Sunday, January 29, 2012

An intellectual arms race

From time to time I do some reading in the more technical areas of philosophy (like epistemology or the philosophy of logic) where topics like truth and objectivity are dealt with in what appears to be an intellectually rigorous way. It all looks and feels very scientific, and of course various formal logical and mathematical systems are employed.

I am attracted to this sort of thing, but I keep pulling back from committing myself to it mainly because I keep finding apologists for religion amongst the ranks of philosophers and logicians. (The latest one I stumbled upon was Bas van Fraassen, a distinguished philosophical logician and a Roman Catholic.)

Of course not all logicians and philosophers have a religious or metaphysical agenda, but I tend to think that the whole structure of the discipline is dependent on these people, not because without them there would be fewer philosophers (that's another issue), but because they - the religious ones - are actually setting the agenda.

My suggestion is that if a group of intelligent secularists set out to deal with questions of truth and objectivity they would not feel compelled to elaborate the daunting intellectual theories which fill the bookshelves and the scholarly journals and which help to justify the continued existence of a profession devoted exclusively to these matters.

But, when you have a significant number of religiously-inclined thinkers involved, a kind of intellectual arms race ensues, with the sad, and ultimately truth-obscuring, results we have before us.

Of course, I am making the assumption that religious doctrines are false, but that's an assumption the truth of which I see no reason to doubt.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The market for truth

John Cleese was asked in a recent interview why so many people profess a desire to be famous.

"I think it's to have a sense of significance," he said. "Now most people don't want an ordinary life in which they do a job well, earn the respect of their collaborators and competitors, bring up a family and have friends. That's not enough any more, and I think that it's absolutely tragic - and I'm not exaggerating - that people feel like a decent, ordinary, fun life is no longer enough."

"One of the things I've discovered ... as I've got older," he continued, "is that almost nobody knows what they're talking about. Of course, we're still talking and we're having fun but you have to realize that, in terms of truth or reality, most of it is completely valueless."

It's easy to make fun of this sort of celebrity wisdom, but I think Cleese may have a point. Three points, really.

Firstly, the point about people not being satisfied with an ordinary life. This has a lot to do with the decline of a rich culture (customs, religion, etc.) which provided the sense of significance which is now lacking.

The second point is, if not literally and simply true, then only a slight exaggeration: "... almost nobody knows what they're talking about."

And the final point Cleese makes I would put another way, and say that the market for truth and reality is vanishingly small.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Faltering democracies

Buttonwood has a piece about the tendency of the "rationally irrational" majority (which does not take an interest in the details of politics) to have systematic biases - including an anti-market bias, and a view that favors short term make-work schemes over the improvements in productivity which underlie long-term prosperity. Democracy, it seems, is fatally flawed; it remains to be seen whether the established democracies of the West can survive.

Technocrats have taken over in Greece (too late!) and Italy. In the United Kingdom, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has made some progress in trying to undo the disastrous legacy of previous Labour governments. And in Spain a conservative government was voted in late last year to replace the socialists.

The mildly entertaining democratic processes of the United States lumber on, and (who knows?) they might result in an administration which begins the Sisyphean process of turning the country around. The next question would be whether the electorate would continue to support a President and a Congress committed to making hard, and (if the research Buttonwood alludes to is correct) unpopular, decisions in the interests of productivity and long-term prosperity.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Stupid intelligent versus intelligent stupid

The topic of intelligence is one is I intend to look at from time to time and from various angles. There are scientific and factual issues, many quite controversial, which can be addressed, but also conceptual issues and questions of attitudes to the importance of (various types of) intelligence.

Let me begin by referring back to a piece I wrote over a year ago, drawing on something Jason Streitfeld (a follower of the 20th-century philosopher Gilbert Ryle) wrote on the topic. The basic point I was making was that intelligent behavior is what matters, not some hypothetical quality residing inside the head. The tests for cognitive ablility conducted by psychologists are very important tools, and in my opinion they should be more widely used and applied (for example, in helping individuals make choices about careers). What they do not and cannot do, however, is to deal with the sort of complex processing involved in making the sequences of real life decisions which to a large extent determine our individual fates. (The notion of emotional intelligence, which is supposed to address some of these issues, is still in the process of being defined and there is no consensus on the value of existing tests.)

