Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Competition winner!

Thanks for all the entries to the "Atheism is a faith position too" competition.

I have thought long and hard, and come up with the following decision. The winner is:

Austin Cline, for this example from Rowan Williams and Cormac Murphy-O'Connor:

Many secularist commentators argue that the growing role of faith in society represents a dangerous development.

However, they fail to recognise that public atheism is itself an intolerant faith position.

This is from the foreword of a report called "Doing God" available here. I went to the original source to check and I could not find a single argument in the entire document to support the contention that "public atheism is itself an intolerant faith position."

As part of a public joint statement by the heads of the Catholic and Anglican churches in the UK, offered without any justification whatsoever, it scores very highly for being irritating, and gains some extra points for being slightly sinister!

Austin - email me your postal address.

Judge's decision is final, of course.

Friday, May 25, 2007

atheism competition - last call for entries...

I am looking for the most irritating, sinister or downright funny example of the ever-popular "but atheism is a faith position too" move. Any more entries...?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

God and the testimony of the senses

There are various ways to respond to the argument set out in my previous blog, some of which have already been mentioned.

I suspect the most obvious objection (already touched on) is this. If we take

(ii) there is a (good) God

to provide grounds for

(i) our senses are a reliable guide to reality,

what our senses then strongly confirm is that (ii) is false (the problem of evil). Therefore, it is far more reasonable to start with (i) than (ii). You might still call (i) a faith position, but it does not involve nearly as much faith as (ii).

In addition, as has also been mentioned, it is controversial whether (i) must be accepted on "faith". Arguably, there are good grounds for accepting it over, say, the evil demon hypothesis. For example, we might suggest this: that it is a real world we experience rather than an illusion provides the best explanation of what we experience; therefore it is more likely to be true. The two hypotheses (a real world vs. a demon-conjured illusory world) may be equally consistent with what we experience; it doesn't follow that they are equally probable (this is an application of inference to the best explanation).

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"Atheism a faith position too" - best shot?

Let’s look at the second of the two arguments I sketched out for science (and any atheism dependent on it) being a “faith position” too. It went like this:

The sceptic about the external world shows that our belief that our senses are a reliable guide to reality cannot be justified. But then, as science and indeed all our beliefs about the external world are based on the assumption that our senses are a reliable guide to reality, they too are rooted in "faith". So belief in God is no more a "faith position" than is empirical science.

One response would be to say that while:

(i) our senses are a reliable guide to reality

and

(ii) there is a God

are both equally unjustifiable, and so, if you like, “faith positions”, the fact is we all assume (i). By contrast, (ii) is an additional assumption we don’t need to make. So the principle of economy says that if we can get away with assuming just (i), we should do so. Adding (ii) as a second assumption requires considerably more “faith”.

Trouble with this move is that some theists maintain that if we accept (ii), then (i) is no longer an assumption. We can justify it by appealing to (ii) (in the style of Descartes – a good God would not allow us systematically to be deceived).

So, each belief involves an equal amount of “faith”.

Comments?

I think there’s a more obvious and better objection to the above argument for science (and any dependent atheism) being a "faith position, in fact. Coming to that shortly….

Saturday, May 12, 2007

"atheism is a faith position" - another example

Here's a classic example of the "they are both equally faith positions" view, taken from a review on amazon.co.uk of the book God: The Failed Hypothesis.

For my treatment of this sort of move see here, where we get the same old mantra from Alister McGrath and others. Anyway, here we go...

After considering this book for a time I realise that this has nothing new to add to a debate which is greatly misunderstood.

To use an example:

To say that "the Galaxy Andromeda has life in it" would be an incorrect statement - to say "the Galaxy Andromeda has no life in it" would also be incorrect. The statement "the Galaxy Andromeda DEFINITELY MAYBE has life in it" - is the way to express the situation.

This logic is the way answer the question "is there an all-powerful, all-knowing and in all-places controlling influence or entity?" - DEFINITELY MAYBE is the only logical answer. One can have 'faith' that there - is - or - is not - this influence in existence, but it must logically be regarded as a DEFINITE MAYBE in argument. And that IS the WAY IT IS - PERIOD.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

"Atheism a faith position too" - best shot?

