It seems that the Gods / Forces of Coincidence want me to blog, as so many things have been happening lately that have brought me to the same collection of thoughts.
I think the first and most major event was the World Cup. There was something of a minor furore over whether it was Good and/or Right for the flag of England to be flown outside of Number 10, Downing Street in support of the English football team. To those who care about these things, it was somewhat offensive to the other members of the United Kingdom that the largely-resented “dominant” partner in the union was to get its flag flown outside the headquarters of that union.
The defence was that, if the Welsh, Scottish, or Northern Irish teams had qualified for the competition then their flags would have been flown also. This is almost certainly true, I would say; it would be insensitive and politically suicidal to operate any other way. Nevertheless, the minor uproar was inevitable. And that is what interested me: why do people get so worked up about these things?
The second was the horrific oil spill in the gulf, and the strange conversation that followed the coverage in the USA. There was talk that BP should be referred to by its acronym and not as “British Petroleum” as this ran the risk of generating ill will toward Britain as a whole. The strangest part, though, was a debate I heard on BBC Radio 2, which asked whether we as the British Public should be criticising the company or defending it. This was not on the basis of its actions, however – the facts of the actual case seem to have been counted as largely irrelevant. No, rather the debate hinged on the fact that it was an (at least nominally) British company. Apparently a lot of British pensioners have money invested in the stocks, for instance.
I was surprised, I must admit – in my rather naive way – that this was really so open for debate to people. If a corporation acts in an irresponsible way, or fails to act in a responsible way, then they should be criticised. They should not be deemed worthy of defence purely by virtue of their nationality or the self-interest of stock investments. Is it really so mad to suggest that this approach is totally backwards?
Finally, there came the always-inspiring genius of Bill Hicks. I went to a showing of American: The Bill Hicks Story, a documentary about the great man’s tragically short life, and there was a short clip about the burning of the flag and how extremely people tend to react to that particular form of expression, particularly in the U.S.. It certainly seems that the more vocal incarnations of patriotism that we experience over on this side of the Atlantic are far more widespread on the other. Perhaps this is a false impression, but in a country where children are expected to recite an oath of fidelity to that country, patriotism is certainly taken very seriously indeed.
The question that kept occurring to me through all of this is one that first struck me after a throwaway comment on the radio. It may have been a politician commenting on the Downing Street Flag Fiasco, I can’t remember. But the comment was a qualification to the main portion of their argument, and was along the lines of “I’m proud to be British”. This was then joined by other phrases from the same conversation about what nationality people considered themselves: “I’m Scottish first and British second”, for instance, or “I’m English first and foremost”.
I just thought, am I alone in not strongly identifying with the state I was born into? Whether England or the United Kingdom? Am I the only one who feels no compulsion to qualify any sensible, well-reasoned comment with “Of course I’m proud to be British”? I do hope not.
Pride is something that should relate to an achievement, generally speaking. I am proud of some of my writing; I am proud of gaining my degrees at university. I am not proud of an accident of birth. I am happy, to some degree, to be British. Certainly it has afforded me a great deal of advantages simply not available to those in less affluent countries. I am happy that I live in a country that, generally speaking, allows a significant amount of freedom of expression. But I am not proud to be British. I don’t feel that the adjective applies.
I don’t see patriotism as a useful force in the world. What it does in terms of promoting solidarity within a country and a sense of national identity is positively counter-productive in an increasingly global society. The oil spill is the perfect example: almost as much coverage has been given to the international relations aspect as has been given to the fact that it is a disaster on an incredible scale. Why do people care that it’s a nominally British company, when the spill is affecting several states with no regard for national boundaries? I am increasingly convinced that we need to regard ourselves as citizens of the Earth first, with this taking precedence over any national identity we might feel.
I leave you with the incisive wit of The Great Hicks…
Yes, I’m still around. This blog has been on something of an unofficial hiatus lately thanks to work progressing with gusto on my first novel (details here). But I’m going to do my best to keep A Sceptical I plodding ever onward, to keep my mind on the topics that interest me, if nothing else.
The news, for instance, that astronomers are hopeful of detecting extraterrestrial life interests me greatly. Not just because aliens are always interesting, but that it involves not only very cool science, but also some fascinating philosophy. This is the money quote in that regard:
“I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms that we can’t conceive”
Of course, aliens are unlikely to conform to our typical imaginings of them, no matter how zany those might be. There is a very good reason for this, that might not be obvious – until you think about it.
It’s easy to see, with aliens such as Greys, where the ideas have come from – usually just basic modifications of a human, by which I mean they are similar in form but with certain parts bigger or smaller or different colours. Occasionally they’ll have extra or fewer parts, but the parts themselves will still be familiar to us – even if they are taken from animals. This sort of hybrid has been around for millennia – think of the animal-headed gods of Egypt, or the Minotaur of Crete.
