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 They should be repealed, now.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.