While we run the "atheism is a faith position too" competition, perhaps we should also, to be fair, try and see what the strongest argument for this claim might be. We looked at some really terrible ones back here (The Dawkin's Delusion's author Alister McGrath's version is pretty awful [well, it's an assertion, not an argument], despite his Oxford don credentials). But perhaps the theists can do better.

Here's an opening suggestion or two from me.

(1) Science is dependent on inductive reasoning. It is based on the assumption that what has happened up till now provides us with a good, if not a fool-proof, indication of what will happen in the future. Unfortunately, as Hume points out, this assumption cannot be justified. But then inductive reasoning cannot be justified. In which case science cannot be justified. It too ultimately rests on "faith" - faith in that background assumption. And if atheism is based on science, then it too rests on a "faith" assumption. So you see, atheism and theism are intellectually on par. Both are ultimately "faith" positions.

(2) Here's another version. The sceptic about the external world shows that our belief that our senses are a reliable guide to reality cannot be justified. But then, as science and indeed all our beliefs about the external world are based on the assumption that our senses are a reliable guide to reality, they too are rooted in "faith". So belief in God is no more a "faith position" than is empirical science.

What, if anything, is wrong with these arguments?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The "atheism is a faith position too" competition

Yes, it's the old mantra, "atheism is a faith position too".

In “On a Mission”, Education Guardian, Tues May 8th, Joanna Moorhead quotes head teacher Terry Boatwright (head of a religious school) as saying "Even people who don't believe in God have a faith - they have faith that God doesn't exist. People say: How dare you push your faith at young people? But a head who doesn't believe is still a head with faith."

So that's why it's ok for Boatwright to "push" his faith at kids.

Jeez, "atheism is a faith position too" has really entered the zeitgeist. It seems to crop up almost weekly in the press now. Where's it coming from? See here, here and here for earlier discussion.

The idea that science is also based on "faith" seems to be behind a lot of it (Juliana recently suggested this, I note). I think we should discuss that shortly...

Who can find the most irritating, sinister or downright funny use of this ever-popular myth? I'll send the winner a signed (if desired) paperback copy of The War For Children's Minds (published July).

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Can children think philosophically?

Juliana suggests children won't be able to think critically about morality, religion or other "Big Questions" until post age 11. Well, let's have them doing it then, at least. But actually, there's growing evidence that it's beneficial before then.

There have been a number of studies and programs involving philosophy with children in several countries. The results are impressive.

One notable example is the Buranda State School, a small Australian primary school near Brisbane, which in 1997 introduced into all its classes a philosophy program. Children collectively engaged in structured debates addressing philosophical questions that they themselves had come up with, following a Philosophy in Schools programme using materials developed by the philosopher Philip Cam and others. The effects were dramatic. The school showed marked academic improvement across the curriculum. A report on the success of the program says,

[f]or the last four years, students at Buranda have achieved outstanding academic results. This had not been the case prior to the teaching of Philosophy. In the systemic Year 3/5/7 tests (previously Yr 6 Test), our students performed below the state mean in most areas in 1996. Following the introduction of Philosophy in 1997, the results of our students improved significantly and have been maintained or improved upon since that time.

There were substantial payoffs in terms of behaviour too. The report indicates “significantly improved outcomes” occurred in the social behaviour of the students:

The respect for others and the increase in individual self esteem generated in the community of inquiry have permeated all aspects of school life. We now have few behaviour problems at our school (and we do have some difficult students). Students are less impatient with each other, they are more willing to accept their own mistakes as a normal part of learning and they discuss problems as they occur. As one Yr 5 child said, ‘Philosophy is a good example of how you should behave in the playground with your friends’… Bullying behaviour is rare at Buranda, with there being no reported incidence of bullying this year to date. A visiting academic commented, ‘Your children don’t fight, they negotiate’… Visitors to the school are constantly making reference to the 'feel' or 'spirit' of the place. We believe it's the way our children treat each other. The respect for others generated in the community of inquiry has permeated all aspects of school life.

