Sunday, 28 March 2010

Dark Knight of the Soul

India Knight has written an article that is worth analysing, to show the strange way homo sapiens goes about believing what it does. She says:
...there were aspects of Catholicism that I loved, and not only because they made me good at reading religious paintings (this is why RE lessons are so important — never mind God; feel the culture). They were mostly all the things people make fun of and call superstitious: the ceremony, the ritual, the saints, the relics, the Latin, the grace.
A common enough position; she was a believer in belief, rather than a genuine Catholic. An incoherent position, true, but it's clear why she thought that way (look for where she describes her *feelings* about things). She continues:
It is simply not possible, having read the papers or watched the news over the past couple of weeks, to stick with the programme. Like many of my generation, I could hardly be described as a good, or even decent, Catholic, but I’d managed to hang on in there, in the vaguest way imaginable.
Vague because it’s hard to pay lip-service to a faith that you feel hates you; a faith that would rather let you die in childbirth than have an abortion, won’t let you take the contraception necessary to prevent said abortion, hates gay people despite having many homosexual priests; a faith that talks ignorant nonsense about HIV and Aids, that would rather watch people die in Africa than let them use a condom; a faith that is unbelievably slow to say sorry about the fact that some of its members are habitual rapists of children.
What I find faintly incredible about this comment is that, apart from the last item in the list, all these things she has known for, presumably, a long time. The RC cover-up is disgusting, I agree, but seems consistent behaviour for an organisation that considers itself God's representation on Earth (God is right, they teach what God says, therefore they are right, whatever they do). As are all these other abhorrent beliefs! Is this just the straw that broke the camel's back? Is letting women die in childbirth not disgusting enough to persuade Ms Knight?

Apparently not. Even for a plastic Catholic the hooks are in so deep that her religion has to notch up any number of atrocities before she decides to abandon it. This is a signal of the dangers religion poses. No non-religious organisation would be allowed such latitude. If anyone belonged to a secular club or organisation that was guilty of these offences against humanity, they would leave without a second thought, and quite rightly. But consider Sinead O'Connor. She says:
There should be a full criminal investigation of the Catholic hierarchy of any country in which this has been an issue. There should be a full criminal investigation of the Vatican.

There should be a full criminal investigation of the pope.
Well said, and like many a Catholic, her views are admirable on any number of subjects in the political realm. But:
I'm passionately in love and always have been with what I call the Holy Spirit, which I believe the Catholic Church have held hostage and still do hold hostage. I think God needs to be rescued from them. They are not representing Christian values and Christian attitudes. If they were truly Christian, they would've confessed ages ago, and we wouldn't be having to batter the door down and try to get blood from a stone.
(This notion that there is some 'true Christianity' out there, and it just needs to be followed is endemic amongst Christians. But it may be true that there are as many true Christianities as there are Christians. In that circumstance the notion ceases to have any meaning.)

For O'Connor the list of atrocities perpetrated by her Church as listed by Knight are *insufficient* to make her leave it. One wonders what the Church would have to do to alienate such acolytes. Nothing, probably, which is why organisations that engender such unthinking and immutable devotion should be treated with suspicion *on principle*, and why thinking inspired by it (I mean, religious revelation and tradition) should be disallowed in the public sphere.

Because such thinking is ironclad and immune to reason, and thus undemocratic.

Read more »

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Magazine Morality Questionnaire

A little while back, I and a few friends posted a thread lampooning the religious world view morality via the medium of a pretend magazine questionnaire; the subject, 'Are you God-good enough to be a good God?!?' These were my contributions:


You've been fine tuning evolution to ensure maximum hardship for all involved, when you're interrupted by your right hand man who points out that someone has had sex in your garden, and left a used prophylactic in the bushes. Do you:

a) Tidy up the mess and chuckle to yourself about the impulsiveness of youth.

b) Campaign to remove all vending machines from pub toilets.

c) Track the culprits down, light a match and immolate them. For time everlasting.


You've spent a glorious day with the kids, playing football in the park, when they see a couple of men kissing. "What are they doing?", the kids ask. Do you say:

a) Looks like they're a loving couple enjoying a day in the park, like us.

b) Don't look kids; you might 'get ideas'.

c) What they do is evil; chase them and impale them on the nearest fencepost! That would be the lesser evil.

One of your reps has a problem; some of his undermanagers have freed their wills and abused their young customers. He wants to know what to do; do you tell him to:

a) Dob in the undermanagers to the appropriate authorities.

b) Tell them to stop wearing dresses; that can't help.

c) Promote them and transfer them; duck and dive, a moving target is more difficult to hit. Negotiate with the authorities to turn a blind eye; their punishment will be in the afterlife etc. Nothing must be allowed to damage The Corporation.


