Archive for March, 2008

There’s an article in the Guardian (reprinted on RichardDawkins.net) that’s been doing the rounds among the skeptical blogs lately. It’s written by a chap called John Gray, and titled The Atheist Delusion. I’ve been less deeply committed and in-depth in my response than I could have been, partly because I want to get something posted while it’s still nearly topical1, so I’ve just put together a paragraph-by-paragraph reply, rather than crafting it into a fully coherent rebuttal. It’s also somewhat scattered in tone and mood, so don’t be disconcerted if I switch suddenly and inappropriately between dry, tedious severity, and flippant obscenity.

First off, a necessary preamble: C’mon, are you really going to take this guy seriously? His understanding of basic science is so flawed, he thinks the two genders of humans originated on entirely different planets in the solar system! Ha!

No, I know it’s not that John Gray, but it had to be done. Onto the sarcasm, then, numbered by paragraph.

1. “Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, [religion] is now demonised as the cause of many of the world’s worst evils.” Yeah, this is definitely the prevalent opinion in the western world these days, you don’t see many people actually promoting religion or talking about it in a positive sense any more. Yuh-huh.

2. “The abrupt shift in the perception of religion is only partly explained by terrorism.” Well, it’s very big of you to admit that some of us who choose to disdain the popular fairy tales do so for reasons other than fearing for our lives. Not that I’m entirely convinced that any particularly abrupt or dramatic shift has taken place, but I’ve been an atheist much longer than I’ve been cowering under my duvet to hide from the boogey-suicide-bombers who’ll get me if I don’t eat all my peas and carrots.

“The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition, and western opinion has accepted their self-image.” Where does western opinion come into this? They blew themselves up and took thousands of people with them, because they were fanatically devoted to a religious cause. The idea that they were truly martyrs to some higher calling is something which general western opinion is pretty firmly united against, but there’s hardly any room for doubt that they saw themselves that way.

3. “In the 19th century, when the scientific and industrial revolutions were changing society very quickly, this may not have been an unreasonable assumption. Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest may still believe that, over the long run, the advance of science will drive religion to the margins of human life, but this is now an article of faith rather than a theory based on evidence.” First of all, is society not changing very quickly as a result of scientific development these days? Could’ve fooled me. Also, that religion will eventually be marginalised is an opinion, a future speculation, and not really something that anyone has put forward as a truly scientific hypothesis, that I’m aware.

Scientific understanding might be increasing, along with skeptical and critical thinking, and this may or may not be something that’s been empirically measured and verified – but as for the whole field of religion and faith being relegated to the tiny minority, people aren’t really claiming that as a theory based on evidence. This doesn’t mean it’s an article of faith, it’s just what they think is going to happen. If pushed, I’d say that I think Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States. It’s not something I have “faith” in, and it’s sure as hell not an opinion based on detailed research and empirical analysis of the data, Xenu knows I’m too lazy for any of that. It’s little more than a guess, it’s where I’d put my money if I had to. This seems like quite a clumsy attempt by Gray to paint science as being just as faith-based and ideological as religion.

5. “The issues [Philip Pullman’s book Northern Lights] raises are essentially religious, and it is deeply indebted to the faith it attacks.” Indebted to the faith it attacks? Well… yeah, inasmuch as anything that makes itself useful by opposing something else requires that object of opposition to exist. I guess that Dawkins guy should be grateful to God, then, ’cause if He weren’t there to not exist, then how could Dawkins have written a best-selling book about Him? Huh? He should be more respectful to someone to Whom he owes his livelihood. Also, the issues John Gray’s article raises are essentially irreligious, and it is deeply indebted to the modern secularist movement it attacks. (The idea I’m parodying here might not actually be anything like the point that Gray’s trying to make, but I stand by my sarcasm all the same.)

“The belief that exercising free will is part of being human is a legacy of faith, and like most varieties of atheism today, Pullman’s is a derivative of Christianity.” Yes, most religions claim humanity to have some sort of god-granted free will, but much like morality, it’s quite possible to have a developed and meaningful concept of this without being religious, or buying into many other tenets of religious faith. And you don’t really get to dodge the accusation that certain religious institutions (as mirrored by the Magisterium in Pullman’s books) have exhibited oppressive authoritarianism, by claiming that they also originated the concept of free will. So they say we’re capable of making our own choices, big yay if they’ll still torture you or blow you up for making the wrong ones.

And this thing of atheism as a derivative of Christianity still confuses me. I get the idea of being “culturally Christian”, as Dawkins has described himself in the past – he sings Christmas carols, says grace in the dining halls at Cambridge when traditionally appropriate, listens to Bach – and I’d probably go along with that myself, having been raised in a liberally Christian household, and given a chance to develop fondness for things like Christmas, chocolate eggs, and the ritual consumption of human flesh2.

But when it comes to atheism, so what? I don’t believe in God, but I don’t think there’s anything Christian in the way I do it. It’s all gods I don’t believe in, you know, not just the big G off of Judeo-Christianity, although he is the only one I ever had any time for. There may be some kind of fascinating cultural history to the trends of atheist philosophy in the past (or it may be quite dull), but I can’t really see the bearing that all that has on my arguments for not believing in God and not enforcing any purely religious concepts on anyone else.

6. “Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody.” According to Dictionary.com, the word “evangelical”, when not specifically referring to Christianity (as it does in the first four definitions of the word), means “marked by ardent or zealous enthusiasm for a cause”. Well, I’m pretty ardently enthusiastic about a few things. That’s not the same as saying I never doubt things, or am in any way more unquestioningly and ideologically committed to them than moderate atheists are (especially since doubting stuff and rational thinking is a crucial part of what I’m so ardently enthusiastic about anyway).

And to address the actual point, it’s worth making the distinction between believing that everyone should live the way you do, believing that everyone should have to live the way you do, and simply having a philosophy or outlook on life in general. Those in the lunatic fringe of atheism who shout nonsense about religion being outlawed are not remotely representative of atheists in general, are soundly and appropriately denounced by all those of us who manage not to take rationality to irrational extremes, and seem to make up a much smaller minority of our demographic than do the right-wing Christian theocratic nut-jobs.

But the way this statement is phrased sounds needlessly accusatory. Is the author “certain that [his own] way of living is right for everybody”? Presumably John Gray thinks that the statements he’s making are not incorrect, but does he think that he’s absolutely right and everyone should agree with him? Does he think “universal conversion” to his point of view would be a good thing, or can people disagree with him without being lesser life-forms? If I think that everyone should basically have the freedom to do whatever they want insofar as it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights, would I be unfairly trampling on the freedoms of authoritarian tyrants if I became “evangelical” about arguing this idea? There’s a point at which this debate crosses over into triviality, and I think the way he’s talking here is more about painting modern atheists as bigots than making any particular point.

“It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human.” Obviously atheism as an idea can be taken to inappropriately dogmatic, evangelical, fundamentalist extremes. We get that. But among “the worst features of Christianity and Islam”, I would certainly include the abandonment of reason (surely a peculiarly human trait if ever there was one) in favour of blind obedience to any unknown, unmeasurable, unprovable set of ideas. Religion’s got that one in the bag beyond anything even the most zealous atheism can match.