Of course this is a single example – hardly conclusive evidence by itself. But it’s not the only example. In 2001-2, Professor Keith Topping, a senior psychologist, in conjunction with the University of Dundee studied the effects on introducing one hour per week of philosophy (using a Thinking Through Philosophy programme developed by Paul Cleghorn) at a number of upper primary schools in Clackmannanshire, including schools in deprived areas. Teachers were given two days of training. The study involved a whole range of tests, and also a control group of schools with no philosophy programme. The children involved were aged 11-12. This study found that after one year,

• The incidence of children supporting opinion with evidence doubled, but ‘control’ classes remained unchanged.
• There was evidence that children’s self-esteem and confidence rose markedly.
• The incidence of teachers asking open-ended questions (to better develop enquiry) doubled.
• There was evidence that class ethos and discipline improved noticeably.
• The ratio of teacher/pupil talk halved for teachers and doubled for pupils. Controls remained the same.
• All classes improved significantly (statistically) in verbal, non-verbal, and quantitative reasoning. No control class changed. This means children were more intelligent (av. 6.5 IQ points) after one year on the programme.

These benefits were retained. When the children were tested again at 14, after two years at secondary school without a philosophy programme, their CAT scores were exactly the same (that’s to say, the improvements that had previously been gained were retained), while the control group scores actually went down during those two years. Three secondary schools were involved and the results replicated themselves over each school. Again, this is only one study. No doubt such results should treated with caution. But, they do lend considerable weight to the claim that not only can children of this age think philosophically, it’s also highly beneficial. A recent study strongly supports the view that philosophy for children provides measurable educational benefits for children even in their first year of school.

To sum up: there’s growing evidence that children, even fairly young children, can think philosophically. And, while more research needs to be done, there’s a growing body of evidence that it’s good for them academically, socially and emotionally.

The kinds of skills such philosophy programmes foster are, surely, just the sort of skills we need new citizens to develop.

(nb this is from The War For Children's Minds)

Religous schools and brainwashing (II)

Thanks for the insightful comments on my previous post.

I guess the first thing I should say (as I do in The War For Children's Minds) is that of course various purely causal mechanisms are inevitably going to be applied to shape belief in and out of the classroom, and yes this is, to some extent, a good thing. Giving a kid a sweetie or a hug when they do well can be a form of “emotional manipulation” but is certainly not brainwashing. Getting kids to repeat stuff and learn by rote is obviously not brainwashing either.

I also doubt whether a very precise algorithm-like definition of brainwashing can be given – certainly not in terms of “necessary and sufficient conditions”. Brainwashing is, I suspect, what Wittgenstein calls a “family resemblance concept”. There is a range of indicators for brainwashing, and the more are satisfied (and the more strongly they are satisfied) in a given system, the more like brainwashing it is. There is, if you like, a sliding scale from education to indoctrination to brainwashing, with no precise boundaries between them.

Taylor's specification of the five “core techniques” of brainwashing: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation, while not perfect, is certainly helpful. I am inclined to add a fifth (necessary?) condition for brainwashing – that the regime must not encourage (either explicitly, or covertly) independent critical thinking and questioning of central tenets.

It seems to me that, if there is no such encouragement, plus all five of Taylor's boxes are strongly checked, then you are probably looking at, at the very least, indoctrination, and probably something very close to brainwashing.

Juliana's point that learning by rote is not brainwashing, and the lack of a definition in terms of "necessary and sufficient conditions" does not undermine the above suggestion.

Juliana is right that what people like to call “brainwashing” depends to some extent on the content of the beliefs involved. If we like the beliefs, we call it “education”; if we don’t, we call it “indoctrination” or even “brainwashing”. I kind of made that point myself when I issued my faith schools challenge here.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t possess a fairly robust notion of brainwashing - something very much along the lines that Taylor is talking about. We do. And while many religious schools certainly aren’t guilty of it, many, I think, do come perilously close. Much closer than some of the faithful are prepared to admit… (which was much the point I was making with my faith school challenge).

If you want to know why I think reliance on purely causal techniques for inducing belief (incl. brainwashing) is a very bad idea, whether or not I happen to approve of the content of the beliefs being inculcated, scroll down to my 1st and 3rd May blogs.

Monday, May 7, 2007

religious schools and brainwashing

In the last couple of posts I've been exploring two ways in which we might explain, or try to shape, someone's beliefs - by giving reasons, or by applying purely causal mechanisms.

One of the most obvious ways of engaging in purely causal manipulation of what people believe is, of course, brainwashing. What is brainwashing, exactly?

Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist in physiology at the University of Oxford who has published a study of brainwashing, writes that five core techniques consistently show up:

One striking fact about brainwashing is its consistency. Whether the context is a prisoner of war camp, a cult’s headquarters or a radical mosque, five core techniques keep cropping up: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation.

