Saturday, April 26, 2008

Haidt's awkward position

Having commented here recently with a reference to Jonathon Haidt, I spent a bit of time reading this Haidt article in which he critiques ''the new atheists''. Basically he uses his moral intuition findings to argue that such public advocates of atheism as Dawkins and Harris are so strongly guided by an intuitive sense of the wrongness or immorality of religious belief that this clouds their judgment when it comes to the possible benefits of such belief. Haidt has little to say about whether beliefs in supernatural forces are true - which is, to say the least, a weakness in his argument - but what he has to say about benefits is worth reflecting upon. He quotes some lines from Dennett's Breaking the spell about the morality of unbelievers v believers:
"Perhaps a survey would show that as a group atheists and agnostics are more respectful of the law, more sensitive to the needs of others, or more ethical than religious people. Certainly no reliable survey has yet been done that shows otherwise. It might be that the best that can be said for religion is that it helps some people achieve the level of citizenship and morality typically found in brights. If you find that conjecture offensive, you need to adjust your perspective. (Breaking the Spell, p. 55.)
Here's Haidt's commentary on the above:

I have italicized the two sections that show ordinary moral thinking rather than scientific thinking. The first is Dennett's claim not just that there is no evidence, but that there is certainly no evidence, when in fact surveys have shown for decades that religious practice is a strong predictor of charitable giving. Arthur Brooks recently analyzed these data (in Who Really Cares) and concluded that the enormous generosity of religious believers is not just recycled to religious charities.

Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood. Even if you excuse secular liberals from charity because they vote for government welfare programs, it is awfully hard to explain why secular liberals give so little blood. The bottom line, Brooks concludes, is that all forms of giving go together, and all are greatly increased by religious participation and slightly increased by conservative ideology (after controlling for religiosity).

These data are complex and perhaps they can be spun the other way, but at the moment it appears that Dennett is wrong in his reading of the literature. Atheists may have many other virtues, but on one of the least controversial and most objective measures of moral behavior—giving time, money, and blood to help strangers in need—religious people appear to be morally superior to secular folk.

Assuming this is true, and though I haven't independently examined the evidence, I suspect that it is, it needs to be accounted for. Not only that but, as Haidt suggests, we need to tap into this force for helping others that appears to be driven by religion, and utilise it for a secular society.

So what is so socially cohesive and happiness-making about religious belief, and do all religious beliefs have this tendency? How does Judeo-Christianity compare with the Dreamtime beliefs of Oz Aborigines in this regard?

To stick with Christianity, I think Haidt is right in saying that the beliefs of modern Christians are more complex and eclectic than some atheists give them credit for. Most of them don't read the Bible, and aren't familiar with it except through the many and various interpretations of priests whose sermons mix Bible stories with everyday modern observations, homespun homilies and more or less sophisticated treatment of current political and social issues. Bible passages are dealt with selectively and according to changing attitudes. Some quietly fall out of favour, as do whole religious concepts, such as the concept of hell. Some atheists think that, because the Bible is a fixed document - at least since the Council of Trent - Christian morality must also be fixed, in the time those texts were written, but this is plainly not so [in spite of what Christian leaders themselves say about eternal verities]. Certainly it's a largely conservative morality, which drags behind progressive secularism in terms of reform, but there's no doubt that it's always changing, just as today's conservative political parties don't support the institution of slavery, as they once did.

Haidt makes a distinction between contractual society and the beehive society, the first being more individualist and egalitarian, the second being more authoritarian and rigid. The first requires constant adjustment to balance individual and social needs against each other, the second requires constant vigilance against enemies from without and within. And although Haidt generally plumps for the contractual society, he seems to feel that the alternative shouldn't be contemptuously dismissed, but studied and learned from. Whether this is itself mere liberal posturing is hard to say. His main argument against the new atheists is that they're more driven by commitment to a cause than reason, and that their reasoning is heavily skewed by that commitment. It's an important point, of course, but it needs to be pointed out that new atheism has also grown out of a serious threat to scientific autonomy and scientific education, in the USA at least, coming from creationists and their very vocal fundamentalist supporters. It's also a response to the growing power of Islamism, to the violence of militant religion, and to the real danger posed by the politicisation of religious views. There really is something of a battle being waged here, and aren't we right to be concerned that not enough people are speaking up? And they should do so with carefully crafted, evidence-based arguments, as well as an awareness of where they're coming from, and of the dangers of bias.