An understanding of religion, and how much of a fundamental need of humanity it can be, is no doubt important. But that’s no reason not to take a stand against it, or be hostile to the destructive concepts behind it – though if possible it might be nice to take such a stand without being a dick to absolutely everyone involved. Other basic human impulses include a prevalent desire to spread one’s genetic code as far and widely as possible, inducing others to bear and rear one’s progeny as numerously as they can be persuaded to do so. But not everyone is driven equally powerfully by this instinct, and most of us would agree in condemning someone who indulged in such behaviour without making any attempts to control it in light of a developed moral understanding.

“It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion.” I’m friendly to a great number of religious people. It’s the religion itself I have no love nor respect for. This is an important difference. And while so many religious people are still failing to be at all friendly to either atheists or atheism, don’t get too comfy up on your high horse on this point.

Wow, am I still on this one tiny paragraph? Moving on…

7. “Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon claims to sketch a general theory of religion. In fact, it is mostly a polemic against American Christianity.” I haven’t read Dennett’s book yet. I hypothesise that, actually, it’s no such polemic at all, but could be taken as one if you were a particularly touchy American Christian yourself with little sense of humour about your own faith being questioned, and an ability to feel personally singled out by any slights against the principles of religion in general, however broadly those slights were in fact made. I’ll report back on how this hypothesis bears up once I’ve read the book, if someone reminds me.

“The incomprehensibility of the divine is at the heart of Eastern Christianity, while in Orthodox Judaism practice tends to have priority over doctrine.” I don’t think any of this undermines Dennett’s point, though. It’s true that most religions don’t consider themselves scientific theories, or attempt to be scientific. But just because their conclusions are more vague, or they throw around phrases like “mysterious ways”, or they don’t define themselves “by anything as simplistic as a creed”, their claims shouldn’t be immune from criticism. There are still clearly claims being made, many of which correspond to testable hypotheses about the empirically observable world – the accusations made by the likes of Dennett are, presumably, that these claims fail to be supported by observations of reality.

It’s not a defense that “[t]he incomprehensibility of the divine is at the heart of Eastern Christianity” – admitting that you have no idea what you’re talking about isn’t much of a step forward, unless you either start asking some more useful questions, or move on to thinking about something else. If the truth is ineffable, why is this good? And why should it be considered a rebuttal to Dennett’s claim that “[t]he proposition that God exists is not even a theory”? He’s right, it’s not, and it sure as hell ain’t a fact, so… isn’t this kinda what justifies atheism in the first place?

8. “For Frazer, religion and magical thinking were closely linked.” Gosh, I wonder why. A philosophy of thinking about an all-powerful magical being, and “magical thinking”… What could possibly be the connection there? (Oh, you were looking for a point? Sorry, all I’ve got is cheap snarking.)

9. “Both science and religion are systems of symbols that serve human needs – in the case of science, for prediction and control. Religions have served many purposes, but at bottom they answer to a need for meaning that is met by myth rather than explanation.” There’s those human needs again. Yes, humans have needs, and religion often goes some way to serving those needs. This is something that everyone would do well to understand, atheists and skeptics included. But science arguably does more than satisfy biological imperatives, and the fact that religion also performs this same task in some cases is not enough to recommend it, or even condone it. I have certain physical, human needs, and one way of fulfilling some of them, up to a point, would be to go out and force myself upon an attractive mate. But if severe coercion were really necessary for me to accomplish any satisfaction of this need (which I think is a given), then I’m sure we’d all be grateful if I could find some other way to disperse this urge, without bothering anyone else. Which is what the internet is for.

11. “Unfortunately, the theory of memes is science only in the sense that Intelligent Design is science.” Ouch. That would be “not at all”, then. Admittedly, memetics is not a well-developed science with many firmly established results (of which I’m aware), and even some of the basic ideas behind it (not least the limits of what constitutes a meme) are hard to define with useful precision. But insofar as it manages to behave like a scientific study, putting forward falsifiable hypotheses which can be tested by empirical observations to determine the strength of the underlying theory, it should be given due attention. As far as I know, intelligent design is yet to manage this at all, and remains a reactionary anti-evolution position entirely lacking in nuance, which serves no more purpose than to give creationism a faux-scientific front.

And really, even if you have no truck with meme theory, that’s not actually any kind of a hindrance in understanding the arguments for atheism. Even if it doesn’t qualify as a science, why should that stop it from being a useful metaphor (as Gray also describes it) to aid an intuitive understanding of how certain ideas spread?

12. Then we start skirting what is by now the rather tedious “argument by body count”: “some of the worst atrocities of modern times were committed by regimes that claimed scientific sanction for their crimes”. Yep, here come the Nazis. Please, like there’s no distinction between claiming scientific sanction and having your ideology actually supported by scientific fact. Hitler could have blathered whatever mindless crap he wanted about “survival of the fittest”, based on his own understanding of Darwin’s writings and evolutionary theory, but that’s a far, far cry from the idea that science says it’s good to kill lots of people if they’re less physically able than you. Whatever science learns about the truth behind, say, racial variation, drawing moral or ethical conclusions is itself an entirely unscientific process. And there are plenty of ways to get that wrong, but you can’t lay the blame on the facts we learn about our reality.

Oh, what’s that you say, the science “was accepted as genuine at the time, and not only in the regimes in question”? No, fuck you, there was never any globally accepted science which said it was okay to murder millions of Jews. There weren’t rooms full of lab-coated boffins all around the world in the 1940s, shaking their heads sadly and saying, “Well, it doesn’t seem right to me what this Hitler chap’s doing, but I have to admit, the observable facts are plainly on his side.” What led to the mass slaughters in concentration camps was an ideology, which no doubt satisfied, incidentally, many of the “peculiarly human” urges of the instigators.

Yes, science can be “used for inhumane purposes”, but science can only examine results drawn from the world and use them to adapt, adjust, and improve our understanding of the world through the improvement of explanatory theories. If you want to twist that process into something that suits your inhumane purposes, then I’m sure you’ll find a way, but that’s not what it’s for. Religion, on the other hand, can be cruel and inhumane and horrific and evil even when you’re doing it right.

13. “But might there not be a connection between the attempt to eradicate religion and the loss of freedom?” Yes, again, if militant atheism “becomes a political project”, and is enforced rigorously by a tyrannical regime, then it is in danger of becoming just as undesirably oppressive as any religious dictatorship. But, again, this kind of oppression is not inherent to atheism, and most proponents of atheism and critical thinking who I’ve heard talking about it are also big supporters of personal freedoms. Sam Harris is the example being quoted by Gray here, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to repress anybody’s freedom to express their personal beliefs, judging by his writing.

14. “But it was the Nazi belief in race as a scientific category that opened the way to a crime without parallel in history. Hitler’s world-view was that of many semi-literate people in interwar Europe, a hotchpotch of counterfeit science and animus towards religion. There can be no reasonable doubt that this was a type of atheism, or that it helped make Nazi crimes possible.” Why are we still talking about Hitler? Yes, you’re right, the concept of race as a scientific category that led to the Holocaust was a Nazi idea. And we all agree the Nazis were bad. But it seems like they’re not being made to take the full brunt of the blame for this. It feels like another clumsy attempt to badmouth science and atheism in general.