Then there’s the level of aliens who are somehow more alien, such as the eponymous creature of the Alien films. These are the product of a somewhat more sophisticated imaginative process, and they truly start to “feel” alien. Yet they are nevertheless still rooted firmly in our world, composed as they are of a multitude of parts of Earthbound creatures. A lot of these will come from the weirder parts of nature, such as pharyngeal jaws or even the “Tongue-eating louse”.
It is inevitable that even the weirdest, most outlandish aliens of which we could conceive are still nevertheless a Terran construct. This is because, even if you are not aware of it, your imagination can only work with the raw materials of one’s own experience. So, even if your imagination is far and away the most creative ever possessed by a human mind, its creations will be based only on things you have seen, or heard about, or smelled, or felt.
This being said, theoretically I think I’m right in saying that any “Goldilocks planet” will bear significant similarities to Earth that it is possible that we would indeed recognise some of the forms that the indigenous life takes. There are only so many efficient ways to breathe, see, and smell (so far as we know), and while we would certainly encounter completely new approaches to survival, we should also not be surprised to see these repeated on Earthlike planets.
Whatever happens, when we finally start discovering those planets (as we will do soon, if current indications bear out), it’s certain to be an amazing and revolutionary moment. Maybe, one day, our imaginations will be able to work with brand new, fresh raw materials from a completely different world.
Today is one of those days when we are all reminded of the superstitions that surround us. Most people reading this will know how these beliefs in “bad luck” are perpetuated – confirmation bias and the rest. So I propose a couple of simple and entertaining ways of celebrating rationality on this supposedly unlucky day. Feel free to join in with either, both, or none at all.
1. Recklessly and with joyous abandon, indulge in as many “unlucky” activities as possible. Opening umbrellas indoors, stepping on cracks in the pavement, walking under ladders… Go crazy!*
2. Count and notice all the good things that happen to you today – and draw no conclusions relating to some mysterious common cause.
* Any injuries sustained by such reckless indulgence is to be attributed not to the date but to clumsiness/stupidity etc.
I wish I could be surprised by this news, but instead I am simply resignedly outraged:
The man has criticised the government – not just policy, but ministers themselves – based on their handling of the evidence regarding drugs such as cannabis, LSD, and ecstasy. They are hopelessly blinkered into a negative view of these narcotics, despite reliable and repetitive evidence to the contrary. I won’t go into great detail here because this is certain to hit the blogs written by those with far more knowledge and time to spend on research and writing these things up.
Suffice it to say I am once more disappointed in our government, though far from surprised. The only good I see coming of this is that perhaps – just perhaps – they will lose more votes in the impending election, and maybe even raise awareness of the hopelessly ignorant drug policies in effect in this country.
I realise this is old news to most people by this point, but I’ve been stupidly busy over the last month or more and just haven’t had the time, or indeed inclination, to blog. Even my creative writing, which takes precedence, has suffered lately. But enough of that. What is this old news to which I refer?
The UK now has an officially recognised and established Pirate Party. No, this isn’t some attempt to nationalise children’s birthday entertainments (at least I don’t think it is); it is a serious political organisation with a serious message.
That message, according to their website, is threefold: reform copyright and patent law; end excessive surveillance; ensure freedom of speech. Definitely policies I can get behind. But despite the multi-pronged nature of their “manifesto”, I have a hard time not categorising them as a single-issue party. Perhaps they would not dispute this.
The problem here is that single-issue parties do not get elected, and nor should they. For instance, at the time of writing this, their official manifesto contains the amusing line “Pirate Party UK has no opinion on whether Britain should or should not be a member of the European Union.” Is it sensible for a political party, I.E., a group presumably campaigning for votes, to have no opinion on this central topic in British politics? Even if you do not accept this, and think that “no opinion” is a perfectly acceptable position to take on Europe, then skip down to the economic policy. Yep, that’s right, they don’t have one.
As with every single-issue party, it seems that the function they intend (or are at any rate “destined”) to perform is that of a pressure group. Their true effect will not be measured in votes, but in public awareness of the issues; though it is true that any votes they do receive may well push the major parties into more serious consideration of those issues.
But why go to the trouble of creating a political party, when a pressure group is subject to far less red tape and hoop-jumping? If it is an effort to be taken more seriously, then they missed the lesson of the Snowdrop Campaign in 1997 – possibly the most effective UK grassroots pressure group in recent history. Indeed, their petitions resulted in new legislation being pushed through almost immediately by a new government terrified of the media’s disapproval after the horrific Dunblane Massacre. The resulting legislation, however, was rushed; as a result it was near-unenforceable and had to be reworded.
