Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Archbishop of Canterbury's 'Breathtaking Hypocrisy'

Justin Welby has compared the BBC's approach to abuse to that of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches:
I haven't seen the same integrity over the BBC's failures over Savile as I've seen in the Roman Catholic Church, in the Church of England, in other public institutions over abuse.
This is a remarkable statement. Certainly, the BBC as an organisation was negligent in its handling of Jimmy Savile from the 70s up until his death (frankly the whole of Britain were; many, many people and institutions turned a blind eye to his activities, including the NHS). Dame Janet Smith said of the BBC:
There was a culture of not complaining or of raising concerns. BBC staff felt – and were sometimes told – that it was not in their best interests to pursue a complaint. Loyalty to and pride in a programme could hinder the sharing of concerns; there was a reluctance to rock the boat. 
(Although ironically one of the men she singles out for not doing more to stop Savile was Anglican priest Canon Colin Semper:
He was a producer in the Religious Broadcasting department and worked closely with Savile. With commendable honesty, when giving evidence to the Review, he accepted that he had come to think that Savile had casual sex with a lot of girls, some of whom might have been underage. He did not discuss what he knew with his managers because he thought that they already knew about Savile and did not seem to be concerned about it. In my view, he should have discussed his concerns with his line manager. I think he now deeply regrets that he did not. )
So, it's clear that the BBC were culpable for Savile's continuing activities over decades. But, as Noel McGivern points out:
...there are key differences between the BBC and Catholic Church. The BBC does not behave as a moral guardian of Britain or the world; it doesn't claim spiritual authority over 1.3 billion people. It is not a primary human identity. Any organisation can have paedophiles in it, but what sets the Catholic Church apart is how actively it sought to protect both them and itself.
Even before the report was published, the BBC had made steps to safeguard the vulnerable. In 2015:
The GoodCorporation conclude that the BBC has strong child protection policies in place and that considerable effort has been made to improve them. Their report states that “there is a clear commitment and recognition of the importance of child protection and safeguarding in the BBC”.
Now, no doubt it's important to keep monitoring the BBC at all levels to ensure abuse does not recur, but the signs seem to be promising. It's not clear to me that this behaviour represents a lower level of integrity to that of the C of E and the Roman Catholic Church. A BBC spokesman said of Welby's comments:
This isn't a characterisation we recognise. When the Savile allegations became known we established an independent investigation by a High Court judge. In the interests of transparency, this was published in full. We apologised and accepted all the recommendations. And while today's BBC is a different place, we set out very clear actions to ensure the highest possible standards of child safeguarding.
Re the Catholic Church, this is what Geoffrey Robinson QC says in his book The Case of the Pope:
The Church's response, still echoed by those like Alan Dershowitz who defend the present Pope, is that hierarchical sex abuse occurs in all religious institutions and in secular schools, and it is wrong to 'stereotype' the Roman Catholic priesthood. But the evidence does reliably show a remarkably higher level of abuse in Catholic institutions (see chapter 2) and in any event, the defense misses the point, namely that this church, through its pretensions to be a state, with its own non-punitive Canon Law, has actually covered up the abuse and harboured the abusers. Moreover, this particular religion endows its priests with god-like powers in the eyes of children, who are put into their spiritual embrace from the time when they first develop the faculty of reasoning...A church that puts its children from this early age under the spiritual control of its priests, representatives of God to whom they are unflinchingly obedient, has the most stringent of duties to guard against the exploitation of that obedience to do them harm. That duty includes the duty of handing over those reasonably suspected of child sex abuse to the secular authorities for trial and, if convicted, for punishment. It is this duty that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a.k.a. Benedict XVI, has for the past thirty years adamantly refused to accept. (pp3-4)
Certainly there is no way that the BBC could operate at the level of the Catholic Church, since that Church is also a state; a state that throws its weight around at the UN, for example. The Church's record on covering up abuse, and, in fact, facilitating it, are legion. These were the facts behind the award winning film Spotlight, focussing on the child abuse scandal in Boston. I previously reported on their behaviour surrounding Father Kit Cunningham:
...on the day that Pope Benedict XVI, during his visit to Britain last September, was in Westminster Cathedral expressing his "deep sorrow to innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes", the Rosminian order was writing to refuse to pay any compensation for what it has openly acknowledged are the crimes of four of its own priests.
(The Rosminian Order ran the school where the priest committed his abuse.)

