Friday 3 December 2010


There has been a lot of fuss in the last few days about the communications between US government agencies that have been disclosed by Wikileaks, and that remain to be disclosed. I have no idea whether disclosure of any of the documents will in fact cause serious harm, but there is a light side to this. Those in government are shown to be sometimes rude, sometimes devious and sometimes foolish. We always knew that this was so, but the provision of concrete examples gets us excited.

Some unidentified, but presumably amply insulted, government apparently told the US, "Don't worry, you should see what we say about you". This reminds me of something that Bertrand Russell said, in The Conquest of Happiness (pages 76-77 of the Routledge Classics reprint). He wondered what would happen if we could all see one another's thoughts. He supposed that most friendships would end immediately. But after a little while, we would find life without friends intolerable, and would get back together again, on a new basis of honesty. We may hope, if perhaps not expect, that the same will happen in the diplomatic community.

Meanwhile, the most laughable, and most arrogant, response has come from the French government. Here are some words of François Baroin, on behalf of that government:

"Moi j’ai toujours pensé qu’une société transparente, c’était une société totalitaire."


No, M. Baroin. Only transparency can keep politicians in the service of the people, instead of the other way round. Privacy for people in general may help to keep totalitarians at bay. But those who have got themselves into positions in government need to work in the daylight (apart from a few security operations that really do need to be covert, and even they should be disclosed after the event). Otherwise, the governors will dig themselves in and do as they please.

Friday 26 November 2010

Internet censorship

The Serious Organised Crime Agency has asked Nominet, which runs the .uk namespace, to formulate a policy on the suspension of domain names (effectively closing sites) when law enforcement agencies advise them that sites are being used for criminal purposes. The option under consideration is to incorporate new terms in the contracts between Nominet and other parties. Details of the Nominet discussion, and information on how to submit views, are here:

Sometimes, it may be appropriate to close sites at the request of law enforcers. But there is a huge danger that this would develop into a power of censorship of extreme social, political or religious views. The police must never, ever, be given such a power. Even the courts' powers in this area should be either zero, or very very limited.

Here is the comment that I sent to Nominet. I encourage all friends of freedom to send in their views, too.

Dear Sirs

I write to comment on this proposal.

It is sensible to have a clear policy on this topic. But it is essential to distinguish between four sorts of site, to which law enforcement agencies might object.

First, there are scam sites that imitate banks and shops, in order to steal account details or take money without delivering the goods. Here, there may be a case for Nominet to act on police advice, without waiting for a court case, although Nominet should certainly look at the site to determine whether it really fits into that category before acting, and I would question whether they really could not get a court order for the specific purpose of closing the site first.

Second, there are sites that improperly make copyright material available, or in some other way breach intellectual property law, or that make things like child porn available. I suggest that there will always be time for the police to seek a court order to close sites like these. That may delay closure by a few hours, which will cause further harm. But the harm done by allowing the police to get sites closed without going via the courts would be greater.

Third, there are sites that are being used to facilitate terrorism or other violent crime, by being used to send messages between conspirators. (I assume that discussion fora sometimes get used like this.) Here, there may be a case for urgent suspension, but probably only for a few hours while the police arrest the conspirators. Suspension long before arrest is unlikely because that would tip off the conspirators.

Fourth, there are sites that express extreme political, social or religious views, or that give general advice (as for example , which was recently closed down at the request of the police, and soon afterwards reappeared).

It would be totally unacceptable for Nominet ever to close down such a site at the request of law enforcers, without a court order. This is so, however extreme the views expressed.

If law enforcers could close sites like this, it would hand them a huge power of censorship. Of course they would promise not to abuse it, but future law enforcers might well abuse it. The power would also lead to self-censorship, as people moderated their comments for fear of provoking the authorities into asking Nominet to act.

So as far as this fourth category goes, the only acceptable policy for Nominet to have would be that it would always reject requests that were not in the form of court orders.

Kind regards

Richard Baron

Saturday 13 November 2010

Money and the humanities

There is much debate in the UK about the proposed increases in tuition fees that are charged to undergraduates. This has been intertwined with a perceived threat to the humanities. Courses in the natural sciences cost a lot more to teach, but they will continue to attract direct taxpayer subsidies. Tuition in the humanities will not be subsidised in this way. So courses in the natural sciences and in the humanities may end up costing individual students much the same.

The perception of threat comes from the perception that the withdrawal of tuition subsidies reflects a Government view that the humanities are not worth subsidising: that their study is a private good, not a public good, so that those who want to pursue that study should pay the full cost themselves. It is natural to see that as reflecting barbarism in Whitehall and Westminster.

