Other People's Icons

This week Chris Mooney wrote a post about "bridging the divide," and that predictably unleashed another round of accusations about the infamous 8th chapter of his book (with Sheril Kirshenbaum), Unscientific America. As you may recall, they told a story that made PZ Myers seem awfully disrespectful.  (Very short version: he threw some communion wafers in the trash, to protest the treatment of a Florida student, took pictures, posted them at his blog, and upset a lot of Catholics. See here.)  Some people think the book left out details and made Myers seem more disrespectful than he is. But never mind that controversy ...

What are the Respect Rules when it comes to talking about other people's deeply held views?  Then again, is that really the right question? Maybe we know those rules, and the real question is about breaking them. Humor and biting commentary are all about transgression. It can't be that all forms of transgression are completely beyond the pale.

I transgressed when I called A. A. Gill an idiot in yesterday's post. That seemed fine to me. This week Jon Stewart transgressed when he made fun of the Catholic Church's attempt to recruit Anglican bigots. That's got to be good, and I like this column by Randy Cohen saying we need more of that.

The question is how we should think about these transgressions. Are there any limits on them? What should we be thinking about when we decide whether to transgress? Here's a nice example of transgression I discovered when I dropped in on Pharyngula the other day--

Apparently Bill Donohue of the Catholic League thinks this is too much transgression and held a press conference about it.  PZ Myers' response was this--
You know, I still have a stash of holy crackers. I might just have to escalate some more, just to witness Donohue's public meltdown, and make a point: nobody, especially anyone who is not Catholic, has to revere Catholic icons, and demanding that we do is only gonna get Jesus hurt some more.
So we've got two positions carved out here.  Bill Donohue:  everyone must revere Catholic icons.  PZ Myers: nobody has to revere Catholic icons.

First point. I think the clip is pretty funny.  I don't think it's intolerably transgressive.

Second point.  I think these guys are thinking about the issues in the wrong way.  Contrary to Myers, I do think there's a prima facie duty to defer to other people's sensibilities.   "Prima facie" means--at first glance.  So the rule isn't absolute, but it's always in play.  Sometimes  a violation is "worth it" and sometimes a violation isn't.  Contrary to what Donohue evidently thinks, every transgression isn't worth a big fuss.

The duty to defer to other people's sensibilities doesn't have anything particularly to do with religion.  It's just an all purpose duty.  A case in point: the other day I was driving to school to meet a student and wound up driving behind a funeral procession.  A couple of police officers on motorcycles were keeping everyone behind the hearse and a line of about ten cars.  Probably I  could have gotten away with racing past the procession (there were a lot of lanes) and I could have honked as I passed the hearse and shouted an obscenity.  I might have self-righteously thought:  why should I have to revere other people's dead bodies?  I didn't even know the guy!  And besides, it was just his body!  It's my right to value just what I value.  Nobody can force me to adopt their point of view!

Obviously, this would be an overly individualistic stance.  The sheer fact that X matters to other people is some reason for X to matter to me.  Or rather, to be more precise, I ought to care about their feelings, preferences, satisfactions, frustrations.  And that may sometimes mean I have to temporarily pretend to have their concerns, even if I really don't.

So: there really is a prima facie duty to defer to other people's sensibilities.  Which means: no gratuitous peeing on pictures of Jesus [go back and watch the video!] or tossing out of communion wafers.  But it's just "prima facie." You can violate the duty, if you have a good enough reason.  Obviously, I could have raced past the funeral procession, if I'd been feeling chest pains.  And where speech is the issue, you've got to be able to transgress to make important points. You've even got to be able to transgress just to make the general point that religion can be criticized.  Or even just to look at something from a different angle, because that angle discloses something new and interesting. And if laughter is a fringe benefit of some new way of seeing, all to the good!

Still.  There's a rule in play. Mockery is OK when the transgression is worth it, and not because we don't have to care about other people's icons.

Getting back to Mooney and PZ Myers:  there are transgressions every day at Pharyngula.  Mooney didn't make that up.  The only serious question is whether they're worth it.  Yes...no...maybe...but it's impossible to think this through if you start by dismissing other people's sensibilities.

Note: intro paragraph was edited 8/29/10. 


DIY Killers

Apparently there's a new fashion in the US--more and more omnivores want to do their own killing.  So I read in the New York Times last Sunday.  By coincidence, there was a column in The Times (as in London) by a restaurant critic who also felt impelled to dabble in killing.  He starts off with a boast--"I shot a baboon in Africa last Wednesday, just after lunch."  (Thanks to Dom for the link.)

What's going on here?  Well, two quite different things. 

The omnivores were taking a hog butchering class.  The thought, for some of these people, seems to be this:  if I'm going to eat pigs, I ought to be prepared to see up close and personal what it is involved in transforming them from living, breathing creatures into cuts of meat.