The isolation may involve physical isolation or separation. Control covers restricting the information and range of views people have access to, and includes censorship. Cults tend endlessly to repeat their beliefs to potential converts. This repetition may include, for example, very regular communal chanting or singing. Under uncertainty, Taylor discusses the discomfort we feel when presented with uncertainty: by providing a simple set of geometric certainties that cover and explain everything, and also constantly reminding people of the vagaries and chaos of what lies outside this belief system, cultists can make their system seem increasingly attractive. Emotional manipulation can take many forms – most obviously the associating positive feelings and images (e.g. uplifting or serenely smiling icons) with the belief system, and fear and uncertainty with the alternatives.

Of course, the extent to which these techniques are applied varies from cult to cult. Clearly, they are also be applied by non-religious cults and regimes. A school in Mao’s China or under the present regime in North Korea would almost certainly check all five boxes.

That these and other purely causal mechanisms are effective at influencing belief even outside a cult’s headquarters or a prisoner of war camp is surely undeniable. We are all very heavily influenced by them. The success of the advertizing industry is testimony to their effectiveness. Indeed, many advertising campaigns check many, if not all, of the Taylor’s five boxes for brainwashing.

When challenged on this, the industry typically insists that it is merely “informing” the public - providing good reasons and evidence on which consumers can base a rational, informed choice. Nevertheless the main tools of the advertizing trade are for the most part purely causal. An advertisement for soap powder, lipstick, a car or a loan typically contains very little factual information or argument. The power of these adverts to shape our thinking and behaviour is mostly purely causal – they play on our uncertainties and rely very heavily on repetition and emotional manipulation.

I note (though Turner doesn’t), simply as a point of fact, that religious schools of the sort that tended to predominate in this country up until the 1960’s also very clearly check all five boxes.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Why reason isn't just another form of thought-control

In the last post I made a well-known philosophical distinction - between trying to influence people's beliefs by means of rational persuasion and reason, and trying to shape their beliefs by means of purely causal mechanisms (which range from brainwashing and hypnotism to peer pressure - I'll give more examples in a later post).

Some post-modern and other thinkers will insist, of course, that this distinction is a bogus one. According to them, "reason” is a term used to dignify what is, in reality, merely another purely causal mechanism for influencing belief, alongside brainwashing and indoctrination. Reason is no more sensitive to the “truth” than these other mechanisms (for of course there is really no truth for it to be sensitive to). Reason is, in reality, just another form of power – of thought control. It is essentially as coercive and/or manipulative as any other mechanism.

But this is to overlook the fact that while a rational argument can, in a sense, “force” a conclusion on you, the “force” involved is normative, not causal. Let me explain...

Causal determination determines what will happen. For example, given the causal power of these rails to direct this train, the train will go to Oxford. Normative determination, on the other hand, determines not what will happen, but what ought to. It is an entirely distinct type of determination.

A rational argument shows you what you ought to believe if you want to give your beliefs the best chance of being true. Take this valid deductive argument:

All men smell
John is a man
Therefore, John smells.

To recognise that this argument is valid is just to recognize that if you believe that all men smell, and that John is a man, then you ought to believe that John smells. But of course this argument doesn’t causally compel you to accept that conclusion even if you do accept the premises. You’re entirely free to be irrational.

This isn't to deny that rational arguments have causal power. Of course they do. A good argument can have the power to change history (consider the wonderful arguments of Galileo, or the campaigner against slavery William Wilberforce). But when rational arguments have the causal power to shape people’s thinking, they typically have it as a result of their having normative power. People change their opinions precisely because they recognize the normative force of the argument.

[Notice, by the way, that we can easily demonstrate that a rational argument doesn’t have normative power simply in virtue of its having the causal power to shape people’s thinking (though critics who fail to understand the difference between normative and causal determination or "force" will obviously miss this point). The obvious counter-example is fallacious argument. A fallacious argument lacks any normative power. But notice that, if the fallacy is seductive, it will still have considerable causal power to shape belief.]

So rational arguments have causal powers. But that is not to say that rational argument is in reality just another purely causal mechanism alongside e.g. brainwashing and peer pressure.

I have stressed how rational argument differs from purely causal mechanisms for influencing belief. First, in the previous post, I explained how rational argument is truth-sensitive, while purely causal mechanisms are typically not. Now I have added the point that, rational arguments, while also possessing causal power to shape belief, typically have this power in virtue of their normative power. The kind of “determination” a rational argument "imposes" on us is, in the first instance, normative, not causal.