I do not think it is pure barbarism. Rather, the new Government is faced with some very tough spending decisions, and there will be casualties. But if serious cultural loss is to be avoided, something will have to change. Are there ways of conducting study and research in the humanities, which will make study and research affordable to individuals, without requiring so much support from the taxpayer, and which could be used more widely than at present? And would such a change have advantages of its own, independently of the question of cost?

We need to start by setting out the important goals for the humanities (these are goals for the sciences too, but the subject of this post is the humanities). Three strike me as covering most of the ground:

the advancement of the disciplines through research;
dissemination of the fruits of the research;
the provision of a liberal education to large numbers of people.

In all three of these, it strikes me that there is a strong element of public good. The achievement of the goals benefits society at large, not just the people who participate in the achievement. (In contrast, the ability of specific individuals to make a living out of research or teaching is an exclusively private good, or very nearly so.) I do not see any need to base the claim to public good on any effects beyond the disciplines, for example, the effect of making us better able to criticize our current social arrangements. There may well be such benefits, but we are on safer ground if we point out that it is part of being human to deepen our understanding of ourselves, and that this demands the advancement and dissemination of the humanities. The practice of these disciplines is part of our nature. It is what we must do. Utilitarians can be brought on side if we point out that a liberal education, which should continue throughout life, is one of life's greatest, and in Millian terms highest, pleasures.

So can we achieve the goals more cheaply?

On dissemination and liberal education, there are plenty of new opportunities to make lectures and written material available over the Internet, and several institutions are doing just that. We just need to put structures of courses and assessment around that material. We have the models of the University of London International Programmes and the Open University, plus several online colleges, although the ones that exist now are of variable quality. This approach would not be as good for a student as being together with professors and other students in a physical university, but it might not be much worse. And it would make it feasible to extend higher education to even more people than at present.

On research, the essentials are good libraries, access to online journals, and seminars and other fora where people can submit their ideas to criticism and learn from others. It would be possible to provide these things outside the context of a university burdened with heavy institutional costs. Again, there would be some loss, but not a catastrophic loss. The important thing would be to ensure that any loss was in the quantity of output, not in its quality. Quality control cannot be enforced outside an institutional context. (It is not always clear how well it is enforced inside such a context.) But quality can still be recognized, and can be the subject of comment. It is pretty clear to the experts in a discipline which authors who work outside institutions are worth reading.

I therefore think that there is scope for a partial (but not total) reversal of the professionalization of research in the humanities that we associate with the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, without serious loss to the disciplines. And this might have advantages. The independent scholar is beholden to no-one, can choose his or her topics without reference to what others in the field think should be studied, and can take time to get a piece of work right, unhurried by a requirement for an institution to publish a certain amount each year. There is no money in that life, but those who really care about their subjects will not mind adopting modest lifestyles that can be sustained by jobs that leave time for other things. We should support researchers right across the humanities out of taxpayers' funds. But if their number must shrink, we should adapt. There is no need either to fear, or to drift into, a new dark age.

Friday 27 August 2010

Hegel's birthday

On Hegel’s birthday, Rossini’s comment on Wagner, about wonderful moments but awful quarter hours, came to mind. It struck me as much more apt to Hegel, through whose verbiage we must dig in search of nuggets, than to the glorious Wagner. So I looked up the context. The aptness to Hegel was amply confirmed. Here is what Rossini is reported to have said.

Niemand ist entfernter davon, die Originalität des Schöpfers des Lohengrin anzuzweifeln, als ich: nur daß es uns der Componist mitunter recht schwer macht, das Schöne, was wir ihm verdanken, in dem Chaos von Tönen, das seine Opern enthalten, aufzufinden. Sie werden es selbst schon erfahren haben: Mr. Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d’heures!

Source: pages 543-544 of Dr. Emil Naumann, Italienische Tondichter von Palestrina bis auf die Gegenwart. Eine Reihe von Vorträgen, gehalten in den Jahren 1874 und 1875. Berlin, Verlag von Robert Oppenheim, 1876.

Monday 9 August 2010

Robots with emotions

Here is a nice story to ponder, about robots that at least appear to express human emotions:

It prompts some philosophical questions, including the following:

If something appears to have emotions, does it have them?

What is the significance of the fact that the robot uses human forms of display, while not being a human?

Is there an underlying universal language of emotions (like a language of thought) which then gets translated into the local language of communication, or is the language of communication the only language, so that emotions expressed in different local languages of communication would be incommensurable?