Now, this sort of thought can be taken to extremes.  "If I can kill pigs myself, then it's OK; if I can't kill them myself, then it's wrong."  It's not that simple.  You could be able to do something (abusing your kids) that isn't OK.  You could be unable to do something (making a surgical incision) that is OK.

It still takes careful reflection to decide whether killing pigs for food is OK, even if you've attempted DIY killing and can do it (or can't).  But that doesn't mean the experience is pointless.  Watching the process does seem to inevitably trigger more honest ethical reflection than the average person experiences while picking up cellophane-wrapped pork chops at a grocery store.  And in fact the students don't invariably decide the whole thing's perfectly fine.  The article ends by quoting a blog written by one of the students--
“Animals do not want to die,” he wrote. “They can feel pain and fear, and, just like us, will struggle to breathe for even one single more second. If you’re about to run 250 volts through a pig, do not look it in the eyes. It is not going to absolve you.”
“I truly believe that humane slaughter is important and possible,” he added, “but, as I have been learning, here’s the truth about any slaughter: it is both morally difficult and really gross.”
And now that gourmand at the London Times. Mr. Gill really wants to make sure we understand how insignificant  killing animals is.  So he first tells us about the hat he was wearing:
I was in Africa wearing a Robert Redford Out of Africa hat. The sort of hat that just makes you ache to kill stuff. I have a theory about hats: they really do maketh the man.
There's a lot more about hats.  (Do readers think this guy is clever?)  Then the killing urge comes along.  What's it like?  Well, just as the animal is insignificant, so is the killing urge.
So I’m in Africa, in a hat, with dark intentions and a truck full of guns and other blokes in hats. Josh the hunter said: “Why don’t we shoot a baboon?” All nonchalant, looking out of the window at the amazing Tanzanian acacia scrub that drifts into the Serengeti plain. What about a baboon?
Oh sure.  What the hell?

But then it turns out it's not just optional.
And here’s the thing. If you tool around the beautiful and unruly bits of Africa long enough in the company of gangs of men in purposeful hats, sooner or later you’re going to do baboon. You think you’re not, you think you’re the exception, you’re going to just say no to baboon, but pretty soon it’s the monkey on your back. I should have worn my Stella McCartney hat.
Yes, well, a guy's gotta "do baboon."  So he does his baboon--
I took him just below the armpit. He slumped and slid sideways. I’m told they can be tricky to shoot: they run up trees, hang on for grim life. They die hard, baboons. But not this one. A soft-nosed .357 blew his lungs out. We paced the ground. The air was filled with a furious keening of his tribe. Two hundred and fifty yards. Not a bad shot.
So much for this animal's life.  And then...what's this?  A moment of reflection?
I know perfectly well there is absolutely no excuse for this. There is no mitigation. Baboon isn’t good to eat, unless you’re a leopard. The feeble argument of culling and control is much the same as for foxes: a veil for naughty fun. They might, at some unspecified theoretical future date, eat birds’ eggs, young impalas and dik-diks — they are opportunist omnivores. You wouldn’t trust one to baby-sit. But then everything has to eat.
Too bad this reasoning didn't come a little sooner.  But then it turns out it really wouldn't have made a difference.  Gill isn't actually like all the other guys who go to Africa and do baboon.  He has deeper and more peculiar urges.
I wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger. You see it in all those films: guns and bodies, barely a close-up of reflection or doubt. What does it really feel like to shoot someone, or someone’s close relative?
Uh, now might be the time to lock this guy up.  Really. What is it like to kill an old lady?  Or maybe three toddlers?  Perhaps we shouldn't wait for curiosity to rear it's ugly head again.

When the baboon is lying there on the ground, Mr. Gill has a few moments of exquisite sensitivity.  "Look at me. I'm not a thoughtless dolt.  How could you think that about me?"
But, as so often happens in life, when you stare into the magnifying glass at a profundity, it’s the prosaic and pitiful that’s reflected back. He looked much smaller dead; the elegant and nimble black fingers were terribly human, with their opposable thumbs, just a couple of stops down the Metropolitan line of evolution. I examined his fingernails with the same surprise and awe I did when my children were born.
But then the truth is revealed.
And then you look in his mouth, and there’s the difference. One of the most ferocious gobs in all the wild, incisors the size of a leopard’s.
You see?  The animal really deserved it, because he had such big teeth.

This guy's an idiot.  That's all I have to say on the subject.


Dawkins on Seeing

I am thoroughly enjoying Richard Dawkins' new book The Greatest Show on Earth.  This is perfect science writing for someone like me. I'm learning a lot, but the book is a pleasure--not the least bit like doing more work at the end of the day.  The title is apt--in fact, I feel like I'm at a show.  The marvels of nature are being paraded before me, and they truly are marvelous.