And I admit I may have been guilty of this before now as well, but there’s not much distinction being made by Gray between atheism and science. Which is odd, because they’re entirely separate things. Hitler was not an atheist. The “Nazi belief in race as a scientific category” has zero connection with my belief in God as a fictional character. Inasmuch as race is a scientific category at all, it takes an ideological and unscientific twisting of scientific understanding to justify committing atrocities. And even if you don’t accept Dawkins’ so-called “simple-minded” reasoning, what Gray’s linking to the Nazi regime is science, not atheism – yet even he wouldn’t downplay the importance of science’s role in the world. (“Science is the best tool we have for forming reliable beliefs about the world”, a few paragraphs ago.) Quite why Dawkins’ claim that “whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things” is not the important point, or what atheism had to with Nazi science, Gray entirely fails to establish.

15. “It is clear that he wants to eliminate all traces of religion from public institutions.” But it’s a lot less clear who “he” refers to here. Nobody is named in this paragraph; possibly we’re still on Dawkins, or maybe just the “contemporary critic of religion” in general. But this attempt to painted the “avowed liberals” of the skeptical movement as illiberally fundamentalist is quite a flimsy straw man, given what they actually profess, and especially given the genuine continued fundamentalism of much of the religious establishment. As so many of this ilk seem incapable of grasping, there is a vital distinction between a desire “to eliminate all traces of religion from public institutions” (as Gray’s mystery person is alleged to wish for), and a desire to see the government not put tax-payers’ funds toward endorsing or mandating any particular religion or article of faith, nor discriminate against anyone who wants nothing to do with the whole messy business. I believe the US has a thing called the First Amendment which is kinda with me on this.

16. Then he goes on for a bit about someone called AC Grayling, and stuff about history, and the direction in which it may or may not be progressing. I’ll refrain from arguing here, because I’m starting to feel out of my depth.

But I’m not at all convinced by Gray’s claim that, essentially, society isn’t making any progress:

18. “Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world’s pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century.” Is this really evidence that history is repeating itself, cycle after cycle, with nothing ever being actually achieved? Slavery existed in America in the 19th century as a nationally endorsed institution, it was widely seen as an entirely acceptable part of life, and people openly admitted to this without needing to turn a blind eye or do any embarrassed coughing about what might or might not be going on. They just owned slaves. Is that really comparable to the state of things today, with such practices being almost universally denounced across what we call the civilised world, and relegated to society’s infamous “seamy underbelly”3? A few centuries back, the Spanish Inquisition routinely tortured many, many people, under the direction of the Spanish monarchy, as an official method of maintaining religious control. The much smaller-scale practices engaged in recently by the US government have earned the widespread revulsion of its citizens, been instrumental in sending the commander-in-chief’s approval rating plunging to record lows, and has had to be performed behind a plethora of smoke and mirrors to have had as small a damaging effect as it has. Yeah, it sucks, but it’s an improvement on the fucking Inquisition.

19. “Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it.” That’s where it would start? Really? I mean, call me crazy, but I think that atheism, intellectually rigorous or otherwise, might have a few things to address first, before it gets to something like the “Christian view of history as a universal narrative”. Things like, just as a really nit-picking example, whether or not God exists. You know, something that atheism’s actually about. Just a thought. Probably just me.

20. Yes, as this Onfray dude is not the first to point out, modern atheism has an absurdly fundamentalist arm, as must just about any social movement of any significant size. But Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens ain’t it. However sarcastically you might choose to use terms like “defenders of freedom”, I’ve heard all of these guys passionately and eloquently defending the basic ideas of individual liberty. None of them wants to prevent people from being religious, or to be able to forcibly shut people up who only want to loudly proclaim disagreement with their ideas.

21. “In today’s anxiety about religion, it has been forgotten that most of the faith-based violence of the past century was secular in nature. To some extent, this is also true of the current wave of terrorism.” Oh, wow. Yeah. Seriously? Islam is secular? Seriously? The people blowing themselves and others up in the name of Allah, professing their righteousness in his eyes, hoping to be rewarded by virgins in the afterlife, are doing so in a way “unconnected with religious or spiritual matters” (dictionary.com again)? I don’t care whose “techniques of terror also have a pedigree in secular revolutionary movements”, I don’t give a fuck where they borrowed their “theatrical detail” from, they do what they do because of a totalitarian regime based on the inspired and unquestionable word of God, which lays out in no uncertain terms which unbelievers it’s alright to murder.

Okay, this has gone on long enough. Several of his points I don’t feel up to the task of responding to, because I do start to get intellectually out of my depth, particularly in the international politics. Hopefully it’s clear, after as much rambling as this, more or less where I stand. The main problem I see with this piece is summarised in his last couple of paragraphs. He’s still talking about “repressing” and “eradicating” religion, as if this were the goal of atheism’s modern mainstream proponents. The confusion continues in the minds of many religious supporters between an attempted suppression of ideas, and a series of logical arguments being levelled against those ideas, by people with the audacity to actually voice these arguments aloud in the presence of religious believers. I understand that the author is not insisting that I shut up, refrain from expressing my views, and fall in line with his own way of thinking. And I’m not insisting that about anyone else either. I’m just explaining why I think he’s wrong about a lot of things.

If you disagree with anything you’ve read in the above article, why not keep the debate going by writing a lengthy, directionless, uninformed, and only mildly interesting response of your own? Only articles officially titled The “The ‘The Atheist Delusion’ Delusion” Delusion will be considered valid.

For something actually brainful and smartucated about where atheism and/or secularism is headed, try the delightful Greta Christina.

1 The other part may be that I’m a lousy writer.
2 Not that I was ever Catholic.
3 How come nothing ever gets to be seamy these days except underbellies?

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Oh oh, okay, I’ve got one. An actual thing that happened recently that I’m going to comment on and blog about. It’s a short one, but I’m just getting going with these.

So there’s this biology professor in the US called PZ Myers, who runs the biggest science-themed blog on the internet. He was interviewed a while back for the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, but has since given the film a persistent sound thrashing in his blog, lambasting the filmmakers for misleading him (and several other scientists who were interviewed) about their intent, editing the interviews to take quotes out of context, and generally giving an entirely false impression of the status of the theory of evolution in modern science and the relative position of the pseudo-science of intelligent design. I’ve given my thoughts on the trailer to the film already, and Myers’ views on the whole fiasco are quickly apparent on giving his blog even a brief skim.

Now, I haven’t seen any more of the film than the trailer, and haven’t heard anything new lately that I’ve found especially worth commenting on, so normally you’d be much better advised to head over to his blog and get the news from him. As well as knowing a whole lot more about the issues involved, he went along yesterday to a private screening for which he’d reserved tickets. And of course, he’s in the film. Well, I assume he is – I guess it’s possible he ended up on the cutting room floor. Maybe his account of it will tell us whether he made the final edit – he’ll have blogged about seeing the whole film by now, right?