Indeed, as I also pointed out in the previous post, when you use reason to persuade, you respect the other’s freedom to make (or fail to make) a rational decision. When you apply purely causal mechanisms, you take that freedom from them. Your subject may think they’ve made an entirely free and rational decision, of course, but the truth is that they’re your puppet – you’re pulling their strings. In effect, by ditching reason and relying on purely causal mechanisms – peer pressure, emotional manipulation, repetition, and so on – you are now treating them as just one more bit of the causally-manipulatable natural order – as mere things.

So to sum up, we have seen that, when it comes to shaping belief, rational argument differs from taking the purely causal route in at least three important ways:

(i) it is truth-sensitive (whereas purely causal mechanisms typically are not)
(ii) while rational arguments can be causally powerful, their causal power typically derives from their normative power – which is a distinct, non-causal form of "power".
(iii) Rational argument allows for an important form of freedom - a freedom that the purely causal mechanisms actually strip from us.

Next time a "post-modern" etc. insists that reason is just another form of manipulative power or thought-control, you might try pointing these differences out...

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Optimistic about reason and progress?

Here's something I did for latest issue of The Philosopher's Magazine. I've tweaked it a bit...

I used to be more of an Enlightenment optimist than I am now. I used to think that clear, cogent argument has immense power to make people more sensitive to the truth.

Now I’m not quite so sure. People’s beliefs are shaped in two very different ways – as illustrated by the two very different ways we might answer the question “Why does Jane believe what she does?”

First, we might offer Jane’s reasons and justifications – the grounds of her belief. Why does Jane believe the Republicans will lose the next election? Because she has seen the opinion polls and knows that the causes of the current Republican slump – such as Iraq – are unlikely to disappear in the near future. So, concludes Jane on the basis of this evidence, the Republicans will probably lose.

But that’s not the only way in which we might explain a belief. Suppose Bert believes he is a teapot. Why? Because Bert attended a hypnotist’s stage-show last night. Bert was pulled out of the audience and hypnotized into believing he is a teapot. The hypnotist forgot to un-hypnotize him, and so Bert is still stuck with that belief.

Of course, Bert need not be aware of the true explanation of why he believes he is a teapot. He may not remember being hypnotized. If we ask Bert to justify his belief, he may find himself oddly unable. He may simply find himself stuck with it. He may well say, with utter conviction, that he just knows he is a teapot. In fact, because such non-inferentially-held beliefs are usually perceptual beliefs, it may seem to Bert that he can see he’s a teapot. “Look!” he may say, sticking out his arms “Here’s my handle and here’s my spout!”

So we can explain beliefs by giving a person’s reasons, grounds and justifications, and we can explain beliefs by giving purely causal explanations (I say purely causal, as reasons can be causes too). Purely causal explanations range from, say, being hypnotized or brainwashed to caving in to peer pressure or wishful thinking. These mechanisms may even include, say, being genetically predisposed to having certain sorts of belief.

Of course, both kinds of explanation may be relevant when it comes to explaining why Fred believes P. Fred may believe P in part because there is some evidence for P, though not enough to warrant belief in P, and in part because he is, say, biologically predisposed to believe P. It may be that neither factor, by itself, is sufficient to explain Fred’s belief.

We may flatter ourselves about just how rational we are. Sometimes, when we believe something, we think we’re simply responding rationally to the evidence, but the truth is we have been manipulated in a purely causal way. I might think I have decided that racism is wrong because I’ve recognized the inherent rationality of the case against it, when the truth is that I have simply caved in to peer pressure and my unconscious desire to conform.

There are, correspondingly, two ways in which we might seek to induce belief in someone. We might attempt to make a rational case, try to persuade them by means of evidence and cogent argument. Or we might take the purely causal route and try to hypnotize or brainwash them or apply peer pressure, etc. instead.

What’s interesting about these two ways of getting someone to believe something is that generally, only one is truth-sensitive. The attractive thing about appealing to someone’s power of reason is that it strongly favours beliefs that are true. Cogent argument doesn’t easily lend itself to inducing false beliefs. Try, for example, to construct a strong, well-reasoned case capable of withstanding critical scrutiny for believing that the Antarctic is populated by crab-people or that the Earth’s core is made of cheese. You’re not going to find it easy.