But now, what's this?  A paragraph that isn't actually crystal clear (p. 92).
When we look at a solid lump of iron or rock, we are 'really' looking at what is almost entirely empty space. It looks and feels solid and opaque because our sensory systems and brains find it convenient to treat it as solid and opaque. It is convenient for the brain to represent a rock as solid because we can't walk through it.  'Solid' is our way of experiencing things that we can't walk through or fall through, because of the electromagnetic forces between atoms. 'Opaque' is the experience we have when light bounces off the surface of an object, and none of it goes through.
If the rock is mostly empty space, why do we see the particles, not the empty space?  Well...good question!  It doesn't seem as if Dawkins is explaining this well. Surely it's not just convenient to represent the rock as solid, but actually impossible to see that empty space. But...why? If we can see the particles, why can't we see the empty space?  I bet some smart person out there can improve on Dawkins' explanation. 


Have the new atheists become tiresome?

So says Lisa Miller, here in Newsweek.  I'm not sure if she's tired of atheism per se, or just the new atheism.  Which means:  all the pugnacity.  The argumentative tone that implies: agree with me or you're an idiot.  She says this is particularly marked on the internet--
The atheists are, more than other interest groups, joyous cannibals and regurgitators of their own ideas. They thrive online, where like adolescent boys they rehash their rhetorical victories to their own delight.
Maybe she's not attacking atheism itself, since she quickly suggests as appealing alternative to the "three horseman" (poor Dan Dennett loses his horse in this rendering).  She likes Jennifer Hecht, author of Doubt: A History.
Hecht is as much of an atheist as Hitchens and Harris, she says, but she approaches questions about the usefulness of religion with an appreciation of what she calls "paradox and mystery and cosmic crunch." "The more I learn, the more complicated things get, the more sympathy I have with religion," she told me one recent morning by phone. "I don't think it's so bad if religion survives, if it's getting together once a week and singing a song in a beautiful building, to commemorate life's most important moments."
I actually positively liked at least 2-3 of the horsemen, when they first came flying out of the gate.  Their high energy was a refreshing change from the stealth and secrecy surrounding non-belief in super-religious America. Over time, I've become less and less a fan.  That has less to do with the horsemen themselves (I'm reading Dawkins's new book and loving it) than with those internet atheists who act like adolescent boys.  Yes indeed they do.

What I originally thought new atheists were demanding was a right to be "out" -- to take the position that there's no God and state reasons for that view, without being stigmatized for it.  What has developed is much more than that.  At least the internet atheists think coming out means coming out and saying that religion is horribly stupid.  I fail to understand why these folks don't see any conflict between demanding religion bashing rights for themselves, yet wanting an end to atheist bashing.

Well, anyway.  To be an atheist does not mean being a member of any angry mob. I think Lisa Miller does a favor to non-believers in America by pointing out the Jennifer Hechts among them. To be an atheist does not have to mean having no "sympathy" with religion or wanting to see it disappear.   It can mean lots of different things. I'd like to hear the calmer, more amicable voices more often.

Speaking of atheist voices, there's a new book out today:  50 Voices of Disbelief, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Shuklenk. Hopefully they've selected a nice wide spectrum of voices.  I look forward to having a look.


Could there be a god?

I really, really, really hate reading news reports about sexual predators attacking and killing little kids. It makes me feel just awful for the child and the parents, and fearful about my own children.  Why do these things have to happen?

If there were an all powerful, all good being watching over the universe, they wouldn't have to happen.  This is a huge puzzle: if there is such a being, what excuse would he have for allowing  little kids to be raped and killed?  The Argument from Evil says: no excuse, so no god. There just can't be such a being "up there."

A particular excuse has been jangling around in my head since I read about the Florida girl found dead yesterday.  A popular idea is that God couldn't have stopped the miscreant who did this, without somehow depriving humankind of free will.  Why do people even begin to think that makes sense?

Think what it would have taken to prevent the crime.  The seven year old girl was walking home from school with her friends and ran ahead of them because they'd been arguing.  At that point, she crossed paths with the monster.  To prevent the crime, all God would have had to do is alter the trajectory of one or the other.  He could have held the monster back at an intersection by making a red light last a minute longer.  No direct interference with decision-making would have been needed.

In fact, child abductions are rare because we do a lot to prevent them. We hover over our children. We watch out for other people's children.  Nobody thinks these prevention efforts impair anybody's free will.  So why not, God? Why not a few more prevention efforts from on high?

Sadly, it's at times like these that people most need to believe there is a god. I noticed in a picture of the girl's mother that she wore a cross around her neck. Yet it's also at times like these that it's most difficult to believe there is.  I would like to say a prayer for this little girl and her mother--I really would--but sadly I just don't think there's anyone to pray to.


Balloon Boy

Here's a question that's been on my mind for the last week: what exactly is so very wrong with the deception perpetrated in the case of "balloon boy"?  Millions of people seem to have been through the same sequence of reactions.  First, horror that a six year old boy might be floating away in a balloon.  The stuff of bad dreams!  Awful!  Then the boy turned out to have been hiding in the family's attic the whole time--he was safe!  When I read this I told my whole family and we all had a bout of merriment and delight.  Next day--I read it all might be a hoax.  You've got to be kidding me!  Yet more moments of sheer entertainment.  The next day--it was a hoax perpetrated by the father, Richard Heene!  What an intriguing human interest story--still a lot of fun. 