Well, not exactly. He went along to see it, but was thrown out by security at the request of one of the producers. They spotted him waiting in line and asked him to leave the building.

Now, there’s always the option of reacting with righteous indignation to something like this. Some of the more ridiculous stories about how he was trying to “sneak in” (apparently by reserving a seat under his own name and then lining up in a queue – ooh, such dastardly atheist cunning) have been addressed in a follow-up post. And even the people behind the propaganda piece themselves couldn’t fail to be smacked hard in the face with the frying-pan of irony inherent in evicting someone due to their known contrary opinion on a subject, from a screening of a film purporting to expose the unfairness with which the scientific community works to quash the expression of contrary opinion. It’s the kind of affront which could invoke fury, particularly when the guy being thrown out was in the sodding movie.

But in this case, even if grumpiness would normally be worthwhile, the punchline to it all makes it unavoidably hilarious. I won’t spoil it for you, so you’ll have to visit his blog to find out what made this event the kind of comic masterpiece that would be unbelievable if you scripted it, but let me just say one thing: I work in a mental hospital, and this is the craziest fucking thing I’ve heard all week.

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I still haven’t quite got the hang of the whole “reading stuff in the news and commenting on it” side of blogging, so while you’re waiting for me to figure all that out, have some maths.

We’ll start with a crash course in set theory, using short words and familiar, non-threatening concepts. A set, in mathematics, is really nothing more than what it sounds like: it’s a collection, or “set”, of objects, grouped together and considered as a whole. There can be just one item in the set, or ten, or none at all, or infinitely many, and these items can be absolutely anything you like. Here’s an example of two perfectly valid mathematical sets, named S and T:

S = {giraffe, milk, 53, Frodo, purple}
T = {1, 2, 3, 4, 5}

There you go, two sets, each made up of five elements. You might’ve been expecting something a bit more numerical than the contents of S. We already have a system worked out to describe how numbers tend to behave around each other, so we’d be more likely to use sets like T in mathematics than S. We can all figure out what 5 – 1 equals, but what you get when you subtract giraffe from purple isn’t very intuitive.

You’d be quite welcome to make up some new and entirely consistent system using a set like S, where giraffe + giraffe = milk, and so forth, and this would be just as valid as any other mathematical construct. But, although valid, the workings of such a system would be needlessly wacky, so for the sake of convenience we’ll stick with regular numbers for now. (more…)

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I was listening to a phone-in feature on the radio earlier. Scott Mills was discussing some magazine article he’d read, which claimed to reveal all the dark and despicable secrets behind the sinister and devious conspiracy that is Women. All those tricks that the female of the species have perfected over the years, in their efforts to manipulate the intellectually inferior race of men, are laid plain at last for all to see.

Girls started phoning in to lambast him for “telling them all our secrets”. They also generally went on to discuss things in more depth than anyone really asked for, but for some of his female listeners it seemed to cause quite an upset. How could this magazine possibly have uncovered such information, and what will become of the fairer sex’s best-laid plans now that the truth is out there? The global conglomerate of Woman Inc. has obviously been infiltrated, and their integrity severely compromised. I imagine there will be a heated discussion on damage-control options at their next general meeting, as they try to find out who among them was foolish enough to actually be honest with a man, and discuss how to adapt their strategy now that men know how they all behave all the time.

So listen up, boys, as I reveal to you now some of the snippets of hidden knowledge that were imparted to me. You can’t stop the signal.

  • Women will never leave their underwear (or indeed anything else) in a bloke’s house or flat by accident. When it happens, it’s always deliberate, and it either means that they want to see him again, or that if he has any other girls round in the near future, they want her to find it.
  • Women will Google their partners, and keep quiet about what they’ve uncovered.
  • Women will go to great lengths to find out what their boyfriends’ ex-partners looked like.
  • Women will lie about who they’re with at any given moment, to make their other half jealous.

See, lads, this is gold-dust! And, of course, you mustn’t forget that the primary concern for any woman, at any time in her life, during any conversation that might ever occur with anyone she knows, is the Magic Number: how many men she’s slept with. (Let them have their heteronormativity, don’t go and confuse things by acting like the real world is complicated and has things like subtlety and nuance.)

It’s a crucial matter, obviously, and you can rest assured that the answer you hear will never be even close to truthful. It might even be worse than you thought – this new and unquestionably reliable source suggests that you can “add ten” to what women will tell you, and it’ll still be too low.

Also revealed exclusively, in whatever magazine it was, is the paradigm-shattering fact that women will “booty-call ex-boyfriends and old flings to keep their numbers down”. That is, during what’s referred to as a “drought”, women suffering the interminable outrage of going without sex for unbearable weeks at a time will often prefer to return to previous conquests, rather than finding anyone new and adding further notches to their hypothetical bed-posts.

Quite why this is necessary when they can just lie about it anyway might seem unclear, until you learn that women’s ability to dissemble about their sexual partners appears to be capped, at a distortion of around 24. This is supported by many recent results in female mathematical studies, though the data is too fragmented for that number to be at all certain. How to determine an accurate measurement of the Magic Number is still very little understood.

Women all definitely do this, by the way. It was confirmed by a caller to the show that anyone who says they don’t is “probably lying”.

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

If it hasn’t been clear from my jocular tone what relevant opinions (if any) I actually have, then I’ll clarify here that I loathe all of this patronising bollocks. It may not be very surprising or remarkable to the Sex-and-the-City subculture, but I think it speaks well of the female company I keep that I’d quite forgotten that there do exist people out there who actually live by The Rules, and consider this a helpful and important way to behave. Darwin’s nostrils, this is pushing me to angry feminist ranting, and you know what I’m like with gender issues.

This is the 21st fucking century, people. Why are any of us still going along with the idea that the best method for securing a stable, committed, contented relationship in the modern world, heteronormative or otherwise, involves guidelines like “Don’t Talk to a Man First (and Don’t Ask Him to Dance)”, or “Don’t Call Him and Rarely Return His Calls”, or “Don’t Accept a Saturday Night Date after Wednesday”? Who actually lives in a world where love, romance, or any other kind of human interaction relies on these kinds of principles?

A list of my preferred “Rules”, or alternative methods more likely to give you a fighting chance of winning my own heart, would have a slightly smaller target audience than an advice column titled “How to balance your career as a hang-gliding instructor and family life with your Sri Lankan spouse and seven children while pursuing your goal to prove the Goldbach conjecture and still find time to care for your pet black mamba named Archie”. But if I were to compile one anyway, it would probably read something like: Don’t lie. Don’t emotionally manipulate. Don’t use bullshit faux-psychological ways to get me to do what you want. Don’t be a cynical [insert gender-appropriate epithet here] and assume that these kinds of tactics are necessary for you to be able to “keep” a partner. Look like Jenna Fischer. Don’t be pitifully, infuriatingly anti-feminist whenever it suits you.

Is that really so much to ask?