Would such a robot be a moral client, either straight out of the box or after you had lived with it for a while? Would it be alright to turn it off when you went away on holiday, and then never turn it back on again?

I do not have answers, and do not expect ever to have more than provisional answers, but it is good when a philosophers' thought experiment turns out to have a counterpart in a real-world experiment.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Stupid law, stupid authorities

A story about a councillor who is in trouble for being (justifiably) rude about Scientology is in today's Daily Telegraph, and can be found by clicking here.

It seems that someone is not able to express an honest opinion about a patently false belief system, just because he happens to be a councillor. This is crazy. Our elected representatives need to be both willing and able to speak out, on any issue. Otherwise they will not be able to do their jobs. Indeed we all need to be able to speak out, otherwise we will not be able to fulfil our role as citizens.

Just as worrying is the reference to faith hate laws, further down the article. It is likely that our limited faith hate laws, that still permit reasonable discussion, have given encouragement to the mad political correctness brigade who are now pursuing the councillor, not with legal sanctions (because they have none, yet) but with job-specific disciplinary measures. That is, the faith hate laws are the thin end of a very ugly wedge. They should be repealed, now. Excluding Scientology and other recent belief systems from their scope would not be enough. The big danger is that our ability to criticize the serious political forces of Christianity and Islam will come to be ever more restricted.

(The relevant law is sections 29A to 29N of the Public Order Act 1986. A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, or who publishes or distributes written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred. "Religious hatred" means hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief. There is protection for freedom of expression: "Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytizing or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system." But even so, the principle that we have to put up with the offensive remarks of other people - that we can take offence and object loudly, but that we have no right not to be offended - has been breached. This is what makes the law the thin end of the wedge. The danger is not just future extensions to the law, but the fact that the existing law gives encouragement to political correctness nutcases who would go further and use any other tools at their disposal, such as disciplinary procedures, to silence those who would speak the truth about the nonsense that is peddled as religion.)

Sunday 4 July 2010

The unspeakable vice of the Greeks

These two sentences are from a speech by the Public Orator of Oxford University on 23 June 2010. The topic is the recently re-opened Ashmolean Museum:

"I notice that some of the labelling has been brought up to date. Perhaps the most elegant piece of Greek painted pottery in the collection, formerly called 'Man Courting a Boy', is now labelled 'Paedophile and Victim'."

I believe that the piece is the one shown here.

Unconfirmed reports state that the Ashmolean has decided to change the wording to:

"Man and boy making love. The nature of Greek homosexual love is the subject of current academic debate."

The choice of this new wording, rather than reversion to the original label, suggests that the museum wishes to be guilty neither of ludicrous anachronism nor of covering up a crime. One has to be amused at these academic contortions. Only a fear that we might draw moral lessons directly from 2,500 years ago, with no awareness on our part that times had changed, could motivate such cautious labelling.

Saturday 3 July 2010

Free will and narratives

Today I went to an excellent British Academy symposium on freedom of the will. As ever, a lot of the focus was on individual actions. But there was a mention of the idea that we should look at lives, or reasonable chunks of lives, rather than individual actions, and a related comment that the neurophysiological experiments to date do not take account of the role of memory (not on principle: it is just that some types of experiment are easier to do than other types).

If the main motive for worrying about free will is a desire to reconcile our inner experience of our lives with our scientific understanding of ourselves, then there might well be mileage in the idea that we should not start with individual actions. Instead, we should look at a period, say a month or a year, that incorporates a large number of actions. We could then ask whether anything in the scientific image would prevent us from viewing that period as a portion of a life that was led, by the subject, in a human way with which we could feel comfortable. Was it coherent, was it goal-directed, did it include the achievement of a reasonable proportion of goals, was creativity displayed, and so on? The individual actions would become secondary. It is tempting to say that they would be epiphenomena in relation to the narrative of the period. Then the relationship between manifest and scientific images of individual actions would become unimportant to us.

Such an approach would neatly accommodate the fact that which actions are identified as such can depend very much on the narrative context. And the form that the narrative took would also depend on the social context.

If this approach were to be pursued, there would however be a stumbling block. One of the features of our lives is that we do not know what is coming next. We live at the forward edge of a growing chunk of past time. That moving edge, and our ignorance of what will come next, are important for our way of life. We often ask “What shall I do now, in order to influence what comes after now?”. The presence of the moving edge, and our awareness of it, place great importance on the momentary action. That importance, and the fact that the movement of the edge constantly adds to the past, strongly incline us to see the narrative as supervenient on momentary actions, not the other way round.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Religion in the public sphere

I have just heard a heart-warming story on the radio (Deutsche Welle). It concerned a recent demonstration in Beirut, against the religion-based system of government in that country. For all sorts of position, from the President downwards, you have to be of the right religion. The demonstrators, mostly younger people, wore tee-shirts with the message “What’s your religion? That’s not important”. As the report pointed out, top religious figures will resist change because it will erode their power. But if enough people turn against the system, it may yet crumble. One may hope for a wider effect, with religious figures in general being recognised as having no special expertise, and no entitlement to any more respect or influence than other citizens.

