Thursday, April 26, 2012

Telling porkies

This weather vane - visible from my hotel room window - sends a very mixed message.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

To engage or not?

Anyone interested in general questions about human knowledge, about the scope and nature of science and related matters, is faced with a dilemma: whether or not to engage with recent work done by professional philosophers. For a strong case can be made that something is seriously wrong in contemporary philosophy which seems in many respects to have become a self-perpetuating enterprise divorced from the concerns both of the educated public and of practising scientists.

Furthermore, it is undeniable that many philosophers are motivated by religious or political agendas which are not always easy to identify. Although it has always been the case that philosophers have had ideological motivations, the professionalization of philosophy has encouraged the view that ideological and religious motivations are irrelevant to, and should not be discussed in the context of, a philosopher's professional work. Consequently, work which appears on the surface to involve the disinterested pursuit of truth may all too often be, in effect, disguised apologetics.

If one engages, one runs the risk of becoming caught up in a futile new form of scholasticism (if that is what it is). If one keeps one's distance, one is excluded from the conversation (such as it is).

And throwing the occasional hand grenade is not particularly productive. (See, for example, comment #14 - not mine! - on this post plugging a new philosophy journal.)

I'll have more to say on science and scientism, on physicalism and the limits of human knowledge in due course. I have strong intuitions in these areas, but I want to spend a bit of time reading and thinking before I commit myself to specific positions.

For the present, here is an interesting response by H. Allen Orr to E.O. Wilson's book Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge. (Massimo Pigliucci, who is preparing for a conference on Wilson's ideas, recently recommended Orr's review.)

And here is a transcript of an interview with Patricia Churchland in which this controversial, scientifically-oriented philosopher outlines her basic views. (Hat tip to Pete Mandik.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sinister influences

In a pluralistic society it seems sensible to let the market decide as far as possible who should be paid for doing what. The market may not itself be moral but ultimately it does reflect the values of market participants and in fact can provide fertile ground for the development and growth of many human virtues, such as prudence and a sense of responsibility.

It's all very well to say that someone should be paid to perform some (presumably worthwhile) activity, but if businesses or individuals are unwilling to fund them then any money must come from the state, from public resources. And - especially in these times of high government indebtedness - a strong case can be made that controversial or ideologically motivated activities or activities which are normally deemed to be inessential or which only benefit a small group should (whenever possible) be paid for directly by those involved.

Take sport and the arts. There is nothing to stop people getting together to play games if they want to. There is nothing to stop people putting on concerts or plays; and, if the product is popular, the audience will pay. Why should I subsidize writers or artists or performers in whom I have no interest and who, in many cases (given the left-leaning tendency of the arts community), are seeking to undermine the values I hold most dear?

I know that sports and the arts constitute only a small fraction of government budgets, but these areas are not discrete or easily defined, and they impinge on and merge into other more significant areas of government concern. For example, the arts merge into the media, advertising and propaganda. And sports funding is associated with community health initiatives. Nanny state, yes, but at least sport (unlike much activity in the arts) is not ideological.

Much arts funding is more about promoting multiculturalism (or, more cynically, about placating certain ethnic minorities) or winning votes from the broader 'arts community' than it is about encouraging artistic excellence (whatever that may be these days). But then, why should the state promote artistic excellence anyway? It is a good and worthwhile thing, but let it be left to artists to excel and to their followers to reward them.

At the elite end of the spectrum, both sport and the arts are used by governments to promote the 'national brand', an unfortunate tendency that appears - at least in respect of the arts in some European countries and in respect of sport just about everywhere - to have popular support.

Although the number of people directly employed by governments may be falling in some Western countries, the number who work for organizations which are dependent on government funding - including international organizations - is growing. And in areas such as health, education and aged care many mainstream churches and previously-independent welfare organizations have become mere 'service providers', following government rules and dependent on government largesse for their continued existence.

More insidious - if not sinister - is the way many groups espousing and promoting so-called progressive causes have inserted themselves, formally or informally, into the bureaucracy of national and local governments, redirecting resources and effectively reshaping the ethos of these bodies. Institutions and bureaucracies devoted to education are particularly culpable in this regard.

More broadly, laws and government regulations - promoted and encouraged by unions and other left-wing pressure groups - are making it increasingly difficult in many countries for businesses to make decisions about their own operations, including hiring and firing.

Similar constraints are being placed on professionals of all kinds. Once the professional-client relationship was, though essentially market-based, associated with well-understood and respected ethical standards. Direct and indirect government intrusions on this relationship are effectively undermining the very concept of the independent professional who maintains a direct relationship with clients based on trust and a sense of responsibility.

Freedom does not guarantee morality, but morality will only develop in the context of freedom, and withers in a highly regulated environment.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A few thoughts on ethnicity and identity

My recent post on Jewish immigration to England implicitly raised some issues which I thought I would try to make more explicit here. In that piece, I noted that large numbers of individuals and families with a Jewish background made their way to England in recent centuries and assimilated to the Christian mainstream, often adopting English names. Many descendants of these immigrants remain ignorant of their Jewish ancestors.

Of course, this could all be seen as rather trivial and unimportant, and such questions of family history - though often of interest to the families or individuals concerned - are of no particular significance. What is significant, however, is how we think about ethnicity or 'race'.

The word 'Jewish' can be used to refer to genetic factors or to the religion or to culture, and often to a combination of these elements. But I think the genetic or 'racial' aspect is problematic insofar as our racial categories are unlikely to correspond in any precise way with the pattern of actual genetic differences between different people and groups. For example, would Sephardi Jews whose ancestors lived in Spain be closer genetically to particular Spanish populations or to Jews from other parts of the world?

One possible result of the increasing use of DNA analysis is that, as complex patterns emerge, some of the ethnic categories which our languages just happen to have words for will be revealed as simplistic and in some cases perhaps completely unfounded.

This is a sensitive issue, in part because so many people base their sense of identity to a greater or lesser extent on their ethnic background. And, of course, this identification is often accompanied by an acceptance of cultural myths and stereotypes.

Of course, the word 'ethnic' is ambiguous. Like the word 'Jewish', it can refer solely to so-called racial factors. Or it may refer to cultural factors. Mostly it refers to both at once. The trouble is, this mixing of racial and ideological thought is the source of many of the world's most toxic and intractable problems.

My view is that it is good to be aware of where we came from, of who our forebears were. All of what we are - genetically speaking - we inherited from them. It may be interesting to know what they thought and believed, but those beliefs need in no way affect ours. On cultural matters we are free to make up our own minds.

Just because your parents and their parents and so on believed certain things and engaged in certain rituals associated with those beliefs - whether we are talking about Islam or forms of Christianity or Judaism or any other form of religion - there is no reason for you to feel any obligation to conform to this pattern.

Sure, one often feels solidarity with one's kin and respect for one's ancestors but this should never involve any intellectual or religious constraints.

Secular customs are another matter entirely. They do not in any way restrict one's freedom to think for oneself.

Group identity is inevitable to some extent, and many forms of group identity are based on kinship. But it is well to remember that there are no clear dividing lines in this matter, just degrees and complex patterns of relatedness which are unlikely to correspond in any simple way with conventional ethnic categories and stereotypes.