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A few scattered thoughts on a popular and alluringly aliterative argument regarding this supposed “Trilemma”. Jesus – you know the one, long hair, Jewish chap, bit of a hippie, died tragically young in a freak woodworking accident1 – claimed, in the Bible (Mark 14:62), that he was God, albeit neither as often nor as unequivocally as other people claimed it for him (Matthew 26:63-64, Luke 22:70). But if he did make the claim, then there are three basic ways to take it.

One is that he was a no-good rotten liar. He ain’t no omnipotent deity, and his daddy ain’t no omnipotent deity, and he knows he ain’t all that. Much like the far more interesting Zaphod Beeblebrox, Jesus was just this guy, you know? There were some prophecies, someone got the wrong idea, this mythos started to grow up around him, and he ran with it because he guessed he could get a pretty sweet book deal out of it. Basically, imagine Brian as a cynical, manipulative bastard who’s up to no good. Sounds like the sort of thing which could possibly have happened to someone a couple of thousand years ago.

Or maybe he was a nutter. Perhaps someone did set the ball rolling by misinterpreting an ancient prophecy, but rather than consciously attempting to work the idea to his own personal gain, Jesus was a paranoid schizophrenic who incorporated it into his delusions, and started to believe that his mum really was a virgin, and he could get sloshed on a couple of bottles of spring-water. If this is the case, then he’s had phenomenal success in drawing other people into his fantasy. Certainly far more than any of the people in the hospital I work at who also claim to be Jesus (yes, there really are a few). But, in more credulous times, it’s by no means completely out of the question.

And, of course, we mustn’t neglect the possibility that he really was the Christ, the Messiah, the One who is Anointed, the Lamb of God, the King of the Jews, the King of Kings, the Emmanuel, the Son of Man, the Good Shepherd, the Top Dog, the Big Cheese, the Head Honcho, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Magical Mr Mistoffelees, and the Fantastic Mr Fox. Just like it says in the Bible.

Once these three options are established, the argument goes, since there is nothing to suggest that the Jesus of the Bible was either a compulsive liar or a certifiable wack-job, it seems likely that he really was who he said he was. It’s often referred to as Lewis’s Trilemma, for the novelist and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. He popularised the argument, and represented it in his still rather wonderful Chronicles of Narnia series. From my own copy of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe:

“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

He’s talking about Lucy, the youngest of the four protagonist siblings of the book. Lucy has been telling her brothers and sister about how she’s discovered a passage to the magical world of Narnia in the back of a wardrobe, and spent many hours there, even though only a few seconds seemed to pass in this world while she was away. The other three then went to investigate the wardrobe with Lucy, and found nothing but some fur coats and wood panelling, and a noticeable dearth of fauns. They express their concern about their sister’s bizarre behaviour to the Professor, who gives them the above speech about always believing crazy stories that people tell you who’ve shown no previous symptoms of mental instability.

If this is all still seeming reasonable to you so far, let’s recap some of the main points in exciting, dynamic, bullet-point form:

  • An eight-year-old girl says she’s found a mysterious land of witches and magic and many traditional fantasy elements, while playing a game with her siblings to while away a boring afternoon. This claim defies many well-understood physical laws, and would undermine a staggering amount of modern scientific understanding of the Universe if it turned out to be true.
  • An empirical test is performed to examine this falsifiable hypothesis, ie. they go to the wardrobe and see if there’s a Narnia inside it. Her hypothesis falls at the first hurdle, when its most obvious and fundamental prediction fails to match up with the observations made.
  • An alternative hypothesis – that the eight-year-old girl in question is incorrect in her assertion, and is thus either lying (if she believes what she says) or seriously disconnected from reality (if she doesn’t) – is abandoned in the face of the dogmatically maintained assumptions that “she doesn’t tell lies” and “it is obvious that she is not mad”. These two assumptions are given barely even a cursory questioning.
  • It is assumed, immutably, that the girl claiming to have found a snow-covered world inside the furniture and had an extravagant tea with a half-man half-goat, and who apparently thinks that this all really actually happened, for realz, is obviously not mad. Or a liar. There’s never been any evidence before that she has any propensity to make up stories, so that’s totally implausible, and therefore there must really be a lamp-post, and magical Turkish Delight, and a Jesus-allegory lion, and Tilda Swinton with weird straggly hair, all hidden in the wardrobe, even though they went and checked earlier and there clearly wasn’t. It’s basic logic.
  • What is wrong with you people, get a fucking straitjacket and have that crazy bitch committed.

Seriously. Seriously. I know that in the context of the books Narnia actually does exist, and it’s been such a popular story for so long that it’s easy to forget just how outlandish a claim is actually being made. But imagine someone you know and trust, in the real world, telling you with solemn earnestness that they discovered a magic doorway to the planet Zarquon in the airing cupboard, and that they went there and played backgammon with a hippogriff called Oswald. The only questions here are how quickly to back away, and how much reassuring nodding to do to make sure you don’t upset the crazy person.

Yes, for someone usually reliable and seemingly sane to start acting so bizarrely without reasonable justification would be very unusual, and could lead you to seek an alternative explanation. But you know what’d be even more unusual? Finding Narnia in a fucking wardrobe. We’ve all seen people tell lies, make mistakes, suffer delusions, and otherwise get things wrong and act batshit insane. We haven’t, while in a legal state of mind, seen Narnia in a fucking wardrobe.

You know, I’ve not been making the most of my ability to say this, so I’ll say it here: I work in a mental hospital, and this is the craziest fucking thing I’ve heard all week.

To return to the original point, Lewis did see this logic as directly transferable to the case of Jesus.

Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.2

There’s that word “obvious” again, being applied this time to the sanity and credibility of a man claiming to be the all-powerful and all-knowing creator of everything. Why, for the love of Xenu, why is the one truly outlandish, unlikely, fantastically improbable conclusion apparently the one deemed most acceptable after ruling out the others?

Surely it would be far more natural to reason along the lines of: “Well, we know your sister isn’t a compulsive liar, but we also know that wardrobes don’t lead to fucking Narnia, therefore for the moment and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is out of her tiny mind.” Or the Jesus-y equivalent.

The idea that we are faced with these three options does nothing to help the Christian case. If anything, having available the more plausible choices of liar and lunatic, which both would resolve the matter quite neatly, only raises the bar for how much evidence of actual divinity we should demand before we pick the Lord option.

Of course, the Trilemma doesn’t even take into account the other likely possibilities that Jesus’s grandiose claims were wrongly attributed to him by historians of the time, or mistranslated at some point of the story’s being passed down through the ages. But I’ve wittered enough for one entry, so any sarcastic wisecracks about that will have to wait till another day.

1The full details of the investigation were never made public, but it’s widely rumoured that a fellow carpenter tripped while holding some nails and inadvertently drove them into him. Repeatedly. While he leant against a cross. And was stretching his arms out to demonstrate the size of the catch he made on his latest fishing trip.
2Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, p54-56. At least, that’s what Wikipedia says.

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Urgent announcement

You need Stephen Fry’s podcast.

No, no. It’s not just something you should probably save a link to and try downloading from iTunes when you find the time. You need to be inspired by how much utter win can be encapsulated in one human being, and simultaneously distraught that you will never, ever come close to matching such levels of awesome yourself.


