Unintended consequences?

Charles P. Pierce:

The country was lied into a war by a raft of criminals, greedheads, and geopolitical fantasts. These latter were enabled by a cowardly political opposition and a largely supine elite press. Hans Blix was right. Paul Wolfowitz was wrong. Robert Fisk was right. David Frum was wrong. The McClatchy guys were right. The late Tim Russert was wrong. Eric Shinseki was right, and Anthony Zinni was right, and Joe Wilson was right, and George Packer, Michael O’Hanlon, and Richard Perle were all wrong. George H.W. Bush was right (in 1989) and his useless son was stupid and wrong. There is no absolution available to any of the people who helped the country down into this epic political and military disaster no matter how lachrymose their apologies or how slick their arguments.

George W. Bush should spend the rest of his days dogged by regiments of wounded veterans. Richard Cheney should be afflicted at all hours by the howls of widows and of mothers who have lost sons and daughters. Colin Powell — and his pal, MSNBC star Lawrence Wilkerson — should shut the hell up about how sorry they are and go off to a monastery somewhere to do penance for what they didn’t have the balls to try and stop. This catastrophe killed more actual people than it killed the careers of the people who planned it and cheered it on. We should all be ashamed. And we’re not.

Not to mention that the Afghanistan adventure, the Iraq war and the subsequent conflicts have spread islamic fundamentalism throughout the world. As a result of these wars, it has confidence and gained wings.

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Big company uses law to suppress protest (no surprise in England)

This is called, in the US anyway, a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation. I call it ‘legal terrorism’ because the whole point of it (and the company does not necessarily have to have any chance of winning its case) is to deter people from speaking out through the threat of legal costs and the general disruption and anxiety of being involved in a lawsuit. This is especially significant in England because the cost of legal representation is so high, and the laws are so much on the side of the plaintiffs, that even the mainstream media give into lawsuits that have no merit, particularly libel cases. Some US states have provided legal channels to strike down SLAPPs as SLAPPs deter people from exercising their rights of free speech.

George Monbiot has more on this here, and also points out that the public can inflict unintended consequences on companies that do this.

Debating God: part one

Parliamentary debates are usually taken as the model for speech debates, but legislatures debate policies, not, primarily, factual issues. The answer to a debate in a legislature is ‘yes, we shall pass this legislation [or amendment]’ or ‘no, we shall not’.

The question, ‘does god exist?’, lends itself to no such yes/no answer. The two sides of such a debate are not mirror-images of each other. Theists are mostly believers in a body of scripture that conveys some supposed revelation, and given that you believe this revelation you are almost certain to answer ‘yes’.

The opposite is not true. Suppose you had never heard of any god, and someone said ‘there is a god’. A reasonable response would be, ‘I am sceptical, show me evidence’.

In actual fact, we live in a country where one religion was previously dominant and enforced over the centuries through compulsion. In earlier times, this was backed up by torture and death. More recently, relatively gentle sanctions were used, such as making church membership obligatory for marriage or university attendance.  (I cannot go into a mediaeval church now without being reminded of the brutal history of the Church, which reflects the unremitting cruelty of the Pentateuch, but I am digressing.)

For historical reasons, then, we have come to our present, relatively secular, situation through active scepticism and resistance. Nevertheless, this does not mean that non-theists necessarily answer ‘no’ to  the question ‘does god exist?’. In fact I have come across people with a whole range of positions from ‘it is possible that some kind of supreme being exists’ to ‘it’s so improbable that it is not worth wasting time thinking about it’.

What kind of god are we debating? The people who suggested this debate believe, presumably, in one of the variations on the christian god. But people have believed in thousands of different kinds of god at different times and in different places. As Richard Dawkins likes to say, we are all atheists, it’s just that he believes in one god fewer than a christian or muslim does.

On the one hand, some people argue for a kind of basic foundation of the universe or of life, which may or not be intelligent. Often this will be presented in some form that people feel requires an agnostic position. When presented with this, I will ask for some consequences in the observable world that could be used to test for the existence of such a ‘god’. If those are not forthcoming, then I shall simply consider the existence this ‘god’ not worth the effort of thinking about.