I enjoy some of the rhetoric of the new atheists, but not all of it. I'm more interested in solid argument, such as those used by scientists to refute the anti-evolution claims of believers, arguments that are painstaking, patient and comprehensive, arguments that themselves promote science as a discipline for producing results, knowledge and insight. The effectiveness of the practice of science is always its best argument.

Science needs to turn to religion in the same spirit, to seek to explain it. Haidt touches on this when he refers to the work of Boyer and Atran and the exploration of religion as an evolutionary byproduct. He himself wonders whether religion isn't an adaptation, that's to say, a much more successful evolutionary product than is given credit for, though it must be hard to sustain that view as a secularist who seems, personally, to have no need of religion. He points out that anthropologists are much less interested in the truth of religious beliefs than in the social functions attached to ritual and ceremony, but this seems to me rather to fudge the issue [and functionalism in the social sciences has been criticised for just this reason].

The bottom line is that Haidt is trying to defend religion while not believing in it. It's an awkward position to take, and to some it might look like a patronising one. The only real defence he has provided for religious beliefs is that that they seem to make people more happy and more generous. The first claim can be dealt with along 'ignorance is bliss' lines, the second one may look a bit more difficult to deal with, but I would say that if you are a regular church-goer you would be constantly the target of sermons touching on civic responsibility. Helping the poor, helping those in need, caring for children and the elderly, loving sinners, if not the sin, and encouraging and reinforcing the bonds of community everywhere. It's also quite likely the case that you're drawn to churchy organisations because you want your sense of community and civic responsibility strengthened. It fulfils a need in you. But let's not pretend that there aren't other things that go along with these positives - the myths about gods and faith, the fear and loathing of the godless and such. And there are particular truth-claims, reiterated again and again, the central one being the existence of and the need to constantly worship a supernatural entity. There's no getting around that one, either it's true or not.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Primary Colors and political morality

I do get a bit behind in my film reviews, or my film viewing - sixty-two years behind in the case of Dragonwyck, but only ten years in the case of Mike Nichols's Primary Colors, but with this latter, the subject at least is not out of date, and we find it in every political campaign. In the recent federal election campaign, Rudd's one-time visit to a strip club, and a tenuous link with WA inc's notorious [I'm not entirely sure why] Brian Burke, were just two attempts to bring the scandalous and salacious into the political fray.

Primary Colors takes aim at the most magnetic of recent politicians, Bill Clinton [magnetic especially in attracting scandal], by creating a fiction with obvious parallels. Presidential hopeful Jack Stanton [John Travolta] and his savvy wife Susan [Emma Thompson] have a way of sucking people into the stream of their ambition and enthusiasm, and the film is largely seen from the perspective of one such sucked-in character, Henry Burton [Adrian Lester], who becomes Stanton's campaign manager. It's an extremely well-written film, and the performances of Thompson and Travolta, and Kathy Bates as a torrential and formidable campaign force who joins up with the Stantons after years of questionable absence, are a joy to watch.

I'm not going to review the film, though, as such. I'm more interested in the dilemmas raised. I should start with my general view, which will of course soon be qualified, that having sex more often, and with more people, is a Good and Healthy thing.

First qualification, or problem, is that most people don't agree with this statement, or at least with the 'more people' bit. Fidelity and loyalty are viewed as a positive, and Robert Manne amongst others has emphasized this. My own view is that having sex with a variety of people isn't necessarily proof of disloyalty, and that there is a confusion between sex and love, though admittedly the road of promiscuity is a hard road to hoe for a genuinely loving and loyal person, given human jealousies and possessiveness. And to travel that road under the spotlight of a political life is essentially impossible, unfortunately.

While a lot more could be said about the above confusion [about the meaning of sex in the context of human relations], I'll leave much of that to my online fiction which tries to explore many of these issues. Another matter dealt with in Primary Colors is that of sex and power. The high-flying Presidential candidate who takes advantage of a friend's bedazzled daughter, the Governor who has no trouble and no compunction about seducing his secretary, etc. As the film shows, these issues cut more than one way - the secretary may have no compunction about exaggerating a dalliance into a full-blown affair, for the purpose of extorting money or favours. Jack Stanton tries to 'clear his name' via DNA tests and such, but some might feel that this misses the point, which is that Stanton shouldn't use his personal charisma or political status to exploit the vulnerable and naive. On the other hand, there seems to have been enough people willing to turn a blind eye, or even to have been quietly approving of his behaviour, for him to have gotten away with it [sorry, I'm switching my thinking here from Stanton to Clinton, though Stanton too was successful in the Presidential race].

