30 July 2007

The purposes of religion

In a secular society such as ours, religion can seem an odd phenomenon. Consider the beliefs that are involved:
- belief in the existence of an invisible deity;
- belief that the wishes of the deity can be ascertained by studying scripture;
- belief that people ought to comply with the deity's wishes.
These things can seem peculiar from the point of view of someone brought up without religion. A number of writers have recently tried to emphasise these peculiarities of religion in order to discredit it.

However, assume for the sake of argument that these beliefs happen to be correct. The question arises, what is the purpose of religion — should it aim to generate conclusions consistent with prevailing secular attitudes? Some who reject religious belief as irrational also criticise it for producing implications about behaviour that lack cogency from a secular perspective. It is not clear that this is a sound line of reasoning.

Consider Catholic objections to the use of condoms and to homosexuality, often linked to arguments about what is 'natural'. Many critics argue that Catholicism is morally wrong to generate advice which, they say, causes suffering, or stops it being prevented. However, the purposes of religion are not the same as those of secular morality.

Philosopher Stephen Law, for example, has recently argued that Catholic doctrine in this area is flawed:
- 'Even if there is a God, the claim that those purposes that we find in nature indicate what God desires is questionable.'
- 'Why not say, "We'd prefer you not to have sex, but if you are going to, please use a condom"? Can I suggest that saying anything else puts you onthesideofthedevil?'
- [responding to commenter] 'You say that the Church's view is: "condoms aren't going to stop you infecting or being infected". I believe medical opinion is that condoms can indeed prevent infection, isn't it? Doesn't this mean the Church's position is wrong?'

It may be appropriate to put pressure on the Church to change its policies, for pragmatic reasons. Church doctrine has changed over the centuries to accommodate changes in public thinking. One can dispute the basic beliefs of a religion, but to say that church policy is irrational because it goes against common sense seems like bad logic.

Other articles
Stephen Law on Thomas Aquinas
Stephen Law on condoms and Catholics
The Guardian on the use of condoms in Africa
Jonathan Tweet on condoms for Catholics
Nourishing Obscurity compares three major religions

23 July 2007


Recently there has been a good deal of debate about the existence, or otherwise, of God. Christians face the problem that the God of the New Testament is normally presumed to be both omnipotent and supremely good, which seems hard to square with the existence of suffering. It should be noted that moral "goodness" is notoriously difficult to define with regard to human behaviour, and is presumably even more problematic applied to a deity.

If we consider the more general idea of a creator or other supreme entity, and leave the idea of "goodness" aside, then we are faced with two key questions:

(A) What characteristics would such an entity have?

(B) What would count as "evidence" of the existence of such an entity?

Much of the debate seems to have blurred the distinction between the Christian God and the idea of God in general, and also failed adequately to consider questions A and B above. By not properly defining terms or considering the fundamental issues, the debate has effectively had the character of political argument rather than intellectual analysis. If a Christian claims that God has particular characteristics definable in ordinary language, or that God has performed particular actions comprehensible to human minds, then it is relatively easy to shed doubt on this. The effect is to undermine the concept altogether.

In a discussion with Alister McGrath, Richard Dawkins says "we have to talk about probabilities", and McGrath agrees. McGrath seems to think there is an inherent improbability in the complexity of living things, which makes the existence of a creator god plausible. Dawkins responds "I want to say exactly the same thing of a designer … Any being capable of designing a universe, or an eye, or a knee would have to be the kind of entity which would be statistically improbable in the same kind of way that the eye is". But both seem to be misusing statistics: we cannot really assign probabilities to hypotheses as abstract as that.

The strongest argument against the existence of God is probably that of superfluity (a version of Ockham's Razor): the concept is irrelevant because it is neither useful nor needed in explaining any facts we wish to account for. However, this argument is not as strong as it may appear.

Within a closed and self-contained system of explanation, e.g. physics, a concept at the biological level such as 'sexual reproduction' is not required to explain all the observed phenomena: we merely need to know the initial conditions and the laws of particle interaction. Yet when we move to a more macroscopic level, we find that it is useful and necessary to invoke certain additional higher-level concepts to provide satisfactory explanations. (This is sometimes expressed using the idea of 'emergent properties'.) The fact that we find it perfectly possible to explain phenomena without recourse to additional theoretical entitites is not strong evidence that no other concepts would be required at a 'larger' level of significance.

