Monday, October 29, 2007

Comment moderation

Because of a sudden huge increase in the number of fake comments from advertizers, I'm introducing comment moderation. That means genuine comments might be delayed a short while before appearing. Apologies.

Defending secular society

On Saturday I was involved in a debate on The Resurrection of Religion at the RCA. I defended the secular society. Here are some of the points I made, for what they are worth...

What is a secular society? It is, roughly, one that is neutral between different views about religion.

It protects freedoms: the freedom to believe, or not believe, worship, or not worship.

It is founded on basic principles framed independently of any particular religious, or indeed, atheist, point of view: principles to which we ought to be able to sign up whether we are religious or not.

An Islamic or Christian theocracy is obviously not secular, because one particular religion dominates the state.

But then a totalitarian atheist state, such as Mao’s China, is not secular state either. A secular state does not privilege atheist beliefs.

Because you live in a secular society, your right to believe in a particular God, worship him, etc. is protected from those atheists, and those of differing religious views, that might want to take that freedom from you.

Christians often assume a secular society is an atheist society. "Look at the institutions and principles of this society." they say. "They involve no religion. So it's an atheist society". Not so. After all, the fact that the institutions and principles make no commitment to atheism doesn't make it a religious society, does it?

We are often told that secular societies have "failed" (e.g."Many people today recognise that the experiment of modern secular society has failed." Bishop Joseph Devine “Today many recognise that the experiment of modern secular society has failed." Rev Vincent Nichols). The truth is they have been hugely successful. Of course, they are not all perfect, but secularism is, I think you’ll find, better than the alternatives.

Threats to the secular society


One way in which the secular character of a society can begin to be eroded is if the religious start insisting that their views are deserving of a special concern and "respect". Many of the faithful insist just that. Here are six examples:

1. We should not put on plays that mock, or might in some other way deeply offend, those with religious beliefs.

2. Schools and airlines should have no power to prevent flight attendants and school pupils from wearing religious symbols, if the individual’s religion, or conscience, requires it.

3.Taxpayers money should be used to fund religious schools, that are then permitted to discriminate against both teachers and pupils on the basis of religious belief.

4. The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else in the country should not apply to, say, Catholic adoption agencies asked to help gay couples adopt.

5. Radio 4’s Thought for The Day should only allow religious figures to contribute.

6. A religion should automatically be allocated 26, seats in the House of Lords – all men, by the way – which can then be used to help support or block legislation that has popular, democratic support (such as the Bill on assisted dying).


We are told that, if we fail to agree to these claims, we fail to show religious beliefs proper “respect”.

If we agree to these things, we begin to erode the secular character of our society.

I don’t agree with any of these six claims. Why not? Well, because I apply a certain TEST - a test I am recommending you apply too.

Here’s the test. If you agree with some of these claims that religion deserves a special respect, cross out the word “religious” and write in “political” instead. Then see if you still agree.

Take three of those six claims…

1. We should not put on plays that mock, or might in some other way deeply offend, those with political beliefs.

2. Schools and airlines should have no power to prevent flight attendants and school pupils from wearing political symbols, if the individual’s political organization, or conscience, requires it.

4. The anti-discrimination laws that apply to everyone else in the country should not apply to, say, BNP-run adoption agencies asked to help mixed race couples adopt. We should respect the political conscience of BNP-party members.


The challenge I am putting to the anti-secularists is: if you reject the political version of the claim, why suppose the religious version should be considered differently?

REPLY 1: You may say, but religion is different. Unlike political organizations, religions deserve special respect. But why? After all, religious beliefs are often also intensely political. Consider religious views on:
• Women’s role in society
• The moral status of the actively homosexual
• Abortion
• Jihad
• The state of Israel
• Our moral and financial responsibilities to those less fortune than ourselves

Religions also form powerful political lobbies.

REPLY 2: You may say: but religious beliefs are more passionately held. That’s why they deserve special respect.