One possible explanation for this is that people are aware [however consciously] of the harm principle, and that the question of the harm caused by a few, or even more than a few, dalliances in the context of a marriage the openness of which is itself an open question, is at the very least difficult to determine. One of the problems for me, I confess, is that the Stantons/Clintons would never admit to their marriage being an open one, if that's what it is, for fear of losing the support of vast numbers of more conservative voters. This is one of the points of the film, of course - how pragmatic are we allowed to be, in order to get elected? If Clinton's 'closed' - and close - marriage is a sham [but note that the pair are still very much together], what about, say, his religion? After all, we all know that, more than in any other country, the USA's leadership aspirants have no option but to be practicing Christians. So is Clinton really a god-fearer? How much is sincere, and how much pretence?

These issues are perennial for all campaigners in all democratic elections, and they come with the territory of representative democracy. You could even say it's the poison at the heart of this system. Is this candidate/incumbent saying what she's saying in order to get into/stay in power, or does she really feel and believe it? Did Howard throw money and resources at the tax payer because he felt they deserved it, or to get re-elected? Were his actions re Aboriginal communities and the abuse of Aboriginal children a matter of sincere conviction or political expediency? Some of these question are much more easy to answer than others.

The Clinton warts-and-all Presidency was something of a victory for flawed, ambitious humanity, though I see the flaws rather differently from most. In the film, someone commits suicide because she has ideals that the Stantons don't live up to - but nobody can be expected to live up to the ideals of others, or even to be aware of them. As it happens, the Stantons are by turns exploitative and compassionate, as we all are. I suppose the best way to judge them is also the most painstaking - to analyse who gets hurt and who benefits, how many and by how much.
It's essentially a never-ending process.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Walter Huston, Anne Revere, Gene Tierney and Vincent Price in Dragonwyck, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Huston and Price compare suits.

Lately I've been watching films galore. Partly it's been a bonding of sorts with my sixteen-year-old foster child - he's been cajoling me into watching things I'm not particularly interested in. The 'Saw' series of movies, for example, which I'm much more than not particularly interested in. These are dreadful, intellectually dishonest pieces of barbarity, but perhaps useful for teens to watch, to sort out their own understanding of morality in extreme circs. I found them boring, laughable, but also offensive and insulting. Other films I've watched with him, just in the past few days, include Fido, The Butterfly Effect, Pulp Fiction and Stranger than fiction.

I might review at least some of these, but for now I'm going to review a film which I saw as a child, and which I've wanted to see as an adult for I wouldn't like to say how many years. All I remember about it really was that it riveted me, and profoundly scared me, though watching it now, I've no idea why. Over the years I seem to have got it mixed up in my mind with Hitchcock's Rebecca, for I expected a frightening mansion, a dour, skull-faced housekeeper, silhouettes in flames and other gothic histrionics. What I got instead was a solid, absorbing piece, with a subtly sinister character at its centre, played by Vincent Price [before he lost his subtlety].

Based on a novel by Anya Seton, author of popular historicals in the first half of the 20th, Dragonwyck has something of an Austen-like quality [think Northanger Abbey], with its central heroine, Miranda [Gene Tierney] starting out enamoured of the idea of rich rellies and the manor born. Instead she's mired in a puritanically religious farming family [Walter Huston's a real card as her father]. But guess what, her dream comes true, via a mysteriously unlikely letter from a distant, filthily rich rellie, who's not really a rellie at all [think Tess of the D'Urbervilles], and who wants the company of a beautiful innocent like Miranda to assist him in dealing with his daughter and sundry other matters, such as his wife. Eventually she coaxes Dad into letting her go.

Miranda is naturally very much taken with the tall suave and immaculately dressed Nicholas Van Rhyn [Price], as well as his mansion, Dragonwyck, but is aghast at the narcissism, gluttony and valetudinarianism of his wife. Their daughter Katrine is kept at arm's length, and all in all it's a far cry from the homely closeness of Connecticut farm life.

The focus switches for a while to Van Rhyn himself. He's having trouble with his tenant farmers [the film is set in the 1840s], who are rebellious about having to pay tribute and never being able to own the land they farm. Van Rhyn is an inflexible autocrat who insists on his divine rights [even though he has atheist tendencies and mock's Miranda's simple religiosity]. Obviously he's headed for a fall.