Other articles
Wikipedia on emergent properties
Discussion between McGrath and Dawkins
Stephen Law on the probability of God

9 July 2007

Consensus and dissent

Ipsos MORI reports that 56% of British adults agree with the statement "Many leading experts still question if human activity is contributing to climate change", and suggests that people have been "influenced by counter-arguments". Al Gore, who helped to organise last week's Live Earth event, remarked that "those people think, wrongly, that the scientific debate is still raging." The Royal Society's vice-president commented: "People should not be misled by those that exploit the complexity of the issue, seeking to distort the science and deny the seriousness of the potential consequences of climate change. "

The global warming controversy raises issues about (a) what is meant by "scientific consensus" and (b) the extent to which politicians and voters ought to accept what scientists agree is fact or highly probable. There is also the question of whether views which depart from the consensus should be suppressed because they are likely to be false, or promoted because they maintain a healthy debate and prevent thinking from becoming stale and dogmatic.

It seems clear that a majority of scientists support the idea that it is "very likely" that the gradual increase in temperature over the last century is "predominantly" due to human activity. But should we be interested in the views of those working in areas other than climate change? For example, the views of the Australian Medical Association in effect form part of the "consensus", but are they relevant? It is interesting that the most recent statement by the American Meteorological Association sounds more guarded than similar statements by other groups of scientists. Climatology is a highly complex subject: modelling conditions even a few weeks into the future generates results that are notoriously unreliable.

Many believe there is a high risk that CO2 emissions over the next few decades, unless actively restricted, will create significant and damaging climate change, and think additional environmental policies are therefore urgently needed. And for many of these people, persuading the voting public to agree to such policies is seen as a crucial obstacle. For them, climate change sceptics are simply holding up the necessary shift in public perceptions.

While there does seem to exist a consensus of sorts, we need to bear two things in mind. The first is that what is relevant is not whether there exists a consensus among the highly educated, or among scientists or academics in general, but whether those who are expert in the field in question are in agreement, and whether that agreement is unanimous or merely in the majority. Second, we know from past experience that consensus in itself does not conclusively demonstrate correctness, especially if the issue in question has political implications.

Assuming for the sake of argument that there is a consensus among climate scientists, and that the consensus should be given due weight, there is still an argument that opposing viewpoints should actively be given publicity, both from a utilitarian and a libertarian viewpoint. Consequentialism in science does not seem like a good idea.

Other articles
Dizzy on the politicisation of science
Acton Institute blog on Live Earth
Stumbling & Mumbling on climate moralising
BBC's The Investigation on the Stern Review
Crooked Timber endorses the Stern Review
Crooked Timber blames Exxon for scepticism
Carl Wunsch on "The Great Global Warming Swindle"
Nigel Lawson on climate change
Bjorn Lomborg on being vilified
Tim Worstall on IPCC forecasts

2 July 2007

No smoking

Smoking is now illegal in the UK in all indoor locations that are open to the public. Controversially, this includes private establishments where the counter-argument exists that a non-smoker could frequent another establishment if they minded enough.

The logic for tolerating the smoking ban seems to proceed as follows.

1) Most people now believe that smoking cigarettes is equivalent to taking a regular dose of poison: it is basically extremely harmful to health, probably more so (addiction aside) than any of the major illegal drugs.

2) Therefore the right to behave how you like, provided it does not harm others, is not important in this case, and hence does not need to be defended.

3) Many smokers are themselves in favour of the ban, because they believe it will help them to give up.

There has therefore been relatively little objection to the ban encroaching on areas where no non-smoker is being harmed. But is it possible that an important principle is being lost sight of? J.S. Mill argued that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”

Once a major piece of legislation breaks clearly with this moral restriction, and without significant opposition, are we likely to find other areas in which it will be applied? “Slippery slope” arguments of this kind are regarded as dubious by many philosophers. Bernard Williams, for example, considered them illogical because they appear to assume “that there is no point at which one can non-arbitrarily get off the slope once one has got onto it”.

Nevertheless, there does seem to be something in the idea of slippery slopes, in politics at least. The argument “we allow A, therefore it is inconsistent not to allow B", or “we already ban X, so why do we allow Y?”, is frequently used. Even if not sound, it is a line of argument which the general public seems prepared to regard as reasonable. On that basis, it may not be long before other legislation is proposed to prevent unhealthy individual behaviour. It has already been suggested that it should be a crime for a parent to allow their child to overeat. On that basis it is not impossible that it will, in the not too distant future, become illegal to sell or consume certain foods, e.g. snacks with more than a permitted maximum level of sugar or fat.

Other articles
David Hockney against the smoking ban
Daily Referendum on the smoking ban
Reuters on the smoking ban
Pub tries to avoid ban by becoming an embassy
Stumbling & Mumbling on the smoking ban
Nourishing Obscurity on the smoking ban
Julian Baggini on slippery slopes
Fallacy Files on slippery slopes