But political beliefs may be just as passionately held. Indeed, just as for religious beliefs, people are prepared to die for them. In fact I am prepared to die for certain political beliefs. Yet I do not demand legislation preventing others from mocking my beliefs. I don’t demand that others show my political beliefs that sort of “respect”…

We have a peculiar blind spot when to comes to religion. We far too easily accept what we would never accept from a political organization. Yet they are political organizations.

Perhaps there is some difference between religious organizations and (other) political organizations that justifies a difference in treatment in some of the above cases. But if there is, I don't know what it is (though I am aware of other suggestions, e.g. (i) religion forms part of a person's identity in a way that politics doesn't [this suggestion pointed out to me by philosopher Piers Benn], and (ii) religious belief involves personal relationship with someone (i.e. a god, or prophet, etc.) - you wouldn't insult someone's mother so you shouldn't insult their god).

Friday, October 26, 2007

The problem of evil - "solved by Jesus"

Aaron has left a new comment on "Augustine on evil". It's below. Let's discuss.

Augustine calls evil the “privation of a good” (Confessions Book 3 Chapter 7).

Good and evil are similar to light and darkness. Darkness isn’t a “thing” but the absence of light.

You appeal to science as revealing false the belief that we descended from Adam and Eve. You are entitled to this bare assertion but it is ironic that you turn around and talk about the evil of millions of years of animal suffering. What’s evil about animal suffering from the scientific standpoint? Isn’t it ultimately indifferent?

As you have indicated, Christians have a framework (whether or not you agree with it) for understanding what is good and what is evil.

What is your framework for believing in good and evil?

Ravi Zacharias helpfully explains,

“Some time ago I was speaking at a university in England, when a rather exasperated person in the audience made his attack upon God.

"There cannot possibly be a God," he said, "with all the evil and suffering that exists in the world!"

I asked, "When you say there is such a thing as evil, are you not assuming that there is such a thing as good?"

"Of course," he retorted.

"But when you assume there is such a thing as good, are you not also assuming that there is such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to distinguish between good and evil?"

"I suppose so," came the hesitant and much softer reply.

"If, then, there is a moral law," I said, "you must also posit a moral law giver. But that is who you are trying to disprove and not prove. If there is no transcendent moral law giver, there is no absolute moral law. If there is no moral law, there really is no good. If there is no good there is no evil. I am not sure what your question is!"

There was silence and then he said, "What, then, am I asking you?"

He was visibly jolted that at the heart of his question lay an assumption that contradicted his own conclusion.

You see friends, the skeptic not only has to give an answer to his or her own question, but also has to justify the question itself. And even as the laughter subsided I reminded him that his question was indeed reasonable, but that his question justified my assumption that this was a moral universe. For if God is not the author of life, neither good nor bad are meaningful terms.”

The Christian “answer” to the problem of evil is not ultimately found in syllogism or equation but the Person and work of Jesus Christ. As the philosopher Peter John Kreeft put it, “Many Christians try to get God off the hook for suffering; God put himself on the hook, so to speak – on the cross.”

See also:

http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5124

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Australians required

Are there any Australians out there who have direct experience of the shift to private religious schools in Oz? Especially teachers? I know a BBC person who might want to talk to you. Email me.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Richard and Judy - and probability

Not withstanding Mike's suggestion that I drop this topic as its not up to usual standard, I'm going to stick with it for a bit.

Jeremy says:

...the R&J show was basically scamming a significant proportion of the population into believing that they had a chance of winning... when they had NO chance at all at the time they decided to commit their money. It is in the withholding of this information that I think the unfairness lies.

I'm not sure that's it, as, in my example where stage 1 of whittling down is that half the time entries are received they go straight in the bin, a significant proportion of the population have no chance of winning at the time they decide to commit their money (because their entry is immediately binned). Yet there is no unfairness in withholding this info from them.

I didn't make my point about determinism clear, as some of you think it irrelevant. Well, may be it is irrelevant, but let me try again (as the point I was trying to illustrate is the crux of my question)!