You're playing the Sims, and you see that neighbourly disputes result in much murder and bloodshed. Do you:

a) Reprogram your Sims to be less choleric and more reasonable.

b) Sit back and enjoy the spectacle; who doesn't enjoy a good fight?

c) Summon old man Sim to a mountaintop, chisel 'Thou shalt not kill' on a rock and hope they get the message. Tell them to stop thinking certain thoughts, whilst you're at it. Don't mention rape, or abortion. they'll have to figure those out themselves.


You've decided on a change of direction, so you organise for one third of you to be sacrificed to yourself to atone for, er, something or other. Naturally you choose the race which has achieved 'favoured' status. Everything goes to plan, and your favoured people follow the plan, as you knew they would. But some people blame them for killing one third of you, despite that being crucial to your plan. Do you:

a) Communicate clearly that they did nothing wrong.

b) Issue an APB to arrest anyone who's got the wrong end of the stick and prevent them acting on it.

c) Let simmering discontent foment for centuries before exploding in a genocidal armageddon that wipes millions of your former 'most valuable players' off the face of the Earth. Then blame it on atheists.


If you score mostly 'C's, you've cracked God-goodness; well done!

Read more »

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Burka or bikini?

People seem to burst a blood vessel when someone suggests it might be possible to study morality *scientifically*; I've no idea why, other than one's natural distrust for authority or, perhaps, authoritarianism. But of course morality is, and has been, studied scientifically by many; societies down the ages have listened to a mixture of experts, charlatans (including the religious who claim bogus authority) and the zeitgeist, and then enacted a 'universal' morality through their varying legislatures. This is all seen as perfectly normal, but if Sam Harris suggests an entirely *informed* approach, accusations of moral hegemony are made. A bit of moderation is needed, I feel. Here's his talk at TED 2010:

Surely the is-ought problem is overstated? Isn't the point that you can't get to an ought *simply* from a fact about the world; one has to add a 'want'. But 'wants' are facts about the world too, so to say that studying how things are is not going to inform our morality seems astounding to me. How else are we going to decide what's right?

Now, I'm a little uncomfortable, as is no doubt everyone, at the idea of ethical experts set up as some kind of moral arbitration court, determining a universal morality. However, that's not how *science* works. If instead a moral *science* could be established, with ethicists publishing papers and data in support, a moral *consensus* could be worked towards. Of course this is roughly what happens now, only there is nothing formal in the process and entirely unevidenced approaches to morality are considered, which allows arbitrary *prejudices* to become enshrined in our morality.

I don't think it's too much to ask to try to prevent that.


Sam is inviting criticisms of his talk here. Most take issue with the meta-ethical issues raised, I think, questioning the quest for happiness he assumes, and so on; that there are, at bottom, moral axioms that are inscrutable to science. This seems to be accepted by many, although I'm not sure (as ever) we can ever know that. As with all other areas of enquiry, I think it's best to carry on *as if* we will be able to uncover some argument supported by data that allows us to scientifically decide such issues. In any case, it's sufficient, and scientific, in the interim to take putative axioms and examine situations based on those. More than that, it's what we do *now*! And matters that may have been considered axiomatic in the past have been examined scientifically and been questioned, and then pronounced non-axiomatic, so I don't see that these things are immune from study, even if one considers there will always be an axiom at bottom.

Of course, I'm no ethicist, as no doubt an expert could tell!


Not had a chance to read it yet!

Harris seems to adopt an ontological Epicurean approach, making pleasure seeking axiomatic, as opposed to the functional, purpose-driven Aristotelian approach. I think it's an interesting observation that, IMO, the Epicurean view appears more in line with what we've discovered about reality than the other, and this shows how science *can* inform morality, and continue to inform it.

Sam says, more eloquently of course, what I try to say above:
One of my critics put the concern this way: “Why should human wellbeing matter to us?” Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and profoundly stupid questions. No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying. Without being able to stand entirely outside of a framework, one is always open to the charge that the framework rests on nothing, that its axioms are wrong, or that there are foundational questions it cannot answer. So what?
"No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism..."; I'm *inclined* to agree, and it's where I've always struggled with the is-ought distinction. Combined with the fact that, apparently, even though we cannot determine scientifically what we *should* do, that does seem to be what we always *have* done. Sure, people have posited odd moralities that have taken hold, but no adult accepts *any* normative advice without some thought, and no society does it without debate.

So, as I said above, let's do it better. I think that's what Sam's calling for. I've been persuaded by Dennett and others that the mystery of 'consciousness' is that we think it's mysterious; it's possible there is something similar going on with morality; the mystery of it is we *think* it's mysterious, not that it *is* mysterious. However, I will need to read more moral philosophy to even begin to justify such a statement.