Now picture this sequence of emotions multiplied millions and milliions of times over.  The hoax resulted in an awful lot of enjoyment for an awful lot of people.  Of course we do have to factor in the experience of people who were at the eye of the storm. Hundreds of people devoted hours and hours to finding this little boy.  There was stress, pressure, fear...but of course there was also relief and elation when the whole thing was over.  They may have even enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame.

So what's the problem?  This strikes me as a very hard case for a utilitarian. On this view, we are to assess an action based on whether it maximizes the balance of happiness over misery.  What counts is the aggregate, not just the feelings of individuals, or the individuals closest to "the action."  And what counts is feelings, and nothing else.  If that's how you view morality, you're going to have a very hard time saying that Richard Heene did something very wrong.  At least now, with 20/20 hindsight, it's hard to assess the act as objectively wrong on utilitarian grounds.

But even if you don't put yourself in a utilitarian straightjacket before trying to explain what was wrong with this hoax, it's not that easy to explain. For example, take just the impact on the people most directly affected, like the sheriff who was responsible for finding the boy.  This may not have been a terrible day for him, subjectively. He was in the limelight, he was a hero, there was a lot of excitement.  So if he was harmed, we're going to have to look beyond "feelings." 

We could say the harm consisted simply in being put in a position of having false beliefs.  Maybe that's inherently bad, period.  But surely there's more to it.  They say that knowledge is power.  Conversely, ignorance is loss of power.  The real problem with the sheriff's false belief is that it left him in a position of running after an empty balloon all day.  He couldn't avoid that absurdity, because he didn't know the balloon was empty.  If we want to be the authors of our lives, and pen reasonable lives for ourselves, we need to have the facts.  So: deceiving someone takes away not just the rather abstract good of having true beliefs, but the more palpable good of autonomy. 

But a puzzle remains.  OK, so the hoax had important autonomy costs for the people close up.  Because of the deception, they spent their day in an absurd pursuit of an empty balloon.  That's bad.  But still, there's that huge quantity of fun enjoyed by people all over the country.  Surely some amount of happiness is enough to outweigh the damage done to the  first responders' autonomy, and the actual amount generated (for them, and for all) was enormous.

So it remains puzzling why Richard Heene today should be regarded as a very bad man.  In fact, there's the flavor here of paradox.  We have a firm and non-negotiable conviction that he did do something very wrong, yet it's hard to come up with an explanation that takes account of the total picture.


Animal Deception

Paul Taylor's book Respect for Nature has a very good section about deceiving animals.  It never occurred to me before how often hunting and fishing involve deception.  Deer are lured to feeding stations where they become easy targets.  Baited traps trick animals into a false sense of security.  Fish "take the bait" and find themselves with  a hook in their mouths.  All of this violates a duty of "fidelity" that Taylor postulates as an element of our general duty to respect animals.

I was reminded of his argument while reading a review in today's New York Times book review.  Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes about feeding deer and then studying them in New Hampshire.  Wildlife managers tell people to consider whether they'll be able to follow through, if the deer keep coming back for more. They are assuming the duty of fidelity Taylor talks about.  The reviewer says Thomas knows she shouldn't be feeding the deer, and worries about it in the book--I'm going to have read it for that reason, but also because she's a very good animal writer.

There's a very touching passage about fidelity to animals in Dave Eggers' new work of narative non-fiction,  Zeitoun. The book is about a successful business owner who stayed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.  After the city flooded and the scope of the disaster became clear, Zeitoun's family begged him to leave the city, but he stayed on--putting himself in harm's way (don't worry, no "spoilers" below).  He stayed because he was able to paddle around in a canoe and pull people out of houses, and because he wanted to watch over his house and properties. But there's another very touching part of the explanation.

Zeitoun heard dogs barking in the house opposite his, and paddled over once a day to feed them meat from his defunct freezer.  They expected him at the same time every day, and how could he disappoint them?  Zeitoun--a Muslim from Syria--isn't particularly an animal advocate (note: meat in freezer).  But he feels he can't let the dogs down. (I've read that Muslims think about dogs the way westerners think about rats and pigs, but I guess that's not necessarily so. The book challenges many other stereotypes about Muslims--it's interesting on many levels.)

We seem to fall very easily into a sense of owing things to animals.  We shouldn't deceive them (we think) and what's more, we shouldn't make promises to them that we can't keep.  Thinking about hunting and fishing in that light, it's harder than ever for me to get a grip on why people do these things.