I was trying to illustrate the point that what we consider "random" and "non-random" depends on how we set the parameters. Given the parameters include the laws of nature and all antecedent physical conditions, that this dice should now roll 6 is not random. There's "no chance" of it doing anything else. On the other hand, given no more info than that the unloaded dice is given a vigorous unseen shake before being rolled in the normal way, it's getting a 6 is random (there's "just as good a chance it'll roll a 5 or 4 etc.").

We say the Richard and Judy case was unfair, and we say this because certain contestants - those who phoned after a certain point - were not excluded at random, but were ruled out from the start (so they had "no chance" of winning), whereas in my example where half the entries go in the bin, and the rest go into a random lottery, we say that those that went into the bin were fairly excluded at random: they did still have the "same chance of winning" as everyone else.

There's a question about what we consider "random" and "non-random", and thus fair (a "chance" of winning [even if very, very low, Mike!]) and unfair ("no chance" of winning at all), to which I don't know the answer.

Why, in the RandJ competion, is it right to say certain entrants have "no chance of winning" whereas in my hypothetical competition those who phone in during times when entries go in the bin have "the same chance of winning as everyone else"?

[[N.B. Note this problem is not, Mike, that I cannot tell difference between very low, and no, probability. I do know about that (in methodology I teach the Bayesian response to the paradox of the ravens, which hinges on precisely that point).]]

THINK news - why late issues?

Anonymous asked about THINK issue 15. It is in the post. The Royal Institute of Philosophy ran into problems with delivery beyond their control, but those problems have been entirely resolved now. Issues 16 and 17 will be in March and June after which we'll be back on track [correction, 16 in December, 17 and 18 in March and June].

Subscribers can rest assured they will receive all the issues for which they have paid.

After issue 18, Cambridge University Press take over production. The transition will be seamless and will require no action on the part of subscribers.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Channel 4 phone-in puzzle


The puzzle in a nutshell, is this. On the one hand, most of us feel intuitively that the competition was unfair. Trouble is, now I have started to think more carefully about it, I cannot identify precisely why it was unfair. I am wondering if it was unfair.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Channel 4 phone in - another case

Re my previous post, Jeremy says the unfairness in the Channel 4 phone-in is:

"the company was withholding information such that the population thought they could win, when in fact they could not.In this way, they encouraged the population to become contestants and to spend money which they otherwise would not have done."

This may be on the right lines. But consider this imaginary case:

A winner is to be picked at random from one million callers. The whittling down is in two stages. Stage one is: half the time the phones are being answered, those entries go straight in the bin. The remaining entries are then entered into a lottery from which the winner is picked.

Is this competition unfair? If the punters know how it generally works, certainly not.

But actually, is it unfair even if the punters don't know how it works? What does it matter how the whittling down is done, as long as it's not done in a way deliberately designed to favour certain previously identifiable contestants?

But if that is so, then, if the telephonists taking the entries that go straight in the bin know they are doing so, does that matter? I don't see how it does, despite the fact that, were they to tell those phoning in they cannot win, those punters wouldn't spend their money.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Channel 4 phone-in competition


"[T]he company behind a quiz on the Richard & Judy show was fined for urging callers to enter after winners had been picked."

Regarding the upset over those who entered a Channel 4 phone-in competition (and were charged for doing so) when the winner had already been picked, I have to say, I don't really get it.

You enter the competition with an epistemic probability of winning of, say, one in a million. You all know one million entered, and there will be only one winner. None of you have any idea who it will be.

Of course, your objective chance of winning (the physical probability, if you like) depends on how we set the parameters. For example, given the laws of nature and antecedent physical conditions, it may be that the winner was determined months or even years beforehand. Given these laws and initial conditions, your chances of winning are zero and those of Bert (the eventual winner) are 100%.

Does the fact that the physical probability of Bert winning is 100% mean the competition is not fair? Of course not.

But then why is it unfair if, unbeknownst to any punters, the winner is picked before the competition closes? Your epistemic chance of winning remains 1 in a million, even if you phone in after the winner is picked. Yes, objectively speaking, your objective probability of winning is then zero. But why does that make the competition unfair?