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Do you ever get those dreams where your subconscious gets really explicitly wish-fulfilmenty, and then you wake up disappointed and spend the rest of the day feeling sad for missing something totally unreal, with everything you think you want out of life suddenly seeming wholly unrealistic and unattainable?


On a not unrelated note, I’ve noticed with some concern the apparently increasing strength of the link between the quality/quantity of the stuff I write, and my general feelings of approval from others and self-worth. I’m sure everyone has at least one thing that they believe, on whatever level, they have to keep doing to be any good as a person, except possibly some tiny minority of bastards who are actually well-adjusted and content with life. But it was quite unsettling to notice that this seems to be my own primary outlet for neediness.

Bah. Again. Just bitching about a fairly gloomy day (and writing because of the neediness, see above). I’ll be perkier tomorrow. It’ll nearly be the weekend. And maybe I can get back to that other recurring dream (the one which is basically wish fulfilment for every guy on the planet if they were more supple), with no personal or depressing subtext at all. That’d be a more cheerful thing.

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Well, thanks for reading, I hope I’ve enlightened and enriched a few more lives.

Oh, alright. A few more general thoughts, hopefully meandering somewhere near to the suggested theme, even if they fail to address any of the key points (which, I assure you, is very likely).

“Big issue!” “Bless you!”

God. Morality. Both subjects to be counted among the most srs of bzns, without a doubt. These two ideas have instigated some of the most idle armchair speculation1 in our species’ history, ever since the arm or the chair was first invented (I don’t know which came first, I’m not a historian, and you know how I feel about doing research for these things).

And the discussion still rages on, even today. People can’t even seem to make up their mind what a word like “morality” means – a sad indictment on the failure of the “Big Dictionary” corporations to adequately define reality and shape our perception of it, as is surely their responsibility.

But, I suppose you can see why it’s not something they’ve ever managed to solve by simply ordering pizza, pulling an all-nighter, and resolving not to leave the room until every last straggling loose end of the issue has been ironed out and nailed down (neither of which sound like things you’d do to loose ends, but hey, I didn’t invent idioms). It is a tricky one.

And a big part of the issue is deciding what exactly can be said to act as the “source” of our morality – how it is decided what qualifies as a moral action. No surprise then that, in such a controversial and significant area of undecided philosophising, religion should claim immediate and unequivocal victory, proudly trumpeting its own candidate (generally referred to as “God”) as the answer to this problem, as well as to virtually every other problem ever posed.

Moral actions, it is often said, are those that please God, and immoral actions are any that displease him. And on one level, this doesn’t sound like such a bad idea – God is one guy you really don’t want to displease, after all. Seriously, he’s hardcore. If you’ve ever touched an electric fence, you’ll know how even a small and momentary burst of current can send a powerful and unsettling jolt down your arm. Well, God is the dude who holds onto lightning in his bare fucking hands, before throwing it down and destroying your home. Bad. Ass. If he told me to stop kissing girls I’m not married to because it’s an affront to his divinity, or not to… I dunno, something about coveting and asses, then there’s no way I’m gonna argue.

Resistance is proportional to voltage futile

The thing is, we already have a word for this idea of being told exactly what to do, and then obeying. It’s called obedience. It’s often associated with adjectives like “blind” and “unquestioning”, and it feels like there must be some important difference between this and morality. Morality, for instance, surely has more to do with concepts like good and evil than simply acting as some scary cloud-dwelling electric-fetishist instructs.

If there is no such difference, then God could command you to murder thy neighbour, covet his ox, drown his cat, burn down his house, key his car, and give his kids papercuts in their eyes before stealing their Nintendo Wii, and it would actually be immoral of you not to do all this. If God’s will is the only thing that matters, this necessarily follows.

The less sociopathic among you, however, might reject this rather macabre idea. You might, in your woefully ill-conceived innocence, try to tell me something like, “God wouldn’t command anything like that”. But if his word is all that’s stopping your vandalistic rampage from being morally righteous and good, then why the gosh-darn flipping crikey wouldn’t he? Is there something already “wrong” about it, by some rule which God can’t just rewrite at his whim?

I chose the examples in that paragraph up there because they would clearly cause unjustified suffering, and because very few people would deny that they are all certainly immoral acts. (Also because my neighbour’s a dick and I want a Wii. But that’s not important right now.) It seems implausible that God could simply assert that these things are all morally okay, and they would instantly become so. Our ideas about what’s “good” and “bad” seem inextricably linked with, well, whether things are good or bad. And papercuts in the eyes are just bad.

If you say that God wouldn’t instruct us to do anything you would call “bad”, then there must be some reason why it’s bad, beyond whether God has instructed it or not. Wherever our values of morality do come from, it’s not from some allegedly benign dictator who has the authority to say, “Alright everyone, listen up, stabbing each other in the neck is now okay! There’s nothing immoral about it! So go crazy!” It doesn’t work like that. The fact that we can all find this concept ridiculous, regardless of what we believe God himself to have actually said on the matter, is enough to show that there’s something other than taking orders involved in our moral decisions.

His lerningz, let Him divienly reveel them

So I don’t buy that God can tell us what to do and make it good or bad. But even if he doesn’t define the goodness or otherwise of our behaviour, he could still have some use in helping us decide what we should be doing. He’s God, after all. He’s supposed to know a thing or two, he’s been around a while, might’ve picked up a few tricks. We’re not really in the same league as this guy – we may have managed to work out some of the easier, less subtle bits ourselves (stabbing people in the neck: mostly bad), but for more intricate moral guidance, why not rely on someone with a bit more life experience? Say, someone who created all life, and gave it a fairly massive play area for it to start eating itself in? That’s some serious life experience, right there. Shouldn’t he be a better moral map than any puny humans could hope to be, even if he himself is not the terrain? (What does that even mean? Jeez, I can’t do idioms, I can’t do metaphor, it’s a wonder I’ve managed to keep bashing my fists against the keyboard long enough to get this far.)

Sadly, we run into the occasional chasmic snag with this idea also. Although submitting to the superior knowledge of an ineffable authority might sound nice in theory (assuming you don’t think it sounds like the most sinister and dangerous idea imaginable), we don’t really have any such authority available for us to follow. There’s quite a lot of his advice written down here and there, after all, but some bits of it keep saying that other bits are just stuff that other people made up, and shouldn’t be trusted. Obviously I’m not saying we should go against God’s instructions, so we’d better ignore those bits… but wait, those bits are saying that this is the stuff that was fictionalised later on by just a bunch of guys… Oh, this is getting confusing. Couldn’t God have sorted things out a bit more clearly, so we knew what exactly we were supposed to trust him on?

But whichever we decide are his divine instructions, they seem a bit thin on the ground. I mean, have you ever tried to read, like, The Law, for whatever country you’re living in at the moment? Because, whenever I see people on TV reading stuff about the law, it looks like there’s loads of it. There seems to be a paragraph or a subsection for every tiny thing, and even if TV can’t entirely be trusted to represent reality (an obviously ridiculous hypothetical, but bear with me), then the whole of the Law for a reasonably large and modern country has got to take up, ooh, five or six whole books, at the very least.