As for the Church of England, its victims of abuse are none too happy:
In a statement, six survivors of abuse by powerful church figures rejected Welby’s comments and said the record of the church and Welby himself was one of “silence, denial and evasion”.
Their statement said: “Speaking from our own bitter experience, we do not recognise Archbishop Welby’s description of the integrity with which the Church of England handles cases of abuse in a church context.
“Far from the ‘rigorous response and self-examination’ he claims, our experience of the church, and specifically the archbishop, is of long years of silence, denial and evasion.
The Church of England needs to confront its own darkness in relation to abuse before confronting the darkness of others.”
Matthew Ineson, who was allegedly raped as a teenager by a C of E vicar, said Welby had shown “breathtaking hypocrisy”. The vicar, Trevor Devamanikkam, killed himself the day he was due in court to face charges.
“I know from my own experience, and the experience of others, that safeguarding within the C of E is appalling,” Ineson said. “The church has colluded with the cover-up of abuse and has obstructed justice for those whose lives have been ruined by the actions of its clergy. I have been fighting for five years for the church to recognise its responsibilities and I’m still being met with attempts to bully me into dropping my case.”
The independent report into the case of Anglican bishop Peter Ball (pictured) said:
This report considers the serious sexual wrongdoing of Peter Ball, a bishop of the Church of England (the Church), who abused many boys and men over a period of twenty years or more. That is shocking in itself but is compounded by the failure of the Church to respond appropriately to his misconduct, again over a period of many years. Ball’s priority was to protect and promote himself and he maligned the abused. The Church colluded with that rather than seeking to help those he had harmed, or assuring itself of the safety of others. 
The former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey was forced to resign because of his treatment of Ball.

So Welby himself is guilty of silence, denial and evasion, according to one of the Church's victims, and a report into one abuser states baldly that the Church colluded with the abuser rather than help those he harmed.

Remember, Welby's contention was that he hasn't seen "the same integrity over the BBC's failures over Savile as I've seen in the Roman Catholic Church, in the Church of England...over abuse." Perhaps he means the BBC have shown more integrity, but I doubt it!

I think one might make a case that the BBC have been equally as bad as the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church over abuse, but really the evidence shows that both these Holy institutions have been much worse than the BBC. The Archbishop should retract this claim, and ensure that his organisation stops bullying the victims of abuse, like Matthew Ineson, and recompenses them properly for their years of abuse.

UPDATE: See this Youtube recording of an LBC interview of Justin Welby with annotations by Andy Morse, an alleged victim of John Smyth, a some time friend, or acquaintance, or colleague, of Welby. The abuse is alleged to have occurred at Christian holiday camps in Africa. This is Part 1 of 4 parts.

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Friday, 22 September 2017

EASAC statement on Homeopathy

Here, dated September 2017:
EASAC – the European Academies' Science Advisory Council – is formed by the national science academies of the EU Member States to enable them to collaborate with each other in giving advice to European policy-makers. It thus provides a means for the collective voice of European science to be heard.
EASAC, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, is publishing this Statement to build on recent work by its member academies to reinforce criticism of the health and scientific claims made for homeopathic products. The analysis and conclusions are based on the excellent science-based assessments already published by authoritative and impartial bodies. The fundamental importance of allowing and supporting consumer choice requires that consumers and patients are supplied with evidence-based, accurate and clear information. It is, therefore, essential to implement a standardised, knowledge-based regulatory framework to cover product efficacy, safety and quality, and accurate advertising practices, across the European Union (EU).
Our Statement examines the following issues:
Scientific mechanisms of action—where we conclude that the claims for homeopathy are implausible and inconsistent with established scientific concepts.
Clinical efficacy—we acknowledge that a placebo effect may appear in individual patients but we agree with previous extensive evaluations concluding that there are no known diseases for which there is robust, reproducible evidence that homeopathy is effective beyond the placebo effect. There are related concerns for patient-informed consent and for safety, the latter associated with poor quality control in preparing homeopathic remedies.
Promotion of homeopathy—we note that this may pose significant harm to the patient if incurring delay in seeking evidence-based medical care and that there is a more general risk of undermining public confidence in the nature and value of scientific evidence.
Veterinary practice—we conclude similarly that there is no rigorous evidence to substantiate the use of homeopathy in veterinary medicine and it is particularly worrying when such products are used in preference to evidence-based medicinal products to treat livestock infections.
We make the following recommendations.
1. There should be consistent regulatory requirements to demonstrate efficacy, safety and quality of all products for human and veterinary medicine, to be based on verifiable and objective evidence, commensurate with the nature of the claims being made. In the absence of this evidence, a product should be neither approvable nor registrable by national regulatory agencies for the designation medicinal product.
2. Evidence-based public health systems should not reimburse homeopathic products and practices unless they are demonstrated to be efficacious and safe by rigorous testing.
3. The composition of homeopathic remedies should be labelled in a similar way to other health products available: that is, there should be an accurate, clear and simple description of the ingredients and their amounts present in the formulation.
4. Advertising and marketing of homeopathic products and services must conform to established standards of accuracy and clarity. Promotional claims for efficacy, safety and quality should not be made without demonstrable and reproducible evidence.