My Future Son

Ask Philosophers gets some really good questions. Here's a recent one--
Suppose an angel visits me tonight and tells me that when I reach the age of 60, I will suddenly find great enjoyment in the music of Kenny G. The angel also tells me that by the time I am 60, Kenny G records will be in short supply, so it might be prudent to stock up on them now. As of now, I hate Kenny G music. The thought of my future self listening to Kenny G in the future disgusts me.
Would it be rational for me to avoid buying Kenny G records today, in order to sabatoge my future self's attempts to listen to Kenny G? Or would it be rational to stock up on them now, which would further the goals of my future self while undermining the goals of my current self?
It reminded me of a quandary I have about my son.  I recently asked his piano teacher if it might make sense to let him stop, since he finds it so excruciating to sit down and practice (sigh).   His teacher says he talks to adults all the time who tell him they wish their parents had made them keep taking lessons, because now they wish they could play.  The teacher seemed to think it was obvious I should side with my son's future self, and make him stick with it.

Are these actually two versions of the same puzzle?   I'm not quite sure they are, but they're in the same ballpark.  I've only gotten this far:  (1) We surely shouldn't privilege a later self, just because it's later. (2) It also seems outright ageist to assume that what an adult wants has more weight than what the earlier child wants.  Kids are people too! (I'm sure my son will approve of that point.)  (3) Numbers don't really settle the matter.  I shouldn't favor my adult son's piano-playing enjoyment just because it will go on much longer than my kid's suffering.

I'm not sure what to think about the teacher's argument.  It didn't really convince me, but I could act like it did, because truth is I wanted him to keep playing.  Why?  Very simple.  Music is good.  I know he'll see the light, if he just keeps going a little longer.


No Exit

So I'm in a bookstore yesterday, trying to buy a novel that has nothing whatever to do with any of the subjects I usually think, write, and teach about. I pick up Lorrie Moore's very highly praised new novel A Gate at the Stairs, flip randomly to the middle, and what should I read?  A character is talking about how Peter Singer (or is it "Pete" or is it "IB Singer"--there's some fumbling about the name) thinks we can kill kids with disabilities but shouldn't eat meat.  Well OK, it's a tricky combination of positions, but not as crazy as it sounds....Hold on!  So much for escaping in a novel.

I left the store empty handed and read some essays in Twilight and Philosophy last night.  There's some good stuff in there, and I'm not talking about my essay ("Dying to Eat: The Vegetarian Ethics of Twilight"). It turns out I'm not the only one who thinks there are some serious problems with the messages the Twilight books are delivering to our daughters.  Both Bonnie Mann and Rebecca Housel are worried too. Next I'm going to read the essays on mind-reading (Eric Silverman), immortality (Brendan Shea) and free will (Sara Worley).  Despite all the whining of people who look down on the "philosophy and pop culture" series (plural), they're worth reading. My only complaint:  there are just too many of them crowding the shelves at mainstream bookstores these days.   That means less space for other kinds of readable philosophy.


Fair Day


Yes, that's Oprah in the first picture--filming her show at the Texas State Fair.  By complete coincidence, we happened to be right nearby.  Just as she was giving away all sorts of prizes to a wildly enthusiastic crowd, it started to pour.  Is there a point to this post? No.


Raising Vegetarians

Hope you like the new banner (art by Jad Fair).  If you look closely, you'll see that the images are related to the topics of this blog.  (I might try to photoshop the "pow" in the middle to the right or left--it suggests more pugnacity around here than there really is!)

Jonathan Safran Foer has an enjoyable essay in today's New York Times Magazine.  Interestingly, he points out that "taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses."  We think we're entitled to inflict every conceivable barbarity on animals because they taste good, but "why?  Why doesn't a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it?"  Foer wisely explores the "meaning" of taste, a matter that ethicists tend to ignore or trivialize ("vegetarian food is just as good," they say, as if it were that simple). But even with the meaning duly appreciated, taste just can't be exempted from the ethical rules.  There's a limit to what we can do to animals in the name of taste, and the modern food production system grossly exceeds it.

Foer says he and his wife were inconsistent vegetarians until their kids were born, and then they got serious about it.  It's just much more important what you feed your kids, he writes, and so it became more important for the whole family to be vegetarian.  "And then, one day, they will choose for themselves," he writes.  Here's the thing. I think it may be better for that day to come sooner than later. 

We have meat-free meals in our house, but we left it up to our children whether to eat meat at restaurants, school, and in their own sandwiches.  I just did not want them guiltily coveting their neighbor's ham sandwich.  A kid doesn't need guilt like that, I thought. We also didn't proselytize.  We talked openly about why we were vegetarians, but told them it was up to them what to eat.  There was nothing devious about this--there was no attempt to use "reverse psychology" (as they say) to convert them.  The guilt issue really was preeminent.

And then (big surprise), my daughter at age 6 stopped wanting to eat meat.  In fact, she talked the rest of us out of eating fish once a week, which we used to do.  Despite my reassurance that little lapses were nothing to feel bad about, she rarely lapsed at the beginning and became very consistent about it.  She viscerally finds it revolting to eat a (formerly) living creature.