Some of the people arguing for God think this could all be done away with in favour of a set of rules ten sentences long. Can that really be all a civilisation needs? In a world of patents, trademarks, copyright law, and intellectual property, to consider but one area of the legal system from my own entirely uninformed perspective, is “Thou shalt not steal” really going to cover all the technicalities? I think we’ve done a not-too-shabby job ourselves of formulating legal systems relevant to our own societies; God hasn’t released any new material in a while, and his old stuff’s starting to seem a bit dated.

Even aside from all that, that brief paranthetical from a couple of paragraphs ago about what a dangerous idea it really is to unquestioningly give up one’s will deserves to be expanded upon. Although most gods are, if not sufficiently benevolent, at least terrifying enough that they shouldn’t be argued with, you’d have to be damn sure that you haven’t just been duped by a bunch of mystics with some crazy ideas about what kind of bread you’re not allowed to eat. Especially when the punishment for getting it wrong is to have rocks thrown at you until you die.

Sure, you can imagine a point where it would make sense to suppress our ideas of right and wrong and go along with some religious rules that seem, on the surface, unreasonable. Our omnipotent, omniscient overlord might have sufficiently proven his all-round omni-osity to everyone’s satisfaction, and we would be willing to take his word that, okay, we should lay off the sodomy already, however much fun we were having with it up till now. If he’s proven himself in other areas, and we’re certain that this truly is a wise and ineffable authority we’re submitting to, who can never possibly be effed, then we might choose to just take his word on other things too.

But I’m far from convinced. And the people who are convinced can’t make up their minds which is the ineffable authority we should obey, and which the misguided ramblings of ancient nomads. If God’s purported spokespeople want our coopreation in sticking to arbitrary rules that make no sense to us, they’re going to have to start being a few orders of magnitude more persuasive than “blah blah mysterious ways blah blah beyond our comprehension blah blah eternal hellfire blah”.

Good godless, y’all

Speaking of eternal hellfire, some totally insane people (spot the foreshadowing) still insist that it’s only this threat which keeps any of us in moral check in the first place. After all, if you’re not constantly looking back over your shoulder to make sure you’re not pissing off someone tougher than you who’s threatened to kick your ass, why would it ever occur to you not to shoot your own grandmother in the face and claim your inheritance early?

Again, I turn to those among you who are not demented psychopaths to supply an answer to this conundrum that genuinely has many2 religious people baffled. The idea that God is the source of morality seems to inevitably lead to the idea that his followers are only trying to save their own skins from being roasted, and that any good actions anyone would ever perform must be entirely self-serving attempts to improve one’s own lot come Judgment Day. No actual goodness seems to be allowed for.

The idea that atheism is inherently nihilistic is enduringly popular among people who have chosen not to engage their brains on the subject. It’s enough to note the simple empirical facts that many people do manage to deny your particular brand of creator without going around kicking puppies whenever they can do so with impunity (I strictly limit my own puppy-kicking to academic research purposes only, for instance), and that atheists regularly live full lives and raise families and do just about everything else generally considered necessary for a meaningful existence. But aside from all that, this attitude fails to consider whether life would actually be any more worth living (or morality any more worth adhering to) given the presence of an all-powerful god and an eternal after-life.

After all, this everlasting reward/punishment utterly dwarfs our paltry few decades on this planet into total insignificance. Every single event ever lived through by anyone, however colossal and world-shattering it may have seemed at the time, will be followed by a trillion trillion years in which to forget about it. We may spend the rest of eternity enjoying the utter delights and wonders of paradise – in which case the slights of one lifetime would only remain a concern to those of an even more petty nature than God. Or we might now find our attention rather firmly captivated by the unending suffering being inflicted on us in Hell, no doubt far greater than whatever slights we may have caused our fellow men while alive.

In this latter case in particular, it is jarring how significant a fate we make for ourselves during those first few decades, an infinitesimal fraction of our existence as a whole (and by “jarring” I of course mean “completely fucked up”) – especially when you consider that the victims of our crimes have presumably faced one of these two profferred fates themselves, and so will forget utterly whatever we did to them in a very short while.

On the other hand, if these scarce few thousand days are all we’ll ever have, they might start to seem rather more significant, and we might find some reason to care how we treat people during them, without any eventual reward or punishment always in our sights.

My definition is this

How do we define morality, then, if unhelpful people are going to demand that we actually think about it a bit, and not just take our instructions from reading a book (or, preferably, from someone waving a book at us and shouting)?

In deciding the morality of an action, one point to consider has to be the effect it has on other people. If human joy or suffering entirely takes a backseat to God’s will, and is disregarded at his whim, then I can’t imagine why he bothered giving us feelings in the first place, and his “love” is a bigger lie than GLaDOS’s cake.3 Wife-beating is bad, handing out free soup to the homeless is good – broadly speaking, things like this are pretty easy to establish based on the pleasure or pain you bring to the people with whom you interact. So, that’s a start, but even outside of the “God’s law” debate, there’s plenty of life left in the ol’ controversy yet.

The outcome of an action obviously isn’t the end of the story. For a start, an event’s “outcome” is impossible to measure, because the effect it has becomes chaotically complex in almost no time. Murdering children is something which we’re mostly comfortable giving a blanket description of “immoral”, but someone murdering a child named Adolf Hitler in the early 1900’s might well have diminished the overall level of human suffering over the next century in doing so.

Although discussions about what you’d do in such a situation, if you had the chance to go back in time with the benefit of hindsight, might be a popular dinner-party topic (especially if you have really tedious and unoriginal friends), the hindsight is a vital part of the decision. Pick any recent child-murderer whom the press and public have relished spitting upon and condemning with passionate venom and hatred – you can’t guarantee that they didn’t in fact save us from a worse fate. One of their victims might have gone on to become a far more prolific serial killer themselves, or given birth to one, or in some other way brought about an overall increase in suffering by their existence.

Even though bashing in a small child’s skull a century or so ago could have prevented the slaughter of millions, it would have been universally seen as barbaric, reprehensible, and immoral. If it were done knowing what we know now, however, then the ethical question becomes decidedly cloudy. Aside from our level of information, what’s changed? If there isn’t anything else to consider, then shouldn’t we accept that we can never have enough information to really judge anything? Wouldn’t we have to start being endlessly pragmatic about every apparent tragedy, like that parable about that smug old guy who keeps saying “We’ll see” every time something supposedly good or bad happens?

Well, no. We always have some information, and although there’s always the possibility that we’re inadvertently bringing about an apocalypse, we can make reasonable assumptions about most of the things we do. We can reasonably and sensibly decide that acting on the limited information available won’t lead to the end of civilisation, on average. Similarly, stealing that neighbour kid’s Wii might mean he has no choice but to get outside and get some exercise once in a while, which might lead to his taking an interest in science and eventually curing cancer. It might also mean that he joins a motorcycle gang and starts going around breaking glass bottles over the heads of nuns4, but just because both extreme scenarios can be constructed and can’t be disproved, it’s not reasonable to give either one any credence when making a decision. All you can base a moral judgment on is the certainty that, for good or ill, you’ll be ruining the kid’s birthday.