Our purpose is not to seek the prohibition of homeopathic products, and we recognise the fundamental importance of allowing and supporting consumer choice. Rather, we aim to explore the policy dimensions for ensuring informed patient choice with the emphasis on ‘appropriately informed’, and for achieving a standardised knowledge-based, robust regulatory framework and sound advertising practices across the EU, which can apply equitably to all medicinal products, whatever their origins and whatever their mechanisms.

The continuing popularity of homeopathic products worldwide might be taken as demonstrating an unfortunate point – that scientific evidence is not always relevant to the policy maker nor understood by the public-at-large. In this eventuality, there might be only limited room for optimism that EASAC and others – in reiterating that homeopathic products and practices lack proof of efficacy– could influence the present situation. 

Any claimed efficacy of homeopathic products in clinical use can be explained by the placebo effect or attributed to poor study design, random variation, regression towards the mean, or publication bias. Among these, the placebo effect can be of value to the patient but there are no known diseases for which there is robust, reproducible evidence that homeopathy is effective beyond the placebo effect.
• Homeopathy raises issues of concern for patient-informed consent if health practitioners recommend products that they know are biologically ineffective.
• There are also potential safety concerns for homeopathic preparations because of poorly monitored production methods, and these require greater attention to quality control and assessment of adverse effects.
• The scientific claims made for homeopathy are implausible and inconsistent with established concepts from chemistry and physics. In particular, the memory effects of water are too short-range and transient (occurring within the nanometre and nanosecond range) to account for any claimed efficacy.
• The promotion and use of homeopathic products risks significant harms. First, by incurring delay in the patient seeking appropriate, evidence-based, medical attention or, even worse, deterring the patient from ever doing so. Secondly, by generally undermining patient and public confidence in the nature and value of scientific evidence for decision making in health care and other societal priorities.
• In the absence of similarly robust evidence for homeopathic products in veterinary medicine, it is an error to require organic farmers to use these products in preference to prevention or treatment for which there is demonstrable efficacy and an established mode of action.

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Monday, 21 August 2017

Hume on Induction 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 4, Knowledge by Cristina Chimisso.

I printed these revision notes on card as an aide-memoire to the issues I needed to touch on in an exam question on the subject; most exam questions require an exposition of the ground to be covered before any actual philosophy can be done (ie, the question answered!). Having these, almost bullet, points burned into my memory allowed me to write this background stuff whilst planning my answer.

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Friday, 16 June 2017

It's 'Elf and Safety Gone Mad!

Well, contra the cliché, this is what health and safety gone mad really looks like:

A trapped resident tries to get help as the fire engulfs the Grenfell Tower block.
(c) Universal News and Sport (Europe)
It can lead to disadvantaged men, women and children being burnt alive in their own homes. It appears undeniable now that the Grenfell disaster is down to a failure in regulations somewhere.

Philosopher Jonathan Pearce highlights the narrative that makes life that little bit worse for the poor and vulnerable in our society, and which can lead to tragedies like this one, following George Monbiot in The Guardian:
But what is regulation? I think when the word is used, people really don’t think about what it is. Regulation means rules. Why do we have rules? Rules are moral proclamations about how the world should be. Regulation is codified morality. In shorthand, then, when people claim they want “deregulation”, they are actually asking for less morality, fewer moral rules.
And he links it to the movement that has brought us Brexit:
What regulation does (when done properly) is seek to make production ethically responsible, which is better for everyone. A company in Europe, now, cannot employ children, must have strict safety regulations such that the product won’t be faulty enough to blow up or catch fire, must be produced by a workforce that has minimum legislation for workers’ rights, and so on. These regulations work best when adopted by multiple countries across a wide platform. There is a uniformity for everyone such that no one in that marketplace can get away with not adhering to them.
Now, with the UK, we are leaving a large regulatory network that has historically given us a massive amount of regulation. And this is a good thing [he means the network is a good thing, not the leaving!]. Either we take that all on (and manage that at a higher cost), or we drop some or lots of it. We become a low-tax haven full of corporations who define the rules of play. 
For at least the last 20 years, in my memory, there has been the constant narrative that we are all pandered, soft somehow, because we have 'elf and safety regulations, and that businesses should be allowed to carry on their trade without so many restrictions. Here's David Cameron responding to that retrograde sentiment in 2012, saying he will "kill off the health and safety culture for good":

He said:
I don't think there's any one single way you can cut back the health and safety monster.
You've got to look at the quantity of rules - and we're cutting them back; you've got to look at the way they're enforced - and we are making sure that is more reasonable; we're taking self-employed people out of whole classes of health and safety regulation.
But the key about health and safety is not just the rules, the laws and regulations - it's also the culture of fear many businesses have about health and safety.
Rather than referring to the 'health and safety monster' he should have been challenging this shibboleth of the right and championing health and safety as a good and necessary feature of a properly functioning society.

