October 2011

So, we – look at me presuming things! I mean “I” – have established that overpopulation is dangerous. But is that inspired by, or does it inspire, misanthropy? Is it cruel to regret the birth of children? I can’t speak for everybody and their Malthus but I don’t think so.

Firstly, we should be clear that it’s a humanistic concern before it’s an environmental one. I’ve never understood how a misanthrope can justify a fondness for nature. What’s the beauty of a plant or landscape if there’s no one there to acknowledge it? No, as far as I’m concerned the biggest problem with damage to nature – along with its effects on the smarter animals – is that it becomes less able to sustain and entertain us.

But it’s not just a concern for people who’ll be affected by growing populations, it’s a concern for the growing populations themselves. A major issue in Britain has long been that of teenage pregnancies. Why? Because we think the mothers find it hard to raise their children in a healthy and happy environment. Well, those kids have far more material, intellectual and often emotional opportunities than millions of the children who’ll be born in the coming years. It’s a concern for the painful and unfulfilling lives they’re liable to have. And that gives lie to the idea that these concerns need be misanthropic – it’s a concern for them, not just about them, and it’s not animus towards people themselves but the conditions they’re born into.

(By the way, I mentioned my interest in antinatalism. I should say that – despite occasional flippancy – it isn’t in a nihilistic or, indeed, approving spirit. I think that the world, and life within it, can be a thing of beauty but in lieu of a religion I think nonbelievers – especially those who cheerfully broadcast their disbelief in objective moral standards, independent volition et cetera – to justify life in secular terms. To establish why it’s beautiful; why it can be a gift and not a burden to unload. I’ll write more on this when I feel like writing more on it.)

There are few less interesting things to post on a blog – photos of cats aside, perhaps, and Dr Who fanfiction – than critiques of small political groups the vast majority of citizens care less about than the price of spam. (That’s not to demean such groups. If I ever create something that exceeds the cost of processed meats in public visibility I’ll be surprised and delighted.) And, besides, I’ve preferred to explore my own ideas than attack other peoples’ here – for the past few seasons, anyway. Too much blogging is the result of people with a lot of pent-up frustration but no love for fist fights.

Having apologised at length for what’s about to follow, then, and while I’m on the subject of the leftist insouciance in the face of militant religion, here’s something that’s made me clasp my palms against my face. Longtime readers may have noticed that I’m more quarrelsome these days on the subject of religion. One thing that’s annoyed me is the failure of impassioned advocated of living and let living to take a long, hard look at what they’re living with. Or, to be blunt, supposed “anti-racists” have been apologising for or showing their ignorance of religious authoritarianism of the worst kinds. In another case, one Chris Nineham has done an interview denouncing “prejudices about Muslims [and] Islam”. And with whom? The Islamic Republic News Agency. The official news agency of Iran. No, not a different Iran. That Iran. Yeah.

You’ll rarely find me quoting from Harry’s Place but here, writing on a man named Abu Rideh, who was arrested in Britain, jailed and then put under a control order, they’ve got a point…

Amnesty ran a campaign against the control order to which Abu Rideh was subject from 2005-9…CagePrisoners, whose Director Moazzam Begg believes that “securing the release of Muslim prisoners” captured during jihad is “obligatory” on all Muslims, devoted significant campaigning resources towards this case…The Guardian also lined up behind poor Abu Rideh…

However, The Guardian did not report, and still has not reported, on the end of the Abu Rideh saga. Abu Rideh, it was claimed, wished to leave the United Kingdom so that he could rejoin his large and young family. However, that was a lie. Instead, Abu Rideh travelled to Afghanistan, to join up with his Al Qaeda brothers.

In December, The Telegraph announced that an “Arabic jihadi web forum associated with al-Qaeda reported that Abu Rideh had become a “martyr in Afghanistan” and was with a group of fighters when he died”.

As someone who wrote several posts in support of the man I really am disgusted by the failure of liberal – or, indeed, “liberal” -institutions to pay the slightest attention to claims of his death. It’s impossible for me to know for sure whether he’s dead or not and whether he was fighting with the militants but considering the largely uncritical support that they – and, yes, I – had given him, it’s a question that it’s their responsibility to ask. (And mine? Well, perhaps, but I’ve no way of finding out.) In fact, I’d also like to see investigation into whether he was really self-harming and attempting suicide as he claimed. If he was, and it was all an act, he was one sick puppy.

I am, of course, aware that the last thing the world needs in any given situation is amateur psychologising from your’s truly. Still, I think it’s possible to judge when someone’s really up for a fight…

…and when they’re not…

Goodbye to Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. For those of you who aren’t into MMA, he was a fun fighter to watch because he had a kick that rose from nowhere, clipped the other fighter on the head and sent them crashing to the ground. It terrified them. They looked like German bomber pilots, awaiting a Spitfire’s dive.

And, yes, Cro Cop, it’s those fights you’ll be remembered for.

Julian Baggini makes a point I’ve made elsewhere. (“Why quote it then?” I hear you ask. Well, he makes it rather better.)