Read more »

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Correspondence with Francis Maude on Homeopathy


After the House of Commons Select Committee report on Homeopathy, recommending that the Government stops funding homeopathic treatments, I emailed my MP, Francis Maude, asking him to support its conclusions. He replied by letter:
24th February
Dear Mr Jones

Thank you for your recent e-mail about homeopathy, following the report produced by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.

I am aware that there are differing views on the provision of homeopathic remedies, with some arguing that there is not enough evidence to support their availability via the NHS, while others argue that greater access to complementary therapies in the NHS might lead to widespread benefits.

Conservatives believe that the NHS should not rule out providing alternative therapies. Homeopathy and alternative treatments are a valuable resource for doctors to be able to draw upon when offering treatments. Where a doctor and a patient believe that a homeopathic treatment may be of benefit to the patient, I believe doctors should be free to prescribe that medicine. All therapies should be considered equally, and decisions on whether or not to provide them on the NHS should be evidence-based, as is the case with all other conventional medicines and treatments.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to write to me on this issue.

Francis Maude
Noting his liking for patient choice, I quizzed him on the suggestion by the Committee that homeopathy actually *reduced* patient choice (para 101):

Dear Rt Hon Francis Maude,

Thank you for your letter of 24th February.

You say that you want doctors free to prescribe a homeopathic treatment, where the doctor and the patient believe it may be of benefit. But as the Select Committee reported,

"The Government’s position on homeopathy is confused. On the one hand, it accepts that homeopathy is a placebo treatment. This is an evidence-based view. On the other hand, it funds homeopathy on the NHS without taking a view on the ethics of providing placebo treatments. We argue that this undermines the relationship between NHS doctors and their patients, reduces real patient choice and puts patients’ health at risk. The Government should stop allowing the funding of homeopathy on the NHS."

So, you seem to be arguing for patient choice, but the Select Committee think you are in fact arguing for less patient choice. Could you explain why you are right, and the Select Committee wrong?

Perhaps you could also confirm you are happy for this correspondence to be made public; if I don't receive a reply, I'll assume that is the case.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Jones

He replied and said that he disagreed with the committee's argument:

9 March 2010

Dear Mr Jones

Thank you for contacting me again about homeopathy.

I think this argument you refer to is flawed. The argument goes that patient choice is meaningless when patients are not properly informed about the implications of the treatments they are selecting, and thus diminishes "real" patient choice.

In arguing this, the Select Committee pass judgement on homeopathic treatments, labelling them a "phoney" or "fake" choice. I am not a medical expert, and would not like to make judgements of this kind in the place of experienced medical professionals. GPs rightly should provide information to patients about different treatments, and must be held to account for the decisions they and their patients make under their advisement. I would not seek to undermine this critically important relationship in this way.

It is difficult to see how taking this choice away from GPs and patients could constitute an increase in choice; in my opinion this is simply taking choice away.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to contact me.

Francis Maude
These letters are a cause for concern. The first says that Conservatives think that public money can be spent on alternative therapies. Just to be clear what that means; the Tories are happy for public money to be spent on treatments whose efficacy has not been shown. Mr Maude then couches this support for CAM in terms designed to make it look like support for doctor/patient choice. This is irrelevant, I feel. The Tories would surely not back with public money *any* treatment that a doctor and patient feel would help? No, a line has to be drawn; and where should that line be drawn? Between medicines that are shown to be efficacious and those that aren't. That's why CAM treatments should not be publicly funded. Doctor/patient choice is fine, at their own expense.

The second letter suggests that medical professionals decide what treatments should be provided. This is true, of course, but restricted to treatments that have been licensed for use by the MHRA. Doctors are in no position to determine the state of the science on some pretty complex subjects. That is why the MHRA should not allow homeopathic treatment; because the science says it doesn't work better than placebo. The *science* says that homeopathy is a fake choice, not the Select Committee. This is a vital distinction.

So it's clear that he is in favour of homeopathy (and other alternative medicine) on the NHS, but also of evidence-based medicine *only* for the NHS, which is either a contradiction, or he thinks homeopathy *is* evidence-based. In light of that, I emailed again:
Dear Rt Hon Francis Maude,

Many thanks again for taking the time to respond to me in your letter of 24th February (email response is quite all right, incidentally). I'll take that as a 'No', you won't be supporting the Select Committee's conclusions; at least, not whole-heartedly.

I note, however, that you haven't signed David Tredinnick's EDM expressing concern at the Committee's conclusions, so I'm thankful for small mercies. The idea that MPs should allow public money to be spent on treatments that are no better than placebos astonishes me, but we live in a strange world. For Conservatives intent on making savings in public expenditure it seems doubly odd.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Jones
I shall update again if I get a further reply.

Read more »