Unfortunately, probability theory is not really my forte. Anyone care to help me out?

[N.b. This case seems analogous to the following. Six people each choose a number on a dice. The dice is rolled and one person wins. Does the fact that the dice was, in fact, loaded make this competition unfair? No. Even if, because of the loading, it was a dead cert that the number 5 would win and the number 3 wouldn't, there's no unfairness - not even to the person who chose number 3. What matters is that everyone who enters enters with an equal epistemic (for-all-they-know) probability of winning.]

Israel, Palestine and Terror



This, of course, is bound to get me into trouble... (published '08)

I'll also post my contribution to the book around about publication time.

I may also post some interviews with contributors.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Review - The Philosopher's Dog, by Rai Gaita

Saturday March 1, 2003
The Guardian

The Philosopher's Dog
by Raimond Gaita
224pp, Routledge, £14.99

What are minds, exactly? Most of us, when first confronted with this question, find ourselves quickly drawn to a traditional philosophical picture. The picture represents the mind as a sort of private room: a hidden inner sanctum within which our mental lives are played out and to which others are necessarily denied access.

Because these inner rooms are hermetically sealed off from each other, the only clue as to what's going on inside the mind of another must be provided by their outward behaviour.

Of course, this picture of the mind, once it gets a grip on our thinking, leads to all sorts of puzzles. If all I can have access to is the outward behaviour of other people, then how do I know that they have minds? How can I be sure that they aren't mindless zombies? And do animals have minds? If they do, then what are animal minds like? How does the world seem from inside the mind of a dog or a sparrow? What is it like to be a spider? Indeed, is there anything like being a spider [n.b. my original text said "it is like to be a spider". S.L.]? In his later philosophy, Wittgenstein rejects this picture of minds as essentially hidden, inner worlds. Minds, in Wittgenstein's view, are essentially public, not private. They are right there on the surface rather than buried away beneath. Nothing is hidden.

That might sound like a crude form of behaviourism: "So Wittgenstein is saying, then, that the mind just is behaviour, or, at least, that it consists in nothing more than certain behavioural dispositions?"

Well, no, he is not saying that either. It's possible, on occasion, to view human beings as mere physical objects, and their words as just sounds in the air (it's a pretty disturbing experience, of course, and one that, if we are not insane, is impossible for us to maintain for very long). When we switch back to seeing others not as physical objects but as beings with minds who make meaningful utterances, we are viewing them, as it were, in a different conceptual dimension, a dimension that, according to Wittgenstein, cannot be reduced to or understood in terms of the merely physical.

In his enjoyable and rather beautiful book, The Philosopher's Dog, Raimond Gaita takes these two Wittgensteinian ideas - that the mind is essentially public, not essentially private, and that mind and meaning are irreducible -and develops them with great sensitivity.

Gaita's focus is on our relationship with animals and the rest of the natural world. His project is not to reveal new, previously hidden facts about humans and animals, but rather to get us to see more clearly what was always right under our noses.

"Nothing is hidden," writes Gaita. "The capacity to see depends on having a rich conception of the surface, a rich conception of what it is to be a living thing and therefore how to describe what it does and what it suffers." His book aims to leave us with a deeper understanding both of what it is to be an animal and of what it is to be human.

Gaita constructs the book in large part around a number of animal stories taken from the author's own life. He is quite right to insist on "the distinctive role storytelling can play in showing us how we can apply to animals concepts that we had previously thought had no application to them." The stories are often deeply touching, without being sentimental, and their atmospheres left me haunted for days afterwards. And Gaita is quite correct: his stories really are philosophically illuminating.

Naturally, not everyone is going to agree with the book's two key Wittgensteinian ideas. In particular, many will find the view that mind and meaning reside wholly on the "surface" somewhat dubious. In his seminal paper, "What is it like to be a bat?", the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously suggested that the intrinsic character of a bat's subjective experience as it "sees" using sound is something that is in principle impossible for us to know. No amount of investigation into a bat's behaviour or nervous system can tell us what it is like for the bat, as it were. There does seem to be something essentially private and hidden about a bat's mind.

