Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What is a Cult?

The other day an atheist on the Guardian’s Comment is Free discussion forum defined a cult as a small unpopular religion and a religion as a large popular cult.

There is little doubt that ‘cult’ is a bad word and no one wants to admit to being a member of one. In that way, it is a bit like the word ‘heretic’. You can even decline the entire grammatical form:

I am orthodox
You are unorthodox
She is a heretic
We are a religion
You are a sect
They are a cult

So is it all wholly subjective? I’d like to offer an objective definition of a cult which, I think, captures the essence of what we think cults are.

For me, a religious organisation (broadly conceived) is a cult if they reserve their most important secrets to the initiated. In other words, if their theology is not laid face up on the table, you are dealing with a cult. Christianity, Islam and mainstream Judaism have no secrets. Everything that these religions profess is public knowledge (even if many regular members are ignorant of the details). With Scientology, most people’s archetypal cult, no one gets all the ‘big secrets’ until they have paid big money to move up the hierarchy.

Most cults get bad publicity, but one historical cult has traditionally been given a very easy ride by the media. It is described as tolerant and sometimes, bizarrely, as inclusive. I’m talking, of course, about the ancient Gnostics. They owe their rather cuddly reputation to the wildly misleading bestseller, The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels. In reality, the Gnostics were a cult reserved for men where only initiates were allowed to know the true secrets as revealed by the risen Christ. Nowadays, we can read their confidential documents from the Nag Hammadi Library and they are pretty thin gruel. I expect that the disclosures when you get to the top of the tree in the scientologists are just as disappointing.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

God is not a Scientific Hypothesis

Victor Stenger, well known to connoisseurs of the sharper end of atheism, has a new book out called God: The Failed Hypothesis. No, I’m not going to read it. I have as much desire to read Dawkins’s imitators as I do Dan Brown’s. Besides, even the title shows us that Stenger has made a category mistake.

One of the hallmarks of scientism is the belief that if something isn’t amenable to scientific analysis, it is either meaningless or doesn’t exist. Hence Stenger’s attempts to disprove God by analysing him as a scientific hypothesis. If this argument was valid, you could show that the Mona Lisa doesn’t exist because a woman is nowhere present in the paint molecules laid down by Leonardo. Dawkins, of course, made the same category mistake with his attempt to show that as God is not a material super-being subject to the laws of chance, he almost certainly doesn’t exist.

Now, I hope that no one who reads this blog would accuse me of being anti-science or unwilling to accept scientific discoveries if they are unpalatable. But, I cannot see how, sixty odd years after logical positivism was discredited, intelligent people like Stenger and Dawkins can still be caught in its web. Scientism is so twentieth century.

Thus, Stenger’s book looks like a typical case of choosing the question in order to not get an answer. If it does contain a single original or interesting thought, then please let me know. It would be wonderful to find a new argument after all these years.

However, as glutton for punishment, I will be reading Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell when I get the chance. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea was extremely good and I will defy the poor reviews of his latest book to find out if it contains the same blessed examples of genius and wilful blindness on the same page.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Reading Dawkins

Michael Krahn, whose blog is well worth a look, is reading The God Delusion. He is writing a series of posts as he works his way through and I found them insightful and interesting. The musically inclined might also want to check out Michael's web site.

We have just bought a house and it is likely to take up quite a bit of time over the next few weeks. However, I will try and maintain the three-times-a-week blog updates, even if some of the posts, like this one, are rather short.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Nature of the Soul - What It Isn't

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes a writer who claims that hardly any of the atoms that made up our brains when we were children are still in situ. I can’t track down a source to tell us exactly how quickly all these atoms get replaced, but the idea is highly plausible. The brain is a dynamic chemical system and we also know that when you consume a mildly radioactive substance, scientists can measure how it is spread around the body and slowly disappears again. The upshot of this is that, whatever we are, we are not simply a particular set of atoms. All carbon atoms are identical and it doesn’t matter which ones go into making us.