The media has evolved significantly since then, of course. 12 years ago the internet was just barely beginning to function as a media outlet, and the Snowdrop Campaign was one of the first to utilise its potential as a mass-communication tool. The Pirate Party is a group which, with technology as its primary background, is in a position to take full advantage of the new media, Web 2.0, or whatever other buzzword you’d like to use for it.
Should they be an established political party? Well, it’s probably not necessary. But I do wish them the best of luck in getting their message heard.
One of the most important, interesting, and downright enjoyable things about the sceptical movement is the grassroots, street-level organisation. So it was with great enthusiasm that I greeted the announcement of Grassroots Skeptics – intended to be a hub for this sort of organisation.
It’s a most promising-looking endeavour and should be well worth keeping an eye on.
I have heard it said among sceptics and humanists that, lyrically inspiring as it may be, John Lennon’s Imagine is just wearing a little thin. Surely it’s not the only explicitly secular song out there!
Well, I was thinking about this recently, and at least one possible alternative sprang to mind – Queen’s Innuendo. Hardly one of their better-known tracks, written and released very much toward the end of Freddie Mercury’s life (and therefore never performed live), it is nevertheless one of my favourites. Musically, I would argue it is one of their darkest offerings; lyrically, it certainly raises the right questions…
While we live according to race, colour, or creed…
While we rule by blind madness and pure greed…
Our lives dictated by tradition, superstition, forced religion…
For eons, and on, and on…
If there’s a god or any kind of justice under the sky,
If there’s a point, if there’s a reason to live or die,
If there’s an answer to questions we feel bound to ask,
Show yourself, destroy our fears, release your mask!
You can listen to the full track here, on Last.fm.
Like Imagine, it’s not what might be called “militant” in its questioning of religion (and believe me there are plenty of examples of that, particularly in the extreme metal fringes). Instead, it is more of a cross between statement/interpretation of fact (in the earlier verse) and a challenge which is likely to simply provoke thoughts in its audience.
What it lacks, of course, is Lennon’s optimistic utopianism. Perhaps this is what people look for in a humanist anthem, which is why they come up short when looking for alternatives. What do you think? Is there a viable alternative to Imagine somewhere out there, just waiting for the masses to discover it and fall in love?
Fair warning: this entry contains philosophical theory. I have done my best to make it accessible, but if the very thought bores you, I suggest skimming or skipping this entry.
“If your Bible is an argument for the degradation of woman, and the abuse by whipping of little children, I advise you to put it away, and use your common sense instead.” — Lucy Colman, paper delivered at New York teacher’s convention (The Truth Seeker, March 5, 1887).
I recently came across this quote as it was passed on by a sceptic of my acquaintance on FarceBook. It’s an interesting one, and I agree with it – as far as it goes. But it might strike the average reader (or listener) as a tad simplistic, particularly those who believe that human reason is inferior as a moral guide to the teachings of whichever god is currently in fashion. What is this “common sense” to which she refers and which she places above religious morality?
Some believe it to be intuition. This isn’t far from the mark, in my view, but it is (of course) a bit more complicated than that. After all, following one’s intuition can lead to moral relativism – that is (at its core), the view that what one deems to be moral is so. If “common sense” is defined as being common through its being shared by the majority of people, then it most likely resembles a combination of various factors – the chief among them being intuition, empathy, and duty.
It’s a very interesting area of ethics, and increasingly popular among academics of such. Known generally as contextualism, or contextualist ethics, it is – to my mind – the first ethical theory to be informed by, and applicable to, the real world and real situations. This in contrast to those tiresome and unrealistic theories such as utilitarianism and Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which take morality to such abstractions as to be very useful in philosophical discourse, yet renders them of little use in real situations. Are we to believe that proponents of these theories truly stop to consider, in the midst of an ethical dilemma, the possible outcomes of each course of action, and how those outcomes affect the overall happiness of those involved? Or weigh whether or not what they consider to be the right course would work as a universal law?
It’s possible, of course, but even if those few did so, it would not be a realistic approach to ethics, acceptably applied across the board. The question that begs to be asked here is: people are, generally speaking, moral. What is the phenomenon that causes this? Is it the hand of an invisible deity, silently and carefully guiding us? Possibly, but probably not. What is more likely is common ethical sense – also known variously as contextualism, role ethics, and vocational ethics, among others. It is also closely associated with virtue ethics, that school of thought founded by Aristotle millennia ago.