On the other hand, most religious people believe in some kind of god who makes personal demands of behaviour, reverence and belief in certain claimed facts. These religions all assert the truth of what they claim about their own god over the claims of other religions. For example, both muslims and christians believe in Jesus. But to deny that Jesus is the son of God is blasphemy to christians. To assert that Jesus is the son of God is blasphemy to muslims. As these religions contradict each other, at most only one can be true.

Therefore, if you are going to debate whether god exists, we need to know in advance exactly what claims are being made about this god.

As the organisations promoting this debate are (I suspect, a very specific sort of) christian, and there is no reason to suppose they are going to assert the validity of any rival religion, I’ll concentrate on christianity.

Although I may be agnostic about more generic kinds of god, I think christianity is false. (This, I hasten to add because it will likely be raised, does not mean that I think that what is often referred to as ‘christian morality’ is all bad.)

My reasons for rejecting christianity are many: the contradictions between christian doctrine and history and science, the internal contradictions, the very flawed moral compass, and the dubious and political ways in which the scriptures were assembled that belie the claim that they are the ‘Word of God’.

That’s a start. Would PurpleFish members like to comment?

Debating God: part zero

My local humanist group agreed to a debate on the topic ‘Does God Exist?’. This debate is being organised by two evangelical christian organisations, SOLAS Centre for Public Christianity and PurpleFish, that appear to have adopted the currently-fashionable practice of trying to control by using the language of victimhood and persecution, stealing it from groups that really have been disadvantaged in our society.

Andrew Copson, who is the chief executive of the British Humanist Association, has kindly agreed to present the humanist case, against Richard Lucas, who appears to be one of the stars of the evangelical speaking circuit. But I have misgivings about the whole idea. This is nothing to do with any fear about expressing my, or our, views, but it has everything to do with the shortcomings of the speech debate as a means of discussion.

I consider a debate to be mostly a form of entertainment, but sadly many people take the outcomes too seriously. Most worthwhile discussions are best carried out over a period of time, where people have the opportunity to refer to sources, to correct errors and to reconsider and modify their positions. Usually this is best done in writing, which is why science is normally done through the medium of journal papers.

At best, a speech debate can be little more than a statement of the positions of the opposing sides. At worst, it can become a slanging match. In between, there are debating tricks that one or the other side may use to manipulate the audience and to ‘win’ the debate. These having nothing to do with the validity of the arguments on either side.

This is especially true where the basis of the two sides’ positions are very different, as in the case of the proposed debate. On the one side, religion is usually based on asserting the truth of statements in some body of text, held to be certain and final – in the case of christians, the Bible. It is often possible for one person to have mastery of this limited source.

On the other side, humanists usually base their beliefs on a much more extensive body of knowledge, that is continually developing, is nuanced and never claims certainty: including science (for example, physics and geology, which explain our physical world, and evolutionary theory, which explains how we came to be human), and moral philosophy, which has also developed over time, so we do not accept now some practices that people accepted in Biblical times. We base our position on evidence interpreted through reason.

Given such a rich source of knowledge, no-one can have mastery over it all, and in responding to arguments one may need to look up evidence and review one’s understanding of a point. This cannot be done in a speech debate.

This is not a trivial point. I have seen and heard of debates that were ‘won’ by creationists over scientists, and by deniers of human-caused global warming over scientists, because of the tactics I am going to describe. I’ll mention, as examples, three of the common tricks.

The first is simply to claim that the side that is based on uncertain knowledge is weak. This can be plausible to the layman. Yet those who understand science know that grasping uncertainty is the strength of science: it revises ideas as evidence comes to light and so improves our understanding of the world, while those who claim certainty are stuck forever in error.

(Richard Lucas, leading in his Edinburgh debate, used a variant of this argument in talking of ‘objective morality’, which he didn’t define, and he certainly didn’t demonstrate that the Bible offers ‘objective morality’ – the opponent might have pointed out that the Bible forbids some things we now accept and condones things like slavery most now find abhorrent, so that is clearly not ‘objective morality’.)