Back in Britain, there has been much fuss over a joke memo about the Pope’s visit that was prepared in the Foreign Office. It included entertaining suggestions like a visit to an abortion clinic, a blessing of a same-sex marriage and the launch of Benedict-branded condoms. But what should the Vatican have expected? Here’s a guy whose institution makes him out to be really important, so that we should pay attention to his views. Well then, he can expect to get the attention of those who think he is wrong, as well as those who think he is right. If it were generally accepted that he was just a regular guy who had some opinions, which counted for no more or less than anyone else’s opinions, then he wouldn’t be the butt of jokes like this one.

Monday 22 February 2010

Radical interpretation

By happy coincidence, when taking a break from preparing a lecture on Donald Davidson, I came across this experiment in radical interpretation:

The principle of charity, of course. Elephants would not be considered to have good memories if they did not mostly remember truths. The principle of humanity, maybe. Elephants fit well enough into our lives in some parts of the world that they must be a little bit like us. And let us not forget Schopenhauer on the sagacity of the elephant (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, erster Band, Kapitel 6).

If an elephant could talk, ...

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Eight records or three?

Here is a little puzzle, inspired by the radio programme Desert Island Discs, on which people are required to choose eight pieces of music to take to a desert island. (There is no actual island: the programme was created long before reality television came to pass.)

Most of us would find it impossible to choose eight pieces of music directly. If one aims for eight, one ends up with a list of 20. The obvious thing to do would be to aim for three and end up with eight. But would one then have the top eight, as distinct from candidates to be in the top three?

I suspect that one would not have the top eight, because there would be no such thing as the top eight (for a given person, at a given time). “One of the top eight” would be a term with a perfectly clear intension, but no extension. And “candidate to be in the top three” would be the best approximation to “one of the top eight” which did have an extension.

The same type of argument could be conducted even if the point was not to pick eight favourite pieces of music, but to pick pieces of music to reflect eight important things in one’s life (such as one’s job or members of one’s family). A scale of importance of things in one’s life would replace a scale of liking for pieces of music, and there would be the same kind of competition for the eight places, and the same temptation to aim to select the top three in order to end up with eight.

Likewise, the argument would run if the task were to measure objective importance (in one’s own subjective view), rather than personal preference. One might for example be asked to identify the eight most important philosophers, or inventions. Aiming for three would be a sensible way to approach the task.

In similar vein, I am happy say things like “Descartes would have to feature on any defensible list of the ten most important western philosophers of all time”, but I would never try to list the ten most important western philosophers. It would not, however, be sensible for any one person to say, of more than four or five candidates, that they would have to feature on any defensible list of the top ten. “One of the ten most important” has no extension, but we can still identify some who would have to be within its extension if it had one, at least under the condition that the list would have to be defensible (before some reasonable judges – another source of vagueness).

There is another type of failure to have an extension, on which Simon Blackburn has remarked. It is rather different, because the problem is the existence of irresoluble disagreements between people. An example of a term without an extension that Blackburn has given (when giving his Presidential Address to the Aristotelian Society in October 2009) is “pig-headed”. If X claims, but Y denies, that Z is pig-headed, it is not possible for an arbiter to check whether or not Z is in the extension of the term “pig-headed” and to determine whether X or Y is correct. This is an attractive line of thought, and I would be very tempted to apply it to terms like “beautiful” and even “is a work of art” (in the sense that does not imply special praise). But I think that there are two types of limit to how far one could take this. First, although there may be no way of deciding borderline cases, there must be widespread agreement on a good number of cases. Some people would have to be regarded by most people who knew them as pig-headed, and some people would have to be regarded by most people who knew them as not pig-headed. Without that level of agreement, the term would not have an agreed intension. Second, if X and Y debated whether or not Z was pig-headed, one would expect them to make their cases by reference to a largely common range of factors, and by reference to examples of Z’s conduct which they would both approach with reference to those factors. Thus, while “pig-headed” might not have an extension, “appropriate way to test for pig-headedness” might well have an extension. That extension would do much to support agreement on the intension of “pig-headed”.