The mark of a mature, psychologically healthy mind is indeed the ability to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, but only as much as there really is. Uncertainty is no virtue when the facts are clear, and ambiguity is mere obfuscation when more precise terms are applicable. Unfortunately, the middle ground in the God debate is occupied by too many people who screw up their eyes to create the illusion of a mist when the view is really clear. And this is not just wrong: it’s dangerous, because if we make too much of our inability to be certain, we make ourselves incapable of clear and unequivocal condemnation of just those extreme dogmatists whom agnostics and moderate but committed believers fear. The main problem with young-Earth creationists who assert that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, for instance, is not that they are certain, but that they are wrong. It’s the matter of the belief that is pernicious, not just the manner of its holding.

This is absolutely true. Agnosticism for its own sake is foolish on philosophical and tactical levels. Firstly, because, unless we’re to be so epistemologically pedantic that we’re speculating about being brains in jars, things can be known. Secondly, because if you’re unwilling to assert ideas you think are good, someone else will just promote their bad ones over your’s.

On the other hand, this still demands that your assertions are so well-grounded as to justify your confidence. What’s made critics of the “new atheists” so irritating is that they’ve whined about their arrogance as if the only problem is their tone. It isn’t. The problem is that they’re arrogant about claims that are, in fact, often wrong. This is a subject that calls for a bit of uncertainty. Via Edward Feser, the atheist philosopher Quentin Smith opines

Due to the typical attitude of the contemporary naturalist… the vast majority of naturalist philosophers have come to hold (since the late 1960s) an unjustified belief in naturalism. Their justifications have been defeated by arguments developed by theistic philosophers, and now naturalist philosophers, for the most part, live in darkness about the justification for naturalism. They may have a true belief in naturalism, but they have no knowledge that naturalism is true since they do not have an undefeated justification for their belief.  If naturalism is true, then their belief in naturalism is accidentally true.

I don’t know if that’s entirely fair, of course, but I’m confident in saying that it applies to scientists and journalists who dabble in philosophy.

Eight years on from Iraq, Tony Blair still vexes us with his, er – creative turns of phrase. His latest insult to the English language is the claim that soaring immigration rates under his authority made the nation “stronger”. Er – what is a strong nation? Honestly, I’m not at all clear how such a virtue can be applied to a country. A strong military, maybe? No, I doubt it. For once he’s off the subject of war. A strong economy? Er – yes. The least said about that the better. A strong culture? Well, perhaps. But what is a strong culture? The kind of thing you’d find at a gym? I’m stumped.

The irony is that it’s the blimpish nationalists who are supposed to cleave to vague and valueless concepts. I’ve come to believe in independent nation states – yes, bordered ones – because I think it’s better for the people in, and often outside, them. The values I’d attribute to them reflect this belief. When somebody lauds the impact of a policy in terms that aren’t connected to its lived experience my hackles rise – they’re either spouting dogma or they’re propagandists.

My re-readings of George Orwell have continued with a fat collection of his essays named Orwell and Politics. In his introduction Timothy Garton Ash claims that George of Jura “the most influential political writer of the twentieth century”. Well, let’s see: did the working classes rise up, changed by revolutionary socialism? No. Did Britain move to a planned economy? Er, no. Is journalism marked by a clarity of prose and resistance to euphemism, vagueness and other tactics of the obscurant? Hah! Either Orwell wasn’t all that influential or political writing isn’t as a whole.

Anyway, in a review of a book by James Burnham I found this critique of what’s now hailed as contrarianism…

It is notorious that certain sins, crimes and vices would lack attraction if they were not forbidden. Mr Gandhi has described the shuddering joy with which, as a child, he sneaked down to some secret haunt in the bazaar and ate a plate of beef, and our grandfathers derived acute pleasure from drinking champagne out of the satin slippers of actresses.

So also with political theories. Any theory which is obviously dishonest and immoral…will find adherents who accept it just for that reason. Whether the theory works, whether it attains the result aimed at will hardly be questioned. The mere fact that it throws ordinary decency overboard will be accepted as proof of its grown-upness and consequently of its efficacy.

As someone who’s toyed with ideas that challenge “ordinary decency” – antinatalism, anyone? – I feel I should offer some qualifications. You have to interrogate theories before you know that they’re “dishonest and immoral” and, indeed, they might be worth adhering to. That which is commonly held to be “decent” can, in fact, be repugnant. Popularity is no guarantor of wisdom.

Yet ordinary decency has often endured for the simple reason that it works. One of the important reasons why it’s unlikely that you’ll be slaughtered in the street is that we’ve figured out precepts of a civilised society. (And, to bring up something else contrarians might disregard, a body of historical and scientific knowledge.) I think Orwell could have been more charitable, and made it clear that it’s the sense of daring, not depravity, that can attract people to heterodox theories but, still, in effect they’re both the same. The key is to ensure that you’ve endorsed a theory in spite of the fact that it’s heterodox, not because it is.

Savour this, from 2003…

Tony Blair today derided as “conspiracy theories” accusations that a war on Iraq would be in pursuit of oil, as he faced down growing discontent in parliament at a meeting of Labour backbenchers and at PMQs.