You might interpret this to mean that if you built an exact copy of yourself, the copy would be conscious and identical to you. Philosophers have been scratching their heads about this for years. Many materialists believe that the copy would be a conscious being in its own right. Christians instinctively shy away from this idea because it throws up the question of whether or not the copy has a soul. Other philosophers suggest that although the copy would act and look like us, it would not actually be conscious. All the lights would be on, but there’d be no one at home. The technical term for one of these unconscious beings is a ‘zombie’. Several sizable woods have been chopped down to provide the paper generated by this debate. More likely, in my opinion, the exact copy of you would be a dead body. Unless you could also get all the atoms in it to move in exactly the same way that they do in you, the result would just be an inert lump. In other words, a corpse.

However, my reading on studies of the brain has led me to draw the conclusion that having a body is essential to having a soul. Without a body, we cannot exist. There is no question that you can detach the soul from the body and expect it to float around like a ghost. The idea that the soul is the ‘real’ person that has temporarily decided to live in a material body comes from Plato. It was part of the package of Greek thinking that the Christian fathers adopted during the first few centuries of our era. The Cathars took body/soul dualism it even further with their doctrines of metempsychosis

You won’t find souls floating around anywhere in the Bible (except perhaps the highly dubious witch of Endor). Indeed, St Paul and the example of Jesus’s resurrection are quite explicit that to be alive, you need a body. Christians believe that we will be resurrected bodily (or they should believe this) and not that we will be disembodied ghosts after death. Plato’s idea made some sort of sense to the Cathars because they believed in re-incarnation. Orthodox Christians reject this and so they have no business imagining that the soul is separable from a body.

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Monday, May 21, 2007


Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s classic work of social history, Montaillou, should probably be on every budding historian's reading list. I’ve just finished it and learnt a great deal. Sadly, the English translation is a bit leaden, as is common with academic translations, but it is worth slogging through.

The book is about peasant life in the little Pyrenean village of Montaillou between about 1300 and 1330 as revealed in the Fournier registers. Jacques Fournier was the local bishop and a zealous inquisitor. As Montaillou was a hotbed of heresy, he arrested most of the villagers and exhaustively questioned them. Many were convicted and five of the 114 people interrogated were burnt at the stake. Although they take the form of trial dispositions, historians believe that Fournier’s peasants were largely telling the truth. He didn’t torture them and noted down everything they said whether directly related to heresy or not. The result is a unique glimpse into the lives of illiterate peasants during the Middle Ages. The most revealing thing is that they seem so like us. They work hard but prefer to sit around talking, they have love affairs and gossip about them and they have views on religion from fanatical through to atheist. In some ways, of course, we are very different. Personal hygiene was not a priority (although women deloused each other and their menfolk); violence was normal (if not so common as you might think) and death an everyday occurrence.

The heresy that gripped Montaillou was Catharism. After the Albigensian crusade, the Cathars survived up in the mountains for a few more decades. Their beliefs were a combination of Christianity and Hinduism. The Cathar creation myth told of how the Devil had lured vast numbers of angels out of heaven during the Fall. These angels became trapped in the material world where they were subjected to a cycle of death and rebirth. This metempsychosis meant that you could end up reborn as a rabbit, dog or hopefully a man. Finally, if you died as a believing Cathar your soul could return to heaven. The Cathar priesthood, the parfaits, abstained from meat so as to avoid consuming an animal containing the soul of their late Auntie Mildred. They also said they stayed celibate, although were no more successful at this than Catholic priests. While ordinary Cathars would be sentenced to prison or wearing a yellow cross, a parfait who fell into the inquisitors’ hands would most likely end up tied to the stake. As for Bishop Jacques Fournier, after cleaning the heretics out of the Pyrenees, he got a promotion and eventually became Pope.

Overall, this is a fascinating piece of social history marred only by some turgid prose, for which Le Roy Ladurie can hardly be blamed.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Purpose of Greek Philosophy

There is a wonderful sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus about a football match between teams of Greek and German Philosophers (Marx should be the left winger, Nietzsche on the right. I'd always thought Socrates ended up playing for Brazil for some reason). In the skit (on You Tube), when the whistle goes, the two sides press their fists to their foreheads and try to out think the opposition.