Imagine two individuals, two scenarios. One person has a very high IQ and is able to cope easily with advanced mathematics but is socially awkward, and doesn't bother to organize mundane aspects of his life like personal finances. The other person has a lowish IQ did poorly at school but is socially adept, a hard worker and a good listener. Let's say he recognizes his limitations and devotes his limited intellectual powers to seeking out intelligent and trustworthy advisers. He invests his savings wisely and lives a long, happy and prosperous life within a trusted circle of friends and family. Who would you prefer to be?

A certain level of raw cognitive ability is necessary to achieve success in life. But when people use the epithet 'intelligent', they are often indicating high levels of cognitive ability - call it cleverness or 'braininess'. My point is simply that this kind of (high level) intelligence is overrated and less important than most people think. More important - especially in respect of the wellbeing of the individual concerned - is that other sort of intelligence which incorporates a gift for friendship, which allows one to recognize one's limitations, to make astute social judgements, to put a high value on the future and financial independence, and to act accordingly.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Jumping to conclusions

There is a lesson to be taken from my previous post about jumping to conclusions and about hidden biases. Though neither I nor the news source I was relying on made any actual claims about who was responsible, there was an implicit suggestion that the claims made by Zahara Rahimzadegan's husband and by an evangelical Christian pastor that Islamic extremists were responsible for the woman's disappearance were plausible. As it turns out, the case seems to have nothing to do with Islamic extremists. (After the discovery of a body at the family home, the woman's husband has been arrested and charged with her murder.)

I am no fan of religion and certainly no fan of Islam, which is the source of many evils and much violence.

However, Islam is not going to disappear any time soon, and so one can only hope it will evolve - as Christianity did - and gradually adapt to modernity. And this process will not be assisted by bloggers or anyone else giving credence to unjustified accusations.

Mea culpa.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Missing person

The Age, a left-leaning Australian broadsheet, has a report today on the disappearance of an Iranian woman living in suburban Melbourne. Mandy Ahmadi*, who arrived in Australia with her husband in 1999, disappeared on December 16 last year without taking her handbag, money or credit cards. Her husband and two sons fear she has been abducted by Islamic extremists. She and her husband converted to Christianity five and four years ago respectively.

A Christian pastor who has known the Ahmadis for eight years said that Mrs Ahmadi "really stuck her neck out" trying to convert Muslims and he feared that her zeal had come to the attention of Iran-based militants.

I quote directly from the newspaper's carefully phrased report:

Islam, strictly interpreted, mandates death for adults who leave the religion**, and there are many cases of Iranian converts being killed, both in Iran and Europe.

The same penalty may be applied to those who seek to persuade Muslims to leave their religion. While there are accounts of Muslims who converted being beaten in Australia, The Age is not aware of any claims of killings.

* Her husband's surname is Ahmadi and she was called Mandy Ahmadi in the original report. Her legal name appears to be Zahara Rahimzadegan. It is not the custom in Iran for a woman to take her husband's surname.

** It is not quite as simple as this. I am no expert, but this is the situation as I see it. The Quran says that the apostate will receive punishment in hell after judgement day, but does not mandate an earthly penalty. However, basing their views on some hadith (acts or sayings ascribed to the prophet Muhammad), most traditional Muslim scholars argue that apostasy is indeed punishable by death.

Update (Jan. 13): Police are conducting a search of the missing woman's house and surrounding areas. A police spokesman has indicated that the disappearance is unrelated to Zahara Rahimzadegan's religious activities. I'll post again when more has been made public.

Monday, January 9, 2012

What's worth doing?

I think we must have evolved for crisis living, not reflection. Reflection bogs us down and causes us to question everything, whereas, in our normal state (lives more or less out of control), we act to deal with this crisis or solve that urgent problem, and often manage to remain cheerful and show courage and all sorts of virtues. Life-in-action brings out the best in us. Leisure and bounty often bring out the worst.

For example, we might start to ask questions like, "What should I do?" or, worse, "What human activities are intrinsically worthwhile?"

This last question in particular is problematic as each of us is situated in a specific social context. Simply asking what human activities are worthwhile is perhaps too abstract an approach. But so long as one is aware that one is dealing with abstractions and provisional generalizations the exercise may not be entirely useless.

