have literally no reason to believe anything.

So I think if someone is claiming that the supernatural exists, in the way that it is commonly claimed to work -that is, a separate realm that can interface with the natural and allows for the breaking of the accepted laws of nature - that, to me, is simply self-refuting, because it disallows the possibility of establishing any reason to believe. I mean, if you believe that, you will believe anything can happen, so you have no reason to prefer *any* explanation to any other. One's beliefs are therefore arbitrary.

However, going back to my dislike of naturalism as an ontology; I really don't see why one has to commit to a particular ontology just because you accept that evidence is required to believe something - quite the opposite, in fact. One's ontology is necessarily a moveable feast because of that. So, for example, I think it's possible to imagine a reality which includes gods within it, and allows for their interaction with us. And of course that's partly what theists believe in. And we can test for *that*. So far the tests show there aren't any of these much vaunted gods interacting with us.

I don't see these ideas as a contradiction; just two different scenarios for what actually exists. I see Coyne's second statement as saying something along the lines of:

1) A scientist will use evidence to determine what *is*.
2) If a scientist posits the supernatural, he is disallowing that evidence can be used to determine what *is*.
3) So, he would have no reason to believe.


1) A scientist will use evidence to determine what *is*.
2) If a scientist posits the God as part of reality, interacting with us, then tests would show what *is*. None show the existence of God, or gods.
3) So, he would have no reason to believe. 

Either way, if a scientist believes despite not having any reason to believe, he's being philosophically inconsistent. I think!

UPDATE: A lot of interesting further discussion has arisen from Pigliucci's post, in the comments section.

I think Pigliuci's position is a natural (whoops) follow-on from Hume's observation that a reasonable person *cannot* accept evidence for the supernatural, therefore, as he keeps saying, science can have no position on it. This seems fair enough, but I think this natural follow on needs more analysis, in line with what I say above.

If a person posits a worldview including a supernatural realm, which effectively means they think it's possible for *anything* to happen in the natural world, they are positing a world where evidence is meaningless, because:

1) Magic could happen at any time, rendering laws, regularity and induction unreliable, and
2) Re supernatural events - belief in these *must* be arbitrary, since there is no way to distinguish between supernatural claims.

I think it's hard to argue that these beliefs are *compatible* with the scientific project, and as such a scientist who believed them would be philosophically inconsistent. At the risk of putting words in his mouth, Pigliucci would probably agree that they're incompatible with science but not 'philosophically' inconsistent, since the supernaturalist will ignore the above when being scientific - iow, assume science is just a tool to determine the putative *natural* world. *If* that's his position, I think it's wrong, just because the above two consequences render the use of the tool of science problematic, as well.

One more thing; a number of commenters have made the assertion that certain things are supernatural, because they violate the laws of nature; e.g. Pigliucci "Ghosts can be thought of as supernatural entities (they violate the laws of nature), so they are no different from gods, in my book.". To my mind, this is unhelpful. We don't *know* all the laws of nature, so we can never say this about a discovered phenomenon. Obviously, if someone says "Imagine something that violates the laws of nature.", then one could assign that to the supernatural, but that is not about something real.

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Thursday, 29 July 2010

Does the Government Actually Do Good, or Just Create the Feeling It Does?

The Government response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on Homeopathy has been published, and is a masterpiece of dodging the issue. Congratulations to the author, Sir Humphrey Appleby.

In short, they refuse to stop NHS funding of homeopathy, preferring to abdicate responsibility to the PCTs; see here:
(Committee conclusion)
By providing homeopathy on the NHS and allowing MHRA licensing of products which subsequently appear on pharmacy shelves, the Government runs the risk of endorsing homeopathy as an efficacious system of medicine. To maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products. (Paragraph 157)
(Government response)
We note the Committee’s view that allowing for the provision of homeopathy may risk seeming to endorse it, and we will keep the position under review. However, we do not believe that this risk amounts to a risk to patient trust, choice or safety, nor do we believe that the risk is significant enough for the Department to take the unusual step of removing PCTs’ flexibility to make their own decisions. We believe that providing appropriate information for commissioners, clinicians and the public, and ensuring a strong ethical code for clinicians, remain the most effective ways to ensure quality outcomes, patient satisfaction and the appropriate use of NHS funding.
They do say something about placebo. In response to the Committee's observation that:
We would expect the Government to have a proper understanding of the power and complexities of the placebo effect and the ethical issues surrounding its use in a clinical setting; otherwise it cannot hope to make good decisions relating to patients and public health.
...the Government says:
The Government agrees that, when looking at the evidence base for efficacy, it is important to focus on the most scientifically robust studies and evidence. We note, however, that a “proper understanding of the power and complexities of the placebo effect” is difficult to achieve, since we are not aware of any scientific consensus at present on the mechanisms by which placebos have an effect. We note also that it is not for the Department of Health to comment on the ethics of the use of a particular treatment in a particular setting. 
So they've decided that the Government should have no ethical view on placebo use.

The difficulty is obvious. The way is open for any number of placebo effect treatments to be given Government funding; how could they be stopped, if patients are demanding them and saying that they feel better thanks to them?

As Steven Novella points out:
...for any objective outcome, there is no important placebo effect. For outcomes that are subjectively reported by patients, there is a highly variable placebo effect. It is plausible that the expectation of benefit could result in the release of dopamine and endorphins and produce a physiological decrease in pain, for example, in a subset of people, and there is some evidence for this. But this is, at best, a transient symptomatic effect – not therapeutic.
Such effects are also non-specific – meaning they do not derive from the intervention itself, but from the therapeutic ritual surrounding the intervention. Even treatments that do not work may therefore provide these non-specific benefit. My opinion is that the non-specific benefits of the ritual of treatment should be combined with an actually effective treatment, not magic pretending to be medicine.
Or, if no actual treatment is available, any placebo should be delivered for the minimum cost. That would certainly exclude comparatively complicated treatments such as homeopathy and acupuncture.

The major problem with such Government indecision is the patina of respectability it gives these purveyors of *nothing*; they are free to pretend they are being efficacious, and this adds to the totality of woo in this supposedly civilised society. The more woo we can eliminate the better informed our citizens will be, and the more likely they are to lead healthy lives, in my opinion.

Further, a Government that condones treatments that just make people *feel* better, rather than *actually* better, might be tempted to extend that principle to other policy areas; would they prefer policies that work, or policies that make people think they work?

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