The fact is , the image we have of Greek science is of a bunch of toga-clad savants wandering around thinking deep thoughts. It’s gradually been dawning on me (as I’m sure it’s dawned on everyone who’s looked hard at Greek science) that it wasn’t like that. For a start, many of the philosophers had day jobs, usually as teachers of rhetoric. More importantly, there is nothing disinterested about the scientific systems of thought they cooked up. Their primary interest was ethics and politics. They were not so concerned with explaining how the world worked, as with how man should live. Oddly enough, most Greek ethics looks suspiciously like idealised Greek society.

With Plato the centrality of ethics is something you can easily accept. The ‘good’ is clearly his central concern and most of what passes for science or metaphysics in his works is derived from his ethical precepts. With Aristotle, though, you might have thought that natural philosophy was more of an issue. Not really. Ethics is still the supreme subject and all other kinds of philosophy branch off from that. His natural world, which is eternal, hierarchical and orderly, is a reflection of his moral thought. Aristotle’s key to virtue was the golden mean between extremes. Again and again, we find that his physics attempts to find a middle way between his rival schools of philosophy. He believed that men, slave or free, should stay in the place ordained for them. Exactly the same view informs his ideas about the planets and the animal kingdom.

The stoics and epicureans were both undoubtedly far more interested in morality than science. The materialist world of the epicureans, described by Lucretius in On the Nature of Things, is designed to provide a stable platform for the epicurean ethic. Their atomism is not the result of a disinterested analysis of nature. They did not postulate atoms to explain the world but to free man from the ethical constraints implicit in a supernatural order. The stoics’ views on nature were just as subjective. Although they were essentially theists, their metaphysics was no more than an extension of their ethics. Their science was intended as a support for their morality.

This explains why early Christians, who had no problem with science per se, were so hostile to atomism and materialism. They could see that these ideas were tacked onto ethical systems that they found unacceptable. They didn’t attack atomism because they didn’t like atoms, but because atomism was always used as a prop for atheism. Richard Carrier argues that the Christian assault on atomism shows they were anti-science. It shows nothing of the sort. Early Christians were simply anti-atheist. Now there’s a surprise.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

How to Annoy Scientists

I’ve previously described myself as a conservative post-modernist. This means that I like to use the methods of post modern theory to expose the assumptions of the (usually quite left wing) people who espouse post modernism. As I like to say, all history is fiction, especially if it’s written by Marxists.

I think many of the insights of theory are extremely penetrating. When Michael Foucault’s History of Madness was eviscerated by Andrew Scull in the Times Literary Supplement the other week, I wasn’t sure the attack was entirely fair. Sure, the basis of Foucault’s work in the historical sources was rather shaky, but his ideas were brilliant. As long as we are careful ourselves about keeping the facts sacred, we can use his ideas in many different fields. When I explained last week why I thought that Dennett, Pinker and others were all supporters of a modular theory of the mind because of their loyalty to evolutionary theories and the limitations of their experiments, I was being quite the Foucault disciple.

Scientists dislike having their practices subjected to scrutiny even more than left-wing professors do. They seem to think that the unique methodology of science makes them immune to the subjective pressures that the rest of us suffer from. Not a chance. If anything, the belief of scientists that their discipline is not prone to subjectivity makes them even more prone to it.

A few years ago, a new academic subject was born - the sociology of scientific knowledge (or SSK for short). The SSK mob started saying that scientific theories are social constructs divorced from objective truth. Scientists got cross about this because they had always thought they believed their theories because they were true. Of course, both sides are wrong and both have a point. When I ask the question “why does Richard Dawkins believe that religion is an unwanted by-product of something useful rather than an evolutionary adaptation that benefits its carrier?” or “why does Steven Pinker think the mind is modular?” (see here and here for a discussion of these questions in case they don’t make immediate sense) I can see a menu of options. One of the options is that Pinker and Dawkins are actually right, that their opinion is one reached by a rational examination of the facts that has led them to a correct conclusion. But that is only one option. There are other possibilities, such as the fact that their ideas fit well with their preconceived opinions. Dawkins hates religion and so he cannot accept a theory that claims it must be good for humanity. Pinker loves evolution so adopts a hypothesis of mind conducive to his favourite theory.