The other factor that arises is one of intent. It’s hardly fair to judge every action on the outcome alone, without considering what it was meant to accomplish by the person performing it. If you give money to a children’s charity, that would widely be seen as good. If the charity is actually a front for a terrorist organisation (and terrorists hate children), then this hardly merits your being detained for months without trial somewhere in Cuba5, even if bad things result from your generosity. Trying and failing may be commendable, while apathy might be equally condemned even if it ends up making little difference, or having a positive outcome. (Eg.: “Nah, I don’t think I’ll save that little girl from drowning, these shoes are new.” “You bastard. Oh look, someone else has rescued her, and in so doing has discovered a new-found purpose to his own life and decided to stop being a drug dealer.” “Huh. Guess I’m a big damn hero, then.”)

But if the outcome you intended is different from what occurred, there is still the issue of responsibility, i.e. whether you should have known better. Are you liable for some of the damage done by these terrorists if you don’t do enough research to discover that they’re not legit before handing over your money? Should you be absolved of blame for going 85 in a 30 zone and breaking a passing cyclist’s legs, if you were too drunk to notice and never intended any harm? At what point does being gullible, stupid, or careless become immoral?

If you think I might answer that question somewhere during the next umpteen paragraphs of disordered blather, then I laugh at your unrealistic expectations. What do you think I am, competent and well-informed? Ha! However, as a substitute, I am going to argue that these two factors of intent and responsibility are what allow us to define the moral status of an action. The actual outcome is entirely independent of whether somebody’s actions were morally defensible.

But that’s the way I like it baby, I don’t wanna live for ever

We all know that gambling is a perfectly safe and healthy activity for the whole family to enjoy, with no possible moral controversy. But let’s imagine a hypothetical fellow named Chuck is at a roulette table, betting6 on number 17. He stands to win back his stake 35 times over, and make a huge profit, but the odds are strongly stacked against him. Many people are probably in a similar position right this second, tossing in a few bucks, or a few hundred, losing money on average, generally having a fun night out at a casino, and only occasionally being dragged outside by security and pleading for a do-over because oh god I gambled my wedding ring my wife’s going to kill me.

But Chuck isn’t like those people. Chuck has remortgaged his house, drained his savings account, sold his wife’s jewellery, pawned his kid’s pet hamster, borrowed a suitcase full of banknotes from Fingernails McGee (so called because of how he collects on payments if his customers can’t keep up with 100%-a-week interest rates), and put everything on 17. Some guy did something pretty similar once for a TV show, but he didn’t have a family to support, he was only betting on red/black so his odds were close to 50/50, and he was moderately well prepared to sleep on a few people’s couches for a while, if he ended up owning nothing but the suit he was wearing. Chuck hasn’t told his wife what he’s doing, and there’s over a 97% chance that he’s totally ruining their lives.

He’s put the money down (ignore any bothersome technicalities like the casino’s house limits, it’s just a thought experiment), the bets are all taken, the wheel is spun, the ball’s dropped in and starts bouncing around, it’s too late to back out now. Let’s pause the action and take a snapshot of things right here.

So, Chuck’s being kind of a dick, right? It’s alright, you can say it, he can’t hear you. Don’t give him the benefit of the doubt about any extenuating circumstances; for the sake of the argument this is exactly what it looks like. He has no inside knowledge about his odds at this particular roulette table, he knows full well that he’s nearly certainly bankrupting his family, he’s just very straightforwardly being a twat. No significant moral ambiguity necessary at this point.

Now say he wins.

Assuming he was worth more than a little before, and with the loan shark’s help, he now has millions. All his debts can be paid off, he can buy a new house somewhere nice and a car for his mum and a pony for his daughter (to help her forget about Hammy) and a Wii for every kid on the street. He’s set for life. (Again, this may all turn out badly if someone mugs him for his winnings and slits his throat on the way home, but all the information we actually have tells us that this is by far the more positive of the two possible outcomes.) But does that mean that it was actually a good idea?

During that snapshot we took, before the ball had landed, we were all in complete agreement about the utter twatness of his decision. A few seconds later, it pays off big, but the future can’t affect the past – if it was a stupid thing to do at the time, then whatever happens later doesn’t change that. Further information can only affect our evaluation of whether something was a bad idea, as we can always learn more and find out that we were simply wrong in the past.

But the implication of applying that to this situation is that, when Chuck threw away more than he owned on a very long shot, this was a wise and brilliant thing to do. And not because he was in any way able to predict the outcome, remember – it was a great move only because he later went on to be very, very lucky. Hopefully this seems counter-intuitive, because what he did really can only be reasonably characterised as Bush-administration level stupid7. The outcome itself was accidental, and has no bearing on our judgment of the action.

It may not be a perfect example, and arguably doesn’t address the issue of morality itself directly, but I think suitable parallels can be drawn. The conclusion I seem to be drawing is that, although the result of our actions is often seen as the basis for our moral system, the actual outcome of any particular choice we make is irrelevant.

This isn’t as contradictory as it sounds – for everything we do, we can make a reasonable prediction as to what will happen, and can be expected to act in a way that meets a threshold level of what counts as “reasonable”. This responsibility was clearly on Chuck in the previous example, and the reckless stupidity of his behaviour is not affected by the fortunate outcome.

Responsibility, I think, must mean here something like the extent to which we account for unknown factors. Mr & Mrs8 Hitler weren’t doing anything irresponsible in conceiving the child that they did, because his future couldn’t reasonably have been predicted at the time. But Chuck should have taken enough of an interest in the world around him to acquire some sort of understanding of the uncertain nature of the risk he was taking.

Of course, there’s still the matter of how responsible we should expect someone to be, how analytical an assesment you can demand of someone before they act, and what sort of allowances to make for those who, through no fault of their own, are pretty stupid. But I’m not going to get into that now. It’s about time I just hurried up and posted some damn thing here, and it’d probably take a whole lot more work just to find some meaningful questions to ask about that, let alone to start answering them.

I’ll try, though, if I get round to it. Thoughts on where else there is to take this?

1 That is, the largest amount of idle armchair speculation, not the armchair speculation that was the most idle.

Many, but emphatically not all. I wouldn’t argue that the majority of religious parents love their children for any different or less worthy reasons than the non-religious. The concept that such things are dependent on God is prevalent, but it’s equally offensive to many godly and godless folk alike, and I’m not painting a whole demographic with this view, whatever they think about Jesus.
3 I seem to be using a lot of unlikely pop culture references lately. Search YouTube for a demo video of Portal if this means nothing to you.
4 And yes, both of these, too, could turn out to be either good or bad, in the long-run, based on the same pernickety logic.
5 Not like those people who entirely deserve to be there, who’ve had the audacity to be named things like “al-Qahtani”. They’re clearly up to something.
6 I’ve just had a totally great idea for a future Happy FunTime Maths Hour post, but I won’t go into all the number-y stuff in any depth here. Basically, he could win loads, but he’ll probably lose whatever he bets. I’m assuming you can all follow me that far.
7 Rarely is the question asked, “Am our President learning?”
8 Herr & Frau?

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