Sadly, it looks like it's not only the health and safety culture he and his ilk have killed off.

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Friday, 9 June 2017

The Asymmetry of Pain and Pleasure

Jeffery Jay Lowder at the Secular Outpost blogged an excellent piece last year detailing 25 lines of evidence against theism. I think all of them bear consideration, and, if I remember correctly, one or two more lines of evidence against theism popped up in the comments.

I would like to add another modest line to this list, or maybe just an adjunct to his No.8: The Biological Role (and Moral Randomness) of Pain and Pleasure, following Paul Draper. It is prompted by a trivial injustice that surely everyone experiences on a daily basis, but that perhaps points to a bigger issue. The minor injustice is this: the fact that the more one experiences a pleasure the less it satisfies and, indeed, it can turn to pain, while the more one experiences a pain it is not relieved, and it never turns into a pleasure.

Now, for the purposes of this discussion, I am taking a pretty simple view of pain and pleasure as things that are, in order, fundamentally bad and good. I will not consider the paradoxes of people seeking out pain for pleasure, for example, although, granted, this does suggest we have a complicated relationship with pain and pleasure. I think it's also true to say that one can become numbed to further pain to a degree. But this numbing doesn't seem as effective as the numbing of pleasure. Note too that people who feel chronic pain report it as a bad thing, while people who feel chronic pleasure also report it as a bad thing.

These things are pretty understandable on, and consistent with, Naturalism; we are the products of a natural selection that favours survival and reproduction over all else, so pain and pleasure are regulating systems that have evolved to help bring about gene persistence through that survival and reproduction. The particular fate of the gene vehicles is not so important as the gene persistence, so, as we see in nature, any number of strategies to achieve this persistence is possible, including ones which serve up pain and pleasure to the gene vehicles unequally (are there any animals that experience an asymmetry of pleasure over pain, I wonder?*). On an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent account of theism, these pose a problem; why would an omnibenevolent god allow an asymmetry of pain and pleasure, leading to more pain than pleasure?

What these observations lead to relates somewhat to our attitudes to death. I wrote recently defending Bernard Williams's thoughts on eternal life, that it would end up become meaningless because categorical desires would be exhausted. I recently heard Shelly Kagan expressing a similar opinion on Philosophy Bites:
I do think that eventually life would grow excruciatingly dreadful, boring, tedious no matter what it was filled with, but for all that it would still have been true that during the initial satisfying, richly rewarding 100 years, 500 years, or however long it would take before it got boring, those initial 500 years will still have been worth living, they were still good. To give a humdrum, everyday analogy: if you offer me a piece of chocolate, I love chocolate, thank you, thank you, thank you; if you give me a second piece of chocolate, I love chocolate; you offer me a third piece of chocolate, I say thank you thank you thank you. Now there must be some number...of pieces of chocolate at which I would say: no more. Chocolate is no longer a good thing for me at this point, I'm not enjoying it.
He goes on to claim that the initial period before the boredom is worth living, and I think that's right. But what is going on here? Why do some of us think that these pleasures will stop? Pleasures derive from the satisfaction of desires. But once a desire is satisfied the pleasure stops. I guess that means that, in the Bernard Williams scenario, we are saying that over time all our desires will be satisfied. So no more pleasure will be possible.

Conversely, we could say that pain derives from the imposition of 'undesires'. But there is an imbalance: there is an effectively never-ending supply of 'undesires', while there is no never-ending supply of desires. So pain is inevitable in a way that pleasure is not.

This perhaps derives from our nature: we need a fine balance to maintain our health - nutrition, warmth, water - so evolution has shaped us to maintain that fine balance. If the pleasure was never turned off we would soon over-indulge and do ourselves serious harm. Chronic pain does not pose the same immediate risk to our health, (although, granted, it can lead to damage in some circumstances), so stopping pain is simply not as important or pressing as stopping pleasure. *Perhaps this answers my question in parenthesis above.