So I think I am justified in imagining that scientists often adopt the scientific theories that they do for reasons that are largely subjective. However, much it might annoy them, I think we do need to look at the motivation and biases of scientists before we decide that we are going to believe them.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Dawkins in the Papers Again

There is another flurry of publicity over Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the run up to the paperback release on 21st May. I’m quite surprised the publishers haven’t held it back given the hardback is still selling by the shed load.

The main point of interest is a rather unrepentant new foreword where Dawkins’ largely fails to answer his critics. He claims, for instance, that he addressed fundamentalist religion because that is the normal sort. This is no defence, of course, because he also specifically attacked liberal religious thinkers and tolerant atheists as a Trojan horse and appeasers. If he really cared so much about fundamentalism, he would have written a book aimed at helping mainstream believers conquer it. Instead, he comes across as someone who heartily approves of fundamentalists as people who make his job of attacking all religious ideas easier.

William Rees Mogg says much the same things as me here.

Meanwhile, Christine Odone had the misfortune of sitting next to Dawkins at a dinner party. He bit her head off for suggesting that she’d shoot the last surviving elephant to save a human baby. This proves conclusively (if the anecdote is accurate) that Dawkins’ really is utterly nuts. We have other words to describe people who would stand by as a wild animal killed an innocent child, but I’ll let you work them out for yourselves.

A rather more serious topic is covered by Anjana Ahuja is her regular science column for the Times. It is about fraud in scientific papers and more specifically, that raw data is rarely checked.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Karen Armstrong

How rude is it permissible to be about Karen Armstrong? Robert Spencer is jolly cross that she has been extremely nasty about his new biography The Truth About Muhammad in a review she wrote for the Financial Times. Spencer has received some uncompromising support in the London Daily Telegraph from the editor of the Catholic Herald. I’ll admit to finding Armstrong’s vacuous thinking and self righteous preaching rather irritating. But the girl has had a tough life and I’m not about to start kicking her just for being oleaginous.

The fact is that I can see where she is coming from and I think it is the right direction. Yes, it would help if she knew what she was talking about, but in this case it is not absolute truth that is important. We simply have to learn to get along with Islam and Muslims have to learn to get along with us. Attacking them, accurately or not, does not help relations one iota. That is why I am unsympathetic towards those like Spencer and Mark Steyn on the right together with Rod Liddle and Christopher Hitchens on the left, who would denounce Islam as a whole.

There are sensible and enlightened Muslims out there, like Ed Husain who has written a book about his experience as an abortive jihadi, who need support. The mistake we have been making in the UK is not the act of reaching out to Muslims (however annoying the phrase ‘reaching out’ is), but that we have been reaching out to the wrong ones. Ken Livingstone, London’s mayor, seems obsessed with some pretty unpleasant imams and the government’s attempt to bring several fanatical groups in from the cold has backfired. The successful end to Operation Crevice, with the jailing of the erstwhile Bluewater Bombers, shows how pervasive the influence of the wrong sort of Islam is. But it has also shown how hard other Muslims are resisting the radicalisation of their communities.

Smash the terrorists by all means. Show no mercy to those who are trying to destroy our society. But don’t tar all Muslims with the same brush. And above all, don’t imply, like Spenser and Liddle, that Islam is congenitally incapable of adapting to the modern world.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Technorati Profile

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Theories of the Mind

Dan Dennett, Steven Pinker and Judith Rich Harris are all promoters of the idea of the primacy of genetics in any scientific explanation of human behaviour. As I said on Monday, I’m with them on that. Whenever my wife or I hear some piece of pop psychology we subject it to the ‘Pinker test’. If it doesn’t give pride of place to genetics then it is probably worthless. This tends to invalidate almost everything you hear about what causes people to behave the way they do. Of course, I see Dennett and co. simply catching up with St Augustine’s work on the inheritability of personality and the impossibility of completely subjugating our desires. Augustine must qualify as one of the greatest psychologists in history and, unlike lost other people of whom it is said, was well ahead of his time (at least in this respect).