The gist of it is that we as moral agents see ourselves in various roles (this is related to the fascinating concept of narrative identity, or the narrative self). Each of these roles carries with it certain duties in our perception, so for instance someone who sees himself in the role of a nurse might (indeed probably should) consider it his duty to care for his patients, or someone who sees herself as a student considers studying to be a duty. Of course, we all have a multitude of roles and therefore a great range of duties we see ourselves as being under obligation to obey – we see ourselves as mother, brother, godfather, employee, volunteer, carer.. to name but a few.
Ethical dilemmas arise from conflicts between duties. A Christian nurse has a duty to care for her patient who will die without an abortion; she also has a duty which flows from her faith to absolutely not administer or assist in that procedure. It is not a calculated balance between happiness in consequences that informs her decision, but a battle between these duties, between these roles. Ultimately one must be placed above the other, and the consequences of that decision must be dealt with in turn.
Life is not simple. Ethics, if it is to be realistic, has to be likewise complex and even a little messy. There are few, if any, right answers, objectively speaking. We don’t always make the right call, and our moral self-perception is ever-shifting as we take on new roles, and new duties within those roles; as we discuss these duties and roles with our peers; as we are informed by society at large what our duties should be.
So perhaps this is common sense – messy, complicated, and the best we can do in the circumstances. I would argue that it is not morality that comes from religious teachings, but vice versa – naturally we are inclined to instill our own beliefs into the stories we tell.
I’ve decided to periodically link across to fellow sceptic websites – and probably a few that don’t qualify as such but are nevertheless very much worth a look. I was originally thinking about making it once a week, but knowing the reliability of my updating, I settled for a more realistic target – once a month (ish).
So are you ready for today’s link?
As it’s his birthday, I thought I’d give you a link to Tim Farley’s superb website, What’s the Harm?
If you’ve ever been talking to someone about a particular brand of irrationality, and their defence boiled down to “well, each to their own” or “what’s the harm, really?” – this is the website that answers them. It is a constantly-expanding account of the cost (in financial terms as well as physical) of irrational beliefs – everything from prayer healing to homeopathy, from UFOs to ouija boards. As a reference tool for sceptics, and indeed any who are even remotely curious about such things, it is indispensible.
You may have heard, early last month, that Ireland has passed a new law regarding blasphemy. There also seems to be some confusion on the matter – is this a new law, making blasphemy illegal where it was previously not? Or is it perhaps a reform of an older law, which actually reduces the sanction on this offense from prison time to a fine? Either way, atheists and secularists of all stripes are up in arms, and a lot of them seem to be ignorant of the facts. When freethinkers start leaping to the defensive just from the very mention of words such as “blasphemy”, without examining the details, how can we claim the moral high ground? How are we better than fundamentalists? If we are to debate credibly, we need to be able to marshal the facts. This, in my mind, is one of the most important distinguishing aspects of the sceptical and secularist movements.
So, what are the facts in this case?
The Irish Constitution requires a law making blasphemy an offense. Such a law was not passed until 1961, but did not satisfactorily define blasphemy – this led to the 1999 Supreme Court ruling that the current law was unenforceable. Instead of amending the constitution to remove the necessity of the law, however (which would require a national referendum), it was decided that it would be easier to enact a law that was enforceable. This passed in early July.
So, in effect, blasphemy is now illegal in Ireland, and while this has apparently always been the case, it is now a cogent and enforeceable law with a specified definition and penalty (and a hefty penalty at that – up to €25,000). It will however likely not be operable until late October, due to necessary modifications in the rules of court to accommodate it. There is a significant campaign to repeal the new law, and indeed it seems that there are good reasons to consider it to be in conflict with the constitution – not to mention the European Convention on Human Rights.
All this information is available at the excellent website Blasphemy.ie, and what is presented here is intended as a summary, attempting to clarify a situation which seems to be widely misunderstood.
So what’s the bottom line here?
Blasphemy is now functionally illegal in Ireland. This is a result of recent legislation which did not introduce it as an offense but rather clarified the law to a point at which it was enforceable. This was ostensibly done to avoid the costs of a referendum – which, as mentioned, would be necessary were Ireland to alter the constitution and remove the need for a blasphemy law. But, as Padraig Reidy points out, a referendum is planned for October on the issue of the Lisbon Treaty (a generally unrelated matter) – so why not save a few Euros and combine the two? And why set the penalty for blasphemy so high? Surely if it were a token law for the sake of convention, it would warrant only a token penalty. Does this perhaps hint at an ulterior motive for enacting the new legislation?
I am clearly not in a position to comment on that possibility. Anybody who is would be gratefully welcomed if they cared to enlighten me. Suffice it to say that I have been a little disappointed by the sparse and superficial coverage this story has received – as usual, the reality is a bit more complicated.
To stay updated with this case, head to blasphemy.ie.