Now, wrap your chops round this, from the one-time US ambassador John Bolton…

…critical oil and natural gas producing region that we fought so many wars to try and protect our economy from the adverse impact of losing that supply or having it available only at very high prices.

Bitter taste, huh?

Meanwhile, Senator Lindsay Graham offers a portrait of the U.S.’s thinking in terms of the war in Libya…

Let’s get in on the ground. There is a lot of money to be made in the future in Libya. Lot of oil to be produced.

Is it a good or bad thing that politicians are revealing their lowest motives rather than being exposed? On the one hand, it’s nice that their existence is unarguable. On the other, if they keep this up they’ll put investigative journalists onto the dole.

Anyway, insisting that an argument is a “conspiracy theory” – as I’ve written, at some length – is often a nifty tactic used by people who’d like to make plausible and relevant ideas seem foolish and esoteric. Now, though, it seems that many powermongers don’t feel obliged to ridicule or even dispute the “war for oil” theses. They’re just like, “Yeah. So?” Perhaps the growing awareness of the shaky state of oil production means they doubt that people will be taken in. On the other hand, perhaps they think that fears regarding oil consumption mean that people will be more likely to tolerate a war if it’s for oil than something they can’t use.

I sympathise with people who people who think refrains like “war for oil” are a tad simplistic, by the way. But an act can have more than one intention. I don’t go to the pub for its spiced rum alone but I doubt I’d go if they took it off the menu.

A BBC programme claims to have uncovered evidence that the ISI – Pakistan’s intelligence force – works with the Taliban. Right. Anyone surprised? It took me a while to figure out what a corrupt organisation it is – the ISI, that is, not Aunty B – but I doubt the world’s largest military powers can plead naivete. The US must have known they were on friendly terms with Islamic radicals for the simple reason that they were both funding them. They’ve known for years that relationships are still warm. They’ll even exploit this

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday admitted the United States held one exploratory meeting with the Haqqani network, which an official said took place before a series of massive attacks.

A US official said Pakistan’s main spy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate had arranged for the meeting with the Islamists that took place “in the summer”, before two symbolic anti-American attacks in Afghanistan.

What I’m trying to say is that I find it hard to believe the U.S. is being played; I think they’re playing. I mean, everyone from Nafeez Ahmed to our old friend Con Coughlin have known of the ISI’s complicity with terrorism. And for years, as well. The notion that they’re sincere opponents of the spawn of the muhajideen is the most farcical since Ryan Giggs claimed to be monogamous. You really think US intelligence, with all the knowledge that an 80 billion-a-year budget can provide, haven’t cottoned on? Of course they have! For whatever reason they just choose to tolerate it.

I’ve seen the idea expressed on some anti-war sites that the US blames Pakistan for atrocities or incompetence to justify their regional interventions. Well, perhaps, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they take the rap for things that Western forces were involved in, but it seems unlikely as I’ve always thought a reason they’re fond of “secret” wars – drones, commando raids; that kind of thing – is that they’re not compelled to justify them. No one really cares.

I’m of the opinion that supporters of naturalism often disregard their empiricism when they’re faced with research into extrasensory perception. In blunter terms, they’re less inclined to ask whether something’s right or wrong than to say it’s wrong – and bloody stupid. Other scholars have questioned this. Mark Leary, a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, has written

I can readily identify with the intellectual difficulty of accepting most of parapsychology’s claims. I have a tremendous amount of trouble understanding how any of it can be true. Yet I also see the results of decades of well-designed research suggesting that psi might in fact occur and, from a scientific perspective, I don’t have the luxury of simply ignoring research findings that make me uncomfortable, and I don’t think I would be justified in condemning researchers who study such things…

I’m not a believer in extrasensory perception. Nor, though, could I firmly say that it doesn’t exist. (I’m not making a virtue of agnosticism here. If you have good reason to believe that something’s right or wrong then, by God, say it. Otherwise, though, retain some humility.)

Let’s say, however, for the sake of argument, that the psi-supporters have been wrong. The enthusiasm some “skeptics” have for disproving claims – a monomaniacal preoccupation with falsity – makes it harder to reach a neutral conclusion as to their epistemic worth. But it also blinds them to the fact that things can be intriguing whether they’re right or wrong. (There are, of course, exceptions.)

The claims of believers – even the extreme assertions such as those of mediums – are often so impressive as to demand substantial responses, and they’re ill-served by the blustering ridicule of dogmatic naturalists, or facile explanations of even renowned skeptics. What’s frustrating is that even if they’re wrong – even if they’re just dishonest – the process by which they’ve been misled – or misled others – has to be extremely interesting, to people from academic psychologists to stage magicians. There’s also the question of why someone people profess to believing in ESP and even more credulity-stretching claims. What makes it seem credible to them? What purpose does it serve?

I should qualify this thought by saying the first and most important thing to be done with a claim – a scientific claim, at least – is test whether it’s true or false. More sociological stuff can follow that. (For one thing, there’s nothing more annoying than someone trying a diagnose a disorder they that they haven’t actually proven is irregular.) But there can be more to a question than that and, at risk of sounding like someone who’ll always be kvetching, a denial can be obscurant even if it happens to be true.

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