Evolutionary psychology is not the only thing that Dennett, Pinker and Rich Harris have in common. A few years back Dennett brought out a book called Consciousness Explained. More recently, Pinker’s How the Mind Works has been almost as influential. Rich Harris’s new book, No Two Alike, ploughs the same furrow.

Their theory is simply stated. The brain has a number of inter-dependent service modules that each do a particular job. The modules are independent enough that if you disable one, the rest of the brain can continue to work. It’ll try a hot fix around the disabled component so that sometimes the conscious mind won’t even notice that something is missing. The modular theory states that consciousness is an epiphenomenon that results from all these modules getting on with their jobs and talking to each other. The modules themselves are in no way controlled by the conscious self. In fact, the conscious self doesn’t do anything very much beyond getting fooled into thinking that it is in charge.

Needless to say, I find this theory rather implausible. But I am more intrigued as to why it enjoys support from the same sorts of people who are also sympathetic to evolutionary psychology. I think it is because the modular mind is highly amenable to an evolutionary explanation. Each module can be explained by a different evolutionary just-so story which keeps things nice and simple. For instance, the speech organ postulated by Noam Chomsky before he turned into a barking mad nut case, can be made the subject of a story that leads from the ability to grunt to the ability to recite Homer in a few easy steps.

There’s another reason why I think that the modular theory is popular and it has to do with how science works when it is successful. Science is usually reductionistic because we lack the tools to analyse complex systems without breaking them up. The brain is the most complex system of all, so splitting it up into manageable chunks would seem a sensible way to go about understanding it. Almost all experiments on the brain have involved prodding it with stimuli and seeing which bits light up. More radically, when particular parts of the brain stop working due to injury or disease, we can examine the effects this has on its overall function. In fact, there are almost no other useful kinds of experiment you can do on the brain. I’m not denying that all this has been fruitful. Just that it hasn’t taken us a single step towards understanding what consciousness is. But it is not surprising that the theories of mind we do have, while generally rather implausible, have been shaped by the experimental limitations of neuroscience and the success of evolutionary theory.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Bringing Up the Kids

There was an interesting article in Prospect Magazine this week which created a slight flutter elsewhere in the media. Judith Rich Harris was plugging her new book, No Two Alike, about how the mind works. Her theory (which I’ll take a side long look at later this week) is old and boring – it’s a rehash of the mind as modules idea loved by Dan Dennett and Steven Pinker. Of more interest was the beginning of her article about the relationship between genetics and parenting.

From time to time, science throws up something that is so much in conflict with common sense that practically everyone simply refuses to believe it. The effect that parenting has on children is one of those things. You hear all the time about way you can help your child develop into an intelligent, honest and well-rounded individual. There are lengthy lists of does and don’ts, most recently a panic about the perils of letting children watch TV when they have something called neuroplasticity. Psychologist Aric Sigman revealed himself to be totally ignorant of current science when he advised MPs that young children should not watch too much TV. Predictably, journalists didn't challenge the basis for his ideas.

Thus, we are urged to keep children out of nursery, to read to them, to give them lots of attention and affection, not to argue in front of them or leave them alone to long. And yet, the evidence from proper scientific testing, documented by Pinker in The Blank Slate’s chapter on children, is that none of this makes a blind bit of difference. Whether you are a Victorian Dad or a Modern Parent will have not the slightest effect on how your children are going to turn out. So stop worrying.

In fact, as Judith Rich Harris explains, the only contribution you can make to your children’s personality is to give them your genes. Intelligence, behaviour, emotional complexion and much else are 50% genetically determined. Although the source of the other 50% is unknown (more on that some time soon), it is definitely not based on parenting practices. Twin studies, adoption studies and much else have proved this almost beyond doubt. Yet we still refuse to believe it because it conflicts with our in-built ideas about causation.

Personally, I find the idea that I can’t screw my daughter up, any more than I can turn her into a genius, is of some comfort. It’s enough trouble keeping her fed, fit, healthy and, above all, happy, without worrying about how, by letting her watch The Night Garden and Balamory, I’m turning her into psychopath.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Bede is Back

I'll be reactiving this blog from next week so pop back then to see what I have in store.

Best wishes


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