He's also increasingly keen to get rid of his odious wife [and increasingly keen on the melodious Miranda], and manages to do so, via some cake spiked with oleander, a plant which he obligingly brings into his wife's bedroom to cheer her up. He has a young doctor staying in the house, who's stunned at the sudden decline of Madam Van Rhyn after he'd diagnosed nothing but a head cold.
The doctor, who sides with Van Rhyn's tenant farmers, presents to Miranda an alternative to the dodgy aristocrat, but she still hasn't cottoned on, and she marries Van Ryn.

Relations begin to founder, of course. Van Rhyn spends more and more time in his tower room [taking unspecified drugs], no doubt plagued by guilt, affected by rumours about his first wife's death, and unable to cope effectively with the rebelliousness of his tenants. Miranda's also hurt by his cynicism re her down-home religion, and by his contempt for the crippled servant she hires [Jessica Tandy in one of her first screen roles]. 'Deformed bodies depress me,' he says. Miranda's offended response is even more depressing - 'You talk as if it's her fault she's a cripple when it's simply God's will.' The typically American connection between atheistic tendencies and amorality is made clearly enough.

Miranda emerges as another element in Van Ryn's life that he can't control, and when the good doctor discovers that he's trying to do away with her as he did his first wife, things unravel pretty quickly. He's finally shot while resisting arrest, asserting his rights as lord of the manor to the end.

Dragonwyck isn't exactly a great film, there's a little too much of the Mills and Boon about it, and the themes of old world v new world, elitism and aristocracy v liberty and democracy, are touched on only lightly. There are other flaws relating to the translating of a novel into film. The doctor at one point tells Miranda he finds he has nothing to say to her, though they got on so well when they first met. This seems a condensation of the novel which doesn't quite make sense on its own. Also the young Katrine, the ostensible reason Miranda first came to Dragonwyck, simply disappears in the second half. Still it's an absorbing piece, the gothic elements of which are more effective for their restraint. The production values, the costuming and so forth, are immaculate, and the whole thing looks great. The print was superb. It was fun reaquainting myself with something I'd never forgotten, and yet had forgotten completely.

There's a useful essay on Mankiewicz's films here.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

science works

the remarkable flagellum

I note that in a couple of recent issues of New Scientist they've been having a go - belatedly? - at creationists attempts to undermine evolutionary theory with their two pet objections, irreducible complexity and so-called gaps in the fossil record [which also has a high-falutin moniker I can't currently recall].

The intellectual debate on this matter seems to be over, but a great deal of noise remains of course, and the film Expelled, which I don't think has been released yet even in the US, will add to the static.

For my own sake I'll summarise the objections, via the New Scientist articles. The supposed lack of 'transitional' species 'between' highly distinct species makes a mockery of evolutionary theory, according to the creationists. If they're smart enough, they'll even know that Darwin himself was concerned at this lack. Donald Prothero, author of the March New Scientist article, and of a new book, Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters, marshals the evidence and the arguments against this objection, pointing to the 'fishibian' record, synapsids [the ancestors of mammals], ceratopsians [horned dinosaurs] and many other 'transitional' forms, from mammals to worms [the term transitional being problematic because it suggests that these were not fully fledged forms in their own right, that they were halfway houses in some sense]. He's pretty conclusive about the richness of the fossil record for all those who don't wish to remain willfully blind to it.

The case of the bacterial flagellum has been claimed as a prime example of designed complexity by creationists, and they attempted to use it to promote their case in Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005. The failure of the creationists in that case, considering the bizarre context of American religious politics, was a great victory for those who respect evidence and reason.

A lot of work has been done recently on the bacterial flagellum, no doubt prompted , at least partly, by the attention devoted to it by the creationists. So what is it? It's a mechanism for moving bacteria about in fluids, and it can be divided into three protein-constructed parts, a basal body, a hook and a filament. The basal body is the key to this mechanism, and it is indeed extraordinarily complex. Embedded in the cell wall, it has been described as a sort of outboard motor for the bacterium. It consists of a series of minuscule rings, with a rotating rod in the centre, attached to a hook...