Personally, I have a great deal of sympathy with Gaita's "surface" approach, but I'm left with the nagging worry that he does after all miss something out - the essentially private character of conscious experience. While reading about Gaita's dog, I couldn't help thinking of Nagel's bat. I kept finding myself drawn back to the picture of the private room. But then perhaps I'm just confused. Either way, Gaita's charming book remains genuinely illuminating.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ban private schools? - if private schools have little effect on life chances, why do you keep writing those big cheques?

I will pick out just one thing from your comments on my last post suggesting we ban private schools.

Here's a point from John (endorsed by potentilla):

"I still haven't seen the evidence that private schooling does prevent those who do not attend it from achieving their best - the over representation of privately schooled individuals in positions of power may well reflect parental values and ethos as much as opportunity - analogously, the largest 'contributor of offspring' to the Armed Forces are parents who themselves served in the Armed Forces; are we to believe that they are given an unfair advantage during recruitment and selection due to the background of their parents? Rather I would suggest the overwhelming reason that many serve is to continue the lifestyle to which they are accustomed, because they have been brought up to value the Armed Forces and they consider it a respectable career option. No doubt the values they have inderited from their parents do make them more It would be good to get some clarification. suitable to the Armed Forces - such social conditioning applies in all walks of life."

I don't deny other factors, such as parental values etc., play a role too in determining our choice of career and opportunities open to us.

However, it is clear, is it not, that the statistics revealing how the mere 7 percent who are privately educated come to dominate the high status professions strongly suggest that private education has a powerful effect when it comes to enhancing the life chances of those lucky few?

It would be good to get some clarification. Are you suggesting, John, that, really, private eduction has little to do with the way privately educated children dominate the top professions? It's mostly explained by other factors, like sons of lawyers wanting to be lawyers, daughters of Oxbridge graduates aspiring to follow their mothers, etc.? That does seem to be your point.

It would be odd if it turned out those of you who are putting such effort, and very considerable quantities of money, into privately educating your children - many of you stress the sacrifices you make to write those big cheques - actually think it has comparatively little effect on their life chances.

The fact that you are putting such a large investment into the private education system indicates to me that deep down you do believe this investment does significantly boosts the life chances of your kids. Otherwise why make it?

And by significantly boosting your own kids' life chances, you do inevitably restrict the life chances of other kids.

John, is your response to this last point in effect: "Ah, but most other kids don't really aspire to be doctors, lawyers, top military leaders, etc, so you see? - we are not preventing them from achieving their best." It does seem to be.

P.S. On a different point: my analogy with private universities is good, I think. I'll respond to your objections shortly.

P.P.S. Incidentally, it's interesting John mentions the armed forces as they are notoriously class ridden - especially the army. 9 out of the top 10 military people went to private schools.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Subscribe to THINK

You can subscribe to THINK: Philosophy For Everyone, a journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, by going to the website here.

There are many sample articles available here (including some by me)

THINK is being published by Cambridge University Press from Issue 19 onwards. It is edited by me. You can submit pieces via my email address above.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ban private schools? - taking away the xmas presents

It's been suggested that I have problem with these two cases:

1. Rich kids get big Xmas presents poor kids won't get. So, by my own reasoning, we must take the rich kids presents away to make things "fair". But that's ridiculous.

2. Some kids are taught to read etc. by their parents. Other parents are unwilling or unable. Therefore, we must prevent parents teaching their kids to read etc. to make things "fair".


Actually, I am not committed to doing either of these two things.

First, my concern is with what will impact on the opportunities of children to develop their native talents and abilities. Extra toys won't much. So I won't be taking the toys away.

Second, I agree that, where there's an unfairness (sufficient to warrant action to remedy it) between what x receives and what y receives, if we can realistically remove the unfairness by bringing whoever has less up to the level of whoever has more, then we should do that, rather than taking away from whoever has more.