Her twin brother was the house carnivore for many years, to everyone's amusement.  And then he decided that on his 12th birthday he would stop eating meat.  He did, and never looked back. No inconsistency, no guilty longings, no coveting anybody's ham sandwich.

It wasn't my intention, but I suspect (retrospectively) this is a pretty good way to make vegetarian kids. As they grow up, they're going to see this as a choice they made for their own reasons.  I think they're going to be less likely to rebel as they get older.  What's to rebel against?  Just themselves!  In any event, I think they're going to have a life-long respect for animals, because they came to it themselves.  I'm pretty sure they're going to be better animal advocates for having made their own choices.



For people who like to teach/learn philosophy from movies, this is a good one for determinism, free will, faith, reason, death, and the meaning of life.  That's a lot of topics for one movie and it's entertaining too.  Watch without first reading a plot summary or review.   There are bound to be spoilers.

Cruel Mistress

Nice lookin' philosophy blog here, with a focus on the environment and other "real world" topics. This blog is going to get more environment-focused soon, as I get ready to teach Environmental Ethics in the spring. Plus, I haven't forgotten about the "Philosophical Parent" series I started. I'm still working on some "animal ethics" writing, and then will come back to that.


Is Dawkins Getting More Accommodationist?

I've now noticed two things about The Greatest Show on Earth--and I admit I'm mostly just sitting and petting it so far (I love all the pictures, charts, and enticing section headings).  First, when you pet the book, it doesn't purr, but it does squeak.  The cover is made out of some sort of special paper that makes the butterflies shimmer.  Really, it squeaks.  Second, if you turn to page 6, Dawkins writes....
Let's first have some background, or it won't seem all that exciting what he writes.  The story starts with a post that Josh Rosenau wrote about how Dawkins seems to be getting more "accommodationist."  What this term denotes is a certain conciliatory outlook on the part of some non-believers.  Accommodating atheists don't disapprove of people who accept 99% of evolution, with a little bit of religion thrown in.  They're just thankful for the 99%.  Perhaps they go further and really approve.  Maybe they think religion and evolution really are logically compatible. Or maybe they just think a lot of supersmart people are in that  99% state of mind, and don't care to tangle with them.  Maybe it's just a pragmatic stance.  But the key thing is that accommodationists are satisfied with 99%.  In fact, they're even willing to sell evolution to religious people with the explicit message that 99% is enough. 
Then there's the other team, the unaccommodating atheists.  For them, 99% is not enough.  They think accepting evolution should be a stepping stone to giving up all of religion.  In fact, they note, that's the way things often work.  Young people take science classes, decide they've got to choose between science and religion, and choose science.  This is a natural sequence of events, according to the unaccommodating atheists, because science and religion really are deep down logically incompatible, they think.  They see accommodationists as agents of conservatism, holding people back from making the final leap to religion-free thinking.  In their eyes, "accommodationist" is pretty much a dirty word.  It's a lot like "appeaser" or "reactionary" or "Republican". (That was a joke.)
So getting back to Josh Rosenau's post.  When he suggested that Dawkins had gone over from UA to AA in his new book, the UAs naturally found that very, very annoying.   And when Chris Mooney piled on, they found that very, very, very annoying--presumably because Chris gets his ideas out to a larger audience (as in here).  And so some not very nice things have been said lately about them.  To cut to the chase, PZ Myers here says that the two of them are suffering from "traumatic brain damage."  He accuses them of "masturbatory wacking away at a straw man." Indeed, he goes further (children, look away).  He says Chris has been "fellating a straw man." (Good heavens!)  And then here, Ophelia Benson wonders "why Mooney apparently hates overt atheists so much" and calls him a "scapegoater and marginalizer and shunner and minority-punisher."  Sheesh!
Jerry Coyne pulled an "I know Richard Dawkins" (simultaneously channeling Woody Allen and Lloyd Bentsen) and posted words from the man himself, apparently conveyed in person and in an email message.  Dawkins says "Hell no" and that seemed to be the end of it.  But hold on.  Can we all get out our squeaky, brand new copies of The Greatest Show on Earth?  Because I think Dawkins forgot what he wrote on pg. 6. Here goes--the quote you've been waiting for.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take the odd wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology. The Greatest Show on Earth is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact. It is not intended as an antireligious book. I’ve done that, it’s another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again. Bishops and theologians who have attended to the evidence for evolution have given up the struggle against it. Some may do so reluctantly, some, like Richard Harries, enthusiastically, but all except the woefully uninformed are forced to accept the fact of evolution.

They may think God had a hand in starting the process off, and perhaps didn’t stay his hand in guiding its future progress. They probably think God cranked the Universe up in the first place, and solemnised its birth with a harmonious set of laws and physical constants calculated to fulfil some inscrutable purpose in which we were eventually to play a role.

But, grudgingly in some cases, happily in others, thoughtful and rational churchmen and women accept the evidence for evolution.