These manically rotating rods and hooks are driven by the flow of sodium and hydrogen ions. The intricacy of the mechanism has long intrigued biologists, and creationists have latched onto it for their own purposes. However, in the nineties the discovery and analysis of ‘type III secretion systems’ [T3SS] helped in breaking down the mystery. This complex protein system is used in certain bacteria to inject toxins into their hosts. A number of the same proteins are found in the flagellum’s protein export system, and the two systems have subsequently been found to be variants of each other, with probably a common ancestry. It's all about homology - homologies in the bone structure of whales, horses and bats, for example, have led to an understanding of the common ancestry of these apparently unconnected creatures. Homologies in DNA or amino acid sequencing similarly reveal shared descent, and such homologies are regularly being turned up in discoveries that chip away at claims about irreducible complexity.

Analysis continues on the relationship between flagella and their components [there is in fact no one flagellum, there are a number, which differ slightly in detail], and there is much debate about findings - for example, were the flagella a development from the T3SS, or vice versa, or neither. Much of this debate lies beyond my competence to report, but there's no dissension about the fact that gene duplication and diversification are involved. In other words, it's all about evolution. Irreducible complexity can no longer be claimed with regard to these ingenious structures, but the creationists will no doubt find something else to pin their hopes on.

Turning to the more general issue, creationists have nothing testable to offer as an alternative to evolution. God did it, but there is no method, no theory, no direction for research, nothing. Presumably they believe in a return to the fixity-of-species model which proved a dead-end centuries ago. Some seem to be suggesting though, a combination of evolution and fixity. Coherence is a real problem.

There's an interesting discussion of some of these matters here, gathered around the question of whether creationism should be dismissed as total non-science [and non-sense] or critiqued as very bad science. I lean towards the former view. It bears no resemblance to science as currently practiced, it merely tries to ape science-speak and, far less successfully, scientific method, for credibility purposes.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

travels from Tibet to Cyprus

random hate-filled scumbags

I have mixed feelings about the current spate of protests over Chinese oppression, but for the most part I think that raising awareness about oppressed minorities - not only Tibetans - is more important than the smooth running of an international sportsfest. In fact it seems highly appropriate to raise these issues in the context of an event which is intended to promote international harmony, for reasons that I would hope are obvious. I’ll spell them out though. A harmony that seeks to keep oppression out of sight and out of mind is a harmony not worth having. It should have been obvious to the Olympic Committee that, in granting the games to China, a state renowned internationally for its cruelty to and oppression of its own minorities, they had provided a golden opportunity to those who have suffered from that state’s cruelties to raise issues of hypocrisy and the reality that belies the Olympic ideal.

So I must say I found the remarks made by one Kevan Gosper, an Australian Olympic official, on these events, to be particularly lamentable. On last night's news he made the claim that most people have probably not even heard of the cause being highlighted by the protesters, as if this was some kind of decisive argument against them. That's to say, oppression that people haven't heard of isn't really oppression at all. What his remark really highlights [or would highlight if it were true] is the woeful ignorance of most people about the crimes committed against minority ethnicities or belief systems by large, closed nations such as China, or Indonesia under Suharto. This may be true, though I suspect Gosper is merely generalising from the position of his own woeful ignorance.

I've read further absurd remarks today from Gosper, claiming that the protesters were 'professional spoilers' who 'take their hate out on whatever the issues are at the time'. I know there are professional protesters out there, usually one or two in a hundred at your average demo, but to brand them all in this way is laughable. Gosper apparently knows what makes all these people tick, and he doesn't think the actual issues they're upset about rate a mention, presumably because he's never given them a moment's thought in his life. Such appalling complacency tips me over to the side of the protesters, though I don't think that assaulting torchbearers is acceptable.

On a completely unrelated issue, I read this the other day in Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons, a novel cum political appraisal of Cyprus in the fifties:

... a village like Amiandos made us catch our breath in pain. It lies against the side of a mountain which has been clumsily raped. The houses, factories and shacks are powdered white as if after a heavy snowfall; mounds of white snow rise in every direction, filling the cool still airs of the mountain with the thin dust of asbestos. Men and women walked about in this moon-landscape, powdered into ghoulish insignificance by the dust. A man with a white wig and white moustache shouted 'Hullo' as we passed.
Durrell wouldn't have known then what we know now, which only makes the passage all the more ghoulish.
Apparently, as with tobacco, asbestos manufacturers are still aggressively pursuing markets in 'developing' countries. Ghoulish indeed.

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pavlov's cat