And it can streamline discussion and simplify things. For example, I might be at a point in my life where I have to make a choice of direction but don't want to be distracted by a lot of boring details. (My specific situational details are very boring, as it happens.)

So - what sorts of activities are worthwhile, intrinsically or not?

1. Having fun - partying and that sort of thing - will be high on many people's lists. However, not really being dans le vent (to use a dated but expressive French locution), I have little to say about this.

2. Having children and raising them is considered life's purpose by many. Certainly it appears to be the fulfilment of a basic biological function, but what is significant about it has more to do with passing on values of various kinds in a particular cultural context.

3. Charitable and humanitarian work is often worthwhile, but its value is entirely extrinsic, i.e. in terms of the good it does. This is an area where well-intentioned people can do great harm. Good intentions and warm feelings are no substitute for thinking through the (possible) consequences.

4. Political activism. As for 3. Except that the intentions are not always good and the feelings are often far from warm.

5. Art and self-expression are often put forward as intrinsically valuable activities. Though it all depends on the quality of what is being made or said.

6. Enjoying good art or literature is a worthy thing to do, I suppose, but I wouldn't make too much of it. One important thing good taste does indirectly - and on a very modest scale - is to reward good quality art and writing and to limit the audience for (and so discourage) poor quality work.

7. Playing sports and competitive games is great for some. H.G. Wells used to invite friends to his country house for the weekend and he always organized lots of games. But he was inclined to tire quickly of one game after another. "Let's play something I can win," he would say.

8. Hobbies are worthwhile too, blurring the distinction between work and play. They can be a sort of compensation for the unsatisfactory nature of the greater part of one's life.

9. Ordinary social interaction? Well, this is an essential part of being human. (So is sitting alone under a shady tree.)

10. Learning is intrinsically valuable, especially (I am speaking personally here) the sort of learning that helps one understand important things - and things in general. I think the privileged person is the one sitting in the auditorium, not the lecturer. Likewise, scientific researchers (even successful ones) are less privileged than non-researchers who have more time and leisure to understand and appreciate what researchers discover.

After all, lecturers must be paid or they will not lecture (the ones who don't insist on payment you don't want to hear!); and researchers have to be paid and lured on by prizes and awards. But curious people don't have to be motivated by material rewards to learn, to read, to expand their understanding.

Of course, I am being slightly disingenuous here. Though I mentioned (artistic) self-expression, I am underplaying that basic human motivation, the desire for the spotlight, the desire for status, the desire to be taken seriously, to be listened to. And I am also ignoring the fact that most of us have to earn a living and that paid work not only fills a disproportionate amount of the typical day and so determines to a large extent the nature and quality of our lives, but also forms the basis of our identity, of how other people define or categorize us and of how we define and categorize ourselves.

I'll deal with the topic of remuneration in another post, but let me just say here that I don't see any necessary connection between the worthwhileness of an activity and whether or not someone should be paid for doing it.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Ten reasons to be chaste

1. You will have more time for sleeping.

2. Chastity provides excellent protection against sexually transmitted diseases and - barring interventions by scheming deities - against unwanted pregnancies.

3. Chastity promotes trust and new friendships by easing some of the pressures and complications of social interaction.

4. Chastity protects existing friendships. Though sex can in many instances deepen friendships, it can also be a potent friendship-killer, not only in respect of the relationship between the lovers, but also in terms of collateral damage to other, third-party, relationships.

5. Chastity takes some of the urgency out of sexual orientation and gender identity issues. It allows one to apply a kind of dialethic logic to these matters. You can be this, that, both and neither all at once.

6. Chastity is a way of rebelling against the evolutionary mechanisms and imperatives which dominate most human behavior and which exert complete and utter control over the behavior of all other animals.

7. Chastity will free your mind for other things, like flirting or quantum physics or contributing trenchant comments to obscure conservative blogs.

8. Chastity requires no pledges, promises, vows or contracts.

9. It is invisible, imponderable and completely non-toxic.

10. Most importantly, chastity is not anti-sex: chastity and sex go hand-in-hand. Chastity adds value to sex. And sex gives chastity its meaning.