What we must not do is complacently assume that, because bishops and educated clergy accept evolution, so do their congregations.
And then he goes on to say that "thoughtful and rational churchmen and women" who accept evolution ought to get their congregations to accept it too. (You can read an extract from chapter 1 here.)
I'll have to read further to see what Dawkins says about the logical compatibility of religion and evolution, if he ever delves into the matter more deeply. But calling evolution-accepting religious people "thoughtful and rational" is pretty high praise.  This is not stuff from an unaccommodationist playbook.  Effectively, Dawkins is giving readers permission to be 99% about evolution. He's not holding his breath, waiting for every religious person to leap from evolution to atheism.
I really have to wonder what all that stuff about fellating strawmen and "I know Richard Dawkins" can possibly be about. I know Jerry Coyne read the new book, because he has an endorsement on the back of it.  Surely PZ Myers has read it too.  "Thoughtful and rational churchmen and women."  You think that's unaccommodating?  I don't think so.
Last but not least:  what about that Barack Obama!!!
Update:  When I have time I'll watch this video (which starts off amusingly).  Maybe it sheds some light on the issues of this post (and maybe not).


The Greatest Show On Earth

My copy arrived yesterday, and here's what I think so far--this is a really yummy looking book. It has a black cover with silver butterflies that somehow pick up the colors of surrounding objects and shimmer. Inside, there are three sections of full-color, very intriguing animal photographs. Then there are immediately enticing charts and pictures sprinkled throughout the text. The font is unusually readable and the paper really nice. And then there are all the section titles that immediately leap out at you, bidding you to come on in, not just to learn but to be entertained. I shall probably just sit and pet the book for a while (because I'm busy with other things), but I couldn't resist a peek. Ah yes, there are going to be some polemical bits, and some jabs at creationists. That's all well and good, but must Dawkins really compare evolution-deniers to Holocaust-deniers? Isn't it vastly more pernicious to deny what happened to the six million, than to tell a silly story about the origin of species?

So, do you plan to read The Greatest Show on Earth? Or is Dawkins "too much"? That's what Karen Armstrong says (in so many words) in this interview ("The Changing Perception of God"). She was in my fair city a couple of days ago, being interviewed on the local PBS station. She talks about lots of things, but near the end about the new atheists. She complains, "There's an aggression there." Dawkins and Hitchens talk about "exterminating" and "expunging" religion, which she says is deplorable, given the events of the 20th century. She thinks they're bigots. Well, I loved Armstrong's book The Spiral Staircase so much that I'm as ready to listen to her as to Dawkins. So what I want to know is: where did she get those words? Have Dawkins or Hitchens actually used them? Does anyone know?


Killer Beef

The New York Times had a shocking report on what's in the typical hamburger patty yesterday. You go through life thinking the government and the meat industry must be doing the necessary things to insure food safety--they just must. But no. It turns out that's naive. The article makes that clear in a very scary way--by telling the story of a 22 year old woman who was paralyzed by eating an e. coli tainted hamburger. The last highly publicized e. coli outbreak in the US involved spinach, not meat, but the most common source of e. coli is meat. That makes sense--it comes from animal feces. And meat is the food that's in closest proximity. The feces is on cattle as they come into a slaughter house and in their intestines as they're "disassembled." Now feces getting into meat might seem like just a natural risk, but what the article reveals is how the bizarre process of concocting ground beef, plus lax regulations, heighten the risk. A hamburger, it turns out, isn't a hunk of meat that went through a meat-grinder. What's in the typical burger is "product" from many sources around the US and even elsewhere. What's in there? I'll just say: the article is a must-read. I can't imagine putting down the paper and biting into a hamburger.


What's your philosophy type?

Here's a fun quiz from Mark Vernon, who has a new book called Plato's Podcasts. I have just one question. Wasn't the ipod invented rather recently? My guru, according to the quiz: Aristotle. Which is right, so there must be something to it!

Saturday Update: Mark has an interesting "Comment is Free" about Angela Hobbs becoming "fellow of the public understanding of philosophy" at Warwick University. If Richard Dawkins can play that role in science so successfully, why not similar positions in philosophy? Why not, indeed?

It's interesting how Mark bemoans the lower public interest in philosophy in the UK, compared to France. I think the public is even less interested in philosophy here in the US than in the UK. It's a minor miracle when something philosophical makes it into the mainstream media. So yesterday it was fun to see a New York Times blog covering a recent article in The Philosopher's Magazine about the paucity of women in philosophy.

Knock Out Meat (continued)

1.  Where's the Pain?


2. Ethics

Shriver argues that huge numbers of people are never going to be persuaded to stop eating meat. He also points out that the amount of meat eaten by each meat-eater is increasing. By some estimates (that I’ve seen), there are something like 25 billion animals killed per year for food, a large percentage living in factory farm conditions. If it can’t all be stopped, shouldn’t we at least alleviate all the suffering we can? Shriver thinks that we should replace the animals now being used in factory farming with “knock out” animals--animals genetically engineered to suffer no pain, but still engage in normal pain behaviors, if indeed it proves technically feasible to create them.