Second, the straw man argument: misrepresenting or parodying the opponent’s views, to try to force the opponent to have to divert to correcting this, rather that moving the debate topic forward. Richard Lucas was guilty of this in at least a small way, by saying that atheists must adopt a deterministic view of human behaviour and not believe in free will – not at all true (has he ever read Daniel C Dennett?). However, this was a minor point and I think the humanist representative ignored it, which was the correct thing to do in the circumstances.

Third, the Gish gallop (named after a creationist famous for using this trick, but also widely used by climate change deniers like Ian Plimer). This is to fire off a large number of points, a mixture of half-truths, lies and irrelevant statements. The problem here is that to correct any one of these might take a whole talk in itself, not to mention referring back to sources of evidence that one cannot have at one’s fingertips in a debate. The inexperienced debater, in particular, is wrong-footed by this, is side-tracked into trying to answer dozens of misleading statements, and is made to look unprepared, ignorant or stupid in front of an audience of lay people.

I must point out that Richard Lucas did not use this particular tactic in the Edinburgh debate. I am however including it as it is so often used to attack science, with its emphasis on evidence and detailed reasoning, which most people do not appreciate or have the patience for.

Anyone who takes part in a debate, whether as a speaker or from the floor, ought to be aware of these tactics, and understand how to deal with them.

I’m inviting PurpleFish, the prime movers of this debate, to discuss the debate topic in a public exchange in writing, through either this blog or some other medium acceptable to all. Anyone should be able to contribute.

My first contribution (Part 1) will appear here shortly. I also hope to post a comment on the Edinburgh debate.

60 years: time to grow up

Republic is holding a demonstration in London on 3 June. I can’t be there, but this article, my membership and my financial support will, I hope, add my voice to the campaign.

I’m a bit older than the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. I can vaguely remember items of the celebration: a celebratory steel tin of chocolates, a visit to the local cinema and seeing in the film the Queen on a horse. What I can’t remember – because that was also early in my life – is how I came to feel there was something seriously wrong about having a single family provide the head of state. Like all ideas, it developed over a time, and since I was at school I have been committed to the idea that we should all be eligible to stand and to vote for our head of state (and of course for the second chamber too), just as for the current representative parts of our government system.

The monarchy is a thoroughly bad form of government – not only because of the unsuitability of the apparent heir, a symptom of the severe mental and emotional damage that the position inflicts on members of the family involved, but also because it tops an entrenched pyramid of privilege, secrecy and exclusion that broadens down to the rest of us at the base.

Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments over the years, and never heard anything remotely convincing in favour of monarchy.

The monarch is non-political – of course she bloody well isn’t, she is part of the political system and it couldn’t be any other way, not to mention Charles spending his wasted life secretly telling experts what they should be doing (and they won’t get a gong – a recognition that they can imagine they are a small part in the pyramid of privilege – if they don’t).

Other countries have worse political systems – well of course many do, but if democracy means anything then it should mean the right of people to propose a better system for themselves. Myself, I am still in favour of a parliamentary democracy (with improvements) and a constitutionally limited head of state, not the US system that so many people think that republicans must be in favour of.

It’s a long tradition – no it isn’t, this dynasty is 19th century, based on lots of invented pomp and flummery, and its current longevity depends entirely on having a stable and mature democracy. Monarchy was always about relatives scheming, fighting and if necessary killing each other to get the throne, and if you wanted your heir to succeed you damn well had to protect him. Now we have the democracy, let’s make it a democracy through and through.

The tourists come for the monarchy – let’s face it, how many tourists have seen the Queen, or expect to? (For that matter, when did I? About the age of 8, perhaps.) When we have an elected head of state we shall still have our history, buildings and, like many a republic, we can still have ceremonies and Guardsmen. We can even have a theme park in Windsor.

We could have President [name your least favourite public figure here] – that is democracy, but then you can desist from voting for him or her, and campaign for someone better. The rather more important matter is that everyone apart from certain members of one family is excluded from the job of head of state, and on simple statistical grounds it is clear that those excluded people include very, very many who would be far better suited for the position. I’ll nominate some if given the chance.

The weakness of the arguments for retaining the monarchy is telling. The rest of us will grow up and be full citizens if we have the right to vote for the person who reigns or rules over us.

I am glad to see that many younger people are now recognising this, and are organising to campaign for a representative head of state.