So, in the case of parents teaching their kids to read, the solution to the unfairness caused by those parents who won't or can't is to help bring their kids up to the level of the rest, rather than prevent those parents who can teach their kids to read from doing so. This is achievable.

We can't apply this kind of solution in the case of the best private schools, however. We cannot all receive an Eton-quality education (it's unaffordable) and elite peer-group (it's statistically impossible).

Third, my view is that there is, in any case, a basic level of education everyone should receive. Everyone should be able to read and write well, and should be given the opportunity to learn. So I am not committed to preventing parents from teaching their kids to read and write on the grounds that not all parents can or will do this. That would obviously be a great injustice.

Possibly a harder case for me is where a parent provides lots of additional help with reading at home, beyond what most others are providing. Am I committed to banning that?

I seem to remember that in his excellent How Not To be A Hypocrite (a book on when it is and is not hypocritical for lefties to send their kids to private schools) Adam Swift (another one for banning them, I seem to remember) suggested that the difference between this case and simply buying your kid a place at a posh school is that the former is part of a loving, nurturing natural parent/child relationship, whereas the latter is not. The former would involve imposing rules on how parents should interact at home with their kids (clearly unacceptable) but the latter does not. That makes all the difference.

While I don't favour banning such extra help, I am not sure I agree with Swift's justification.

I do take Joe's point that it is unfair that some should have more native wit and talent than others - so are we going to do something about that unfairness too? (corrective brain surgery to dumb 'em down - or shall we let the IQ-of-75 guys become brain surgeons too?) Of course it is unfair. However, remember:

(i) if we deem it actionably unfair that the dim should be less financially well-off through no fault of their own, then there are other options open to us, e.g. we can simply redistribute wealth.

(ii) I am arguing on two fronts: moral and pragmatic. True, if a thick person wants to be a brain surgeon, we should not let him. Is that unfair? No, because he'll be crap at it and people will die. There's a pragmatic case for not letting him.

There's a pragmatic, and moral, case too for allowing all to achieve to the best of talents and abilities. That is in all our interests. Private education constitutes a serious obstacle to this. I am suggesting we remove that obstacle.

Finally, remember my analogy with universities. We would object, on moral and pragmatic grounds, if the top universities started flogging off all their places to the highest bidders. This would be deemed unacceptable. The negative impact such a policy would have is pretty obvious, isn't it (we don't need to do lots of studies and research, do we?)?

Well, I am simply objecting, on the very same grounds, to the very best schools flogging of their places to the highest bidders.

My question is: if you would object to the top universities flogging off all their places in this way, why are many of you so against my suggestion that we stop the best schools doing the very same thing?

Friday, October 5, 2007

Ban private schools? - the freedom issue

In response to my suggestion that we ban private schools, Joe said:

"the problem I have here with all this discussion is that there seems to be an assumption that it is a reasonable response to unfairness to tell people that they are not allowed to provide something for their own children, if not everybody else can also provide it."

This is, of course, an important point. The freedom to help your children as best you can is important, and not to be trodden on lightly.

I am not suggesting that whenever a freedom produces any unfairness or inequality, we should take that freedom away.

For example, I am not here arguing that people should not be free to, e.g. teach their own kids to read, on the grounds that this causes an unfairness and inequality - i.e. because other parents are unwilling or unable.

But "freedom" doesn't trump all other principles on every occasion.

Surely, where there is a very great unfairness caused, and indeed, serious harm being done, by people taking advantage of a freedom, there can be a good case for curtailing that freedom.

For example, we don't allow the richest parents to buy their children all the best university places (hmm, well, having taught at Oxford, I'm aware that, on occasion, we do - but of course the practice remains frowned upon and rightly so). This is a "freedom" we don't permit. And for very good and obvious reasons.

But notice that it is exactly the same sort of reasons that motivate my suggestion that we take from parents the freedom to buy their children all the best school places.

"Freedom" doesn't automatically trump the kinds of considerations I am raising.