Yesterday I argued that knock-out animals may not have all the suffering knocked out of them. There are reasons to think they wouldn’t mind pain as much, but they would still feel some pain. That doesn’t mean Shriver’s whole idea is wrongheaded (less pain is surely better than more pain). But it adds weight to a worry Shriver acknowledges in the article: “negative affect knockouts could encourage people to be more careless or cruel in their interactions with the animals.” That bothers him because knocking out pain won’t get rid of other negative emotions, like fear, depression, anxiety, and the like. I would just say the worry ought to be greater. We ought to retain a worry about the extra-rough handling causing pain-suffering, even if the new-fangled animals are lacking advanced cognitive and emotional perceptions of their pain. Even if animal personnel can be taught that the new livestock feel less pain, not no pain, this belief is bound to be disinhibiting.

And then there are more things to worry about. If Temple Grandin is right that certain kinds of pain-reducing neurosurgery cause unusual, erratic behavior (remember the chronic pain patients who shriek because of a pin prick), cattle might react with fear to their own altered behavior, or to the altered behavior of other animals. So…there’s a lot to worry about.

3. Yuck

I suspect my response so far has a slight aroma of being less than honest. Judging from the initial comments to my first post, and the general reaction reported in the New Scientist article, not many people like the idea of knock out animals. They just find it really yucky. You might be suspecting I find it yucky too, and I’m just covering up with arguments that look more coldly rational. Perhaps I’m sticking to issues about consequences of knocking out pain, when really it isn’t consequences that are bothering me.

I confess. I do find the whole thing yucky. But I think there’s a coherent thought behind that reaction. Let’s set aside all the issues about consequences. Assume that you really can genetically engineer animals that are pain-free and behaviorally normal, and that people would not handle them any more roughly than existing livestock. Is there any justification for finding this option repellent?

The proposal to engineer pain-free animals clearly comes from compassion. The problem is that it conflicts with respect. It’s disrespectful because it takes us even further in the direction of treating animals as things, not as autonomous creatures. We have already gone a staggering distance in that direction. We’ve got animals crammed into stalls and cages with barely enough room to move…at all…ever. We’ve made them into “meat machines,” to use Ruth Harrison’s perfect phrase. By tinkering with their brains so that they have less pain, we’d be making them even more machine-like. We’d erode what “resistance” is left in them. As it is, they kick, howl, writhe, moan. They ask to be left alone. Partially decerebrated pain-free animals would be just putty in our hands.

And yet. And yet. Shriver is right that a huge number of people are not going to be persuaded to stop eating meat. If factory farming can’t all be stopped, shouldn’t we at least alleviate some of the suffering? Shouldn’t we go ahead and take the last couple of steps and make livestock more comfortable, if it’s technically possible (even if it’s disrespectful and yucky? When intense pain is at issue, doesn’t disrespect have to take a back seat?

Maybe so. If we really had no other options but continuing in the same direction and continuing, but with less pain for animals, I suppose I’d be forced to choose less pain. But I’d much rather see better conditions given to animals. Their environment should change to suit their needs, instead of them being altered to suit the environment they’re in right now. Even if the two approaches have the same net effect on happiness, we ought to choose the more respectful of the two.

Instead of engineering zombie animals, I’d rather see scientific effort put into the artificial meat that’s being explored in labs, with the support of animal rights organizations. This is a much better option from many angles, including the environmental angle. It would take far fewer resources to grow flesh than to maintain a living, breathing animal (with a life that’s not worth living). That’s another development people find yucky, but I suspect we can get over that. What’s really seriously yucky is the direction we’re heading in today.

NOTE:  When this series was first posted a great discussion ensued.  Sadly, I screwed up and deleted the series when I added new labels to it.  I've reconstituted it from the original files, but the comments are forever lost. :-(

No Pronouns for Hominids?

It's amusing how the New York Times guards human "specialness" by allowing no other species to be referred to with pronouns. You get used to reading about a female dog chasing "its" tail or a male chimpanzee guarding "its" turf, but today the paper goes even further. In an article about a hominid skeleton newly found in Africa, we have this peculiar passage--
"The Ardipithecus specimen, an adult female, probably stood four feet tall and weighed about 120 pounds, almost a foot taller and twice the weight of Lucy. Its brain was no larger than a modern chimp’s. It retained an agility for tree-climbing but already walked upright on two legs, a transforming innovation in hominids, though not as efficiently as Lucy’s kin.
Ardi’s feet had yet to develop the arch-like structure that came later with Lucy and on to humans. The hands were more like those of extinct apes. And its very long arms and short legs resembled the proportions of extinct apes, or even monkeys."
It's just not true that a whole new category of thing emerged just at the moment when our species sprang into existence--the "whos" as opposed to the "whats." The humans-only pronoun rule is just cheerleading for the home team, without basis in fact. Many, many mainstream writers about animals have stopped this nonsense. New York Times, take note.