On the other hand, hypnotism, brainwashing, and peer pressure can just as easily be used to induce the belief that Paris is the capital is the capital of Germany as they can that Paris is the capital of France.

Sound reasoning and critical thought tend to act as a filter on false beliefs. Admittedly, this filter is not one hundred percent reliable – false beliefs will inevitably get through. But it does tend to allow into a person’s mind only those beliefs that have at least a fairly good chance of being correct.

Indeed, unlike the purely causal techniques of inducing belief, the use of reason is a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways. It doesn’t automatically favour the “teacher’s” beliefs over the “pupil’s”. It favours the truth, and so places the teacher and the pupil on a level playing field. If, as a teacher, you try to use reason to persuade, you may discover that your pupil can show that you are the one, not the pupil, who is mistaken. That is a risk some “educators” are not prepared to take.

[Some “post-moderns” insist, of course, that “reason” is just a term used to dignify what is, in reality, merely another purely causal mechanism for influencing belief, alongside brainwashing and indoctrination. Reason is no more sensitive to the “truth” than these other mechanisms, for of course there is no “truth”.]

Enlightenment liberals like myself tend to feel uncomfortable about heavy reliance on purely causal mechanisms. Here’s one reason why. When you use reason to persuade, you respect the other’s freedom to make (or fail to make) a rational decision. When you apply purely causal mechanisms, you take that freedom from them. Your subject may think they’ve made an entirely free and rational decision, of course, but the truth is that they’re your puppet – you’re pulling their strings. In effect, by ditching reason and relying on purely causal mechanisms, you are now treating them as just one more bit of the causally-manipulatable natural order - as mere things.

Now to a shift in my philosophical view. When I look around the world, I find it increasingly difficult to remain optimistic about the power of reason to steer people towards the truth.

Take, for example, the rise of young earth creationism in the U.S. Sixty years ago, the belief that the universe is six thousand years old was the view of a tiny band of religious crackpots. Now it is accepted by almost half of all Americans – over 100 million people. Many are college-educated. Many are at least as smart as you and I. Yet not only do they accept this cranky belief, they think it’s consistent with the scientific evidence. They think they are being rational and reasonable. But they are deluding themselves. The real explanation for why they believe what they do is, for the most part, a purely causal explanation (quite what that explanation is, is an interesting question: part of the answer may be that we have a genetic predisposition towards religiosity that makes us particularly vulnerable to religiously-draped cranky beliefs).

Also depressing is the highly successful psychological manipulation engaged in by rightwing media moguls. Many Americans embrace rightwing belief systems that have almost been injected into their heads by a certain news network. Of course, these people think their views are rational and reasonable, but many have, to a large extent, simply had their strings pulled. Listen carefully to some shock jocks and you can almost hear the cogs and levers of manipulation whirring in the background.

How confident can we be that reason and truth will triumph over such extraordinarily powerful belief-inducing mechanisms? If the answer is “not very”, and if there is a great deal at stake (and there often is), then this raises two uncomfortable thoughts for a left-leaning liberal philosopher like me.

First of all, if the mechanisms that primarily shape belief are mechanisms that philosophical reflection and cogent argument are able to do comparatively little about, doesn’t that make encouraging the public to think and question a largely pointless exercise?

That’s not to say that philosophy is powerless to change the world – big philosophical belief systems such as Marxism or Platonism may indeed have huge impact. But their impact won’t be because they’re inherently more reasonable than their competitors, but simply because they are in the right place at the right time, causally speaking.

It also raises temptation. The temptation, when it comes to shifting public opinion, is to worry less about being rational and reasonable, and more about pressing the right causal buttons. If you really want to change the world, put rational persuasion on the back burner and apply more effort instead to applying those very forms of psychological manipulation that liberals like me have, to date, felt so squeamish about using.

But of course there’s a big “if” driving these thoughts. On my less pessimistic days, I incline more to the idea that the huge global surge in wacky religious and other dodgy belief systems is perhaps not a sign that those who wield reason are losing, but that they are winning. Yes, religious nuttiness is on the rise. But perhaps that’s an entrenchment – a reaction of the remaining faithful to the continuing erosion of faith.

So, at the moment, I still remain cautiously optimistic about the beneficial effects of reason. But I have my worries.