So I think the asymmetry can be expressed simply as:
Satisfaction of desires is inevitable, so pleasure must end, but relief from undesires is not, so pain never will (end).
I think this is clear evidence for naturalism over an omnibenevolent god. Not a knock-out blow, to be sure, just another strike against God. Further, I think this asymmetry is inevitable given our nature. God need not have given us a nature that results in this asymmetry, so it's more likely we are not products of such a divine being, but of indifferent Nature.

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Saturday, 6 May 2017

Functionalism 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 5, Mind by Derek Matravers.

I printed these revision notes on card as an aide-memoire to the issues I needed to touch on in an exam question on the subject; most exam questions require an exposition of the ground to be covered before any actual philosophy can be done (ie, the question answered!). Having these, almost bullet, points burned into my memory allowed me to write this background stuff whilst planning my answer.

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Thursday, 4 May 2017

Darwin on the Development of the Human Mind

By Unknown - Karl Pearson (1914-30) The life, letters and labours of Francis Galton, IIIa, Cambridge: University press, p. 341 OCLC: 873074079., Public Domain,
This is a wonderful summary by Charles Darwin at the end of Chapter IV of the Descent of Man, after he has compared the 'Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals':
There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense. An anthropomorphous ape, if he could take a dispassionate view of his own case, would admit that though he could form an artful plan to plunder a garden--though he could use stones for fighting or for breaking open nuts, yet that the thought of fashioning a stone into a tool was quite beyond his scope. Still less, as he would admit, could he follow out a train of metaphysical reasoning, or solve a mathematical problem, or reflect on God, or admire a grand natural scene. Some apes, however, would probably declare that they could and did admire the beauty of the coloured skin and fur of their partners in marriage. They would admit, that though they could make other apes understand by cries some of their perceptions and simpler wants, the notion of expressing definite ideas by definite sounds had never crossed their minds. They might insist that they were ready to aid their fellow-apes of the same troop in many ways, to risk their lives for them, and to take charge of their orphans; but they would be forced to acknowledge that disinterested love for all living creatures, the most noble attribute of man, was quite beyond their comprehension.
Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals. They are also capable of some inherited improvement, as we see in the domestic dog compared with the wolf or jackal. If it could be proved that certain high mental powers, such as the formation of general concepts, self-consciousness, etc., were absolutely peculiar to man, which seems extremely doubtful, it is not improbable that these qualities are merely the incidental results of other highly-advanced intellectual faculties; and these again mainly the result of the continued use of a perfect language. At what age does the new-born infant possess the power of abstraction, or become self-conscious, and reflect on its own existence? We cannot answer; nor can we answer in regard to the ascending organic scale. The half-art, half-instinct of language still bears the stamp of its gradual evolution. The ennobling belief in God is not universal with man; and the belief in spiritual agencies naturally follows from other mental powers. The moral sense perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals; but I need say nothing on this head, as I have so lately endeavoured to shew that the social instincts,--the prime principle of man's moral constitution (50. 'The Thoughts of Marcus Aurelius,' etc., p. 139.)--with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule, "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise;" and this lies at the foundation of morality.
In the next chapter I shall make some few remarks on the probable steps and means by which the several mental and moral faculties of man have been gradually evolved. That such evolution is at least possible, ought not to be denied, for we daily see these faculties developing in every infant; and we may trace a perfect gradation from the mind of an utter idiot, lower than that of an animal low in the scale, to the mind of a Newton. (emphasis mine)
This last point, comparing the ontogeny of humans with our phylogeny, is well made. And this is not to say that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, as the famous, but defunct, theory suggests. But it is a counter to those who suggest that a thing as wonderful and mysterious as the human mind could not evolve gradually in mini-steps, by degree, since we have seen, and continue to see, countless examples of the human mind developing gradually in mini-steps, by degree, before our very eyes. Some might insist that a greater power steps in and animates this mind at some point, but this doesn't appear to be what is happening and, when I introspect, it doesn't appear to me to be what happened as I became conscious of my surroundings.

In the end the more parsimonious explanation is that the mental emerges from the physical, not the other way round.

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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, by Timothy Chappell.

I printed these revision notes on card as an aide-memoire to the issues I needed to touch on in an exam question on the subject; most exam questions require an exposition of the ground to be covered before any actual philosophy can be done (ie, the question answered!). Having these, almost bullet, points burned into my memory allowed me to write this background stuff whilst planning my answer.

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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.


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)
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.


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’.

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.


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

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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.

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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, by Nigel Warburton.

I printed these revision notes on card as an aide-memoire to the issues I needed to touch on in an exam question on the subject; most exam questions require an exposition of the ground to be covered before any actual philosophy can be done (ie, the question answered!). Having these, almost bullet, points burned into my memory allowed me to write this background stuff whilst planning my answer.

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