Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Letter to Jeremy Quin

This is the text of an email I have sent to my MP, Jeremy Quin:

Dear Mr Quin
I am writing to urge you to vote against Prime Minister May's proposed Withdrawal Agreement.
I voted Remain in the referendum, but accepted the result. People voted Leave for many reasons, but perhaps the most fundamental one was to reclaim the sovereignty we had given up to the EU. 
But I had not fully appreciated all the difficulties that would arise in achieving a satisfactory Brexit. In particular, I had not appreciated the importance of our current frictionless trade with the continent, the Good Friday Agreement and the many EU agencies that would all need their own separate arrangements, such as the Galileo project and the EASA.
The more *sovereignty* we reclaim from the EU, the less we can participate in the *benefits* of the EU; that much is obvious. Leave voters, I presume, placed a higher value on the sovereignty we would reclaim than the benefits we would lose, whilst I, as a Remain voter, valued the benefits more than the dilution of sovereignty. 
But now we have a much clearer estimation of the sovereignty we are reclaiming and the costs of departure. Mrs May's deal means we will have *no* say in the rules of the EU, which rules we will still have to closely observe, since it is our closest trading bloc. We will lose our ability to travel and work freely in the EU. We will lose frictionless trade, which will hit our GDP hard, according to the Government's own forecasts. We endanger the Good Friday Agreement, with all the dark possibilities that would entail.
So, in fact, the best deal on offer (according to the government), actually means *less* sovereignty than we currently enjoy within the EU, and vastly increased costs to leaving. We also threaten the peace in Northern Ireland. These matters were not apparent at the time of the referendum - the Leave campaigns suggested there would be a Brexit dividend, that we were taking back control and there would be solutions to the Northern Ireland border issue.
Since the population is now much clearer about the reduction in sovereignty that will arise under Mrs May's deal, the vast costs of leaving, and the threat to peace in this country, the democratic thing to do would be to have another vote to confirm the public are in favour of paying these costs, suffering this reduction in sovereignty and threatening our own peace.
I hope you will therefore agree to vote against the deal and instead insist on another referendum to clarify the views of the electorate in the light of these now-known consequences of Brexit.
Kind regards
Mark Jones

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Sunday, 9 September 2018

Certainty and doubt: Descartes Revision Notes

I produced a number of revision documents for my degree course, and maybe someone will find them useful. This is for A222 Exploring Philosophy, Book 4, Knowledge by Cristina Chimisso.

I printed these revision notes on card as an aide-memoire to the issues I needed to touch on in an exam question on the subject; most exam questions require an exposition of the ground to be covered before any actual philosophy can be done (ie, the question answered!). Having these, almost bullet, points burned into my memory allowed me to write this background stuff whilst planning my answer.

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Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Metaethical Theories

Theists occasionally claim that atheists pragmatically 'believe' in God, because they act morally, or attribute praise and blame, which acts implicitly accept the existence of God. Behind this is the idea that an objective morality can only be grounded in God. Here's William Lane Craig:
...if God exists, then the objectivity of moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability is secured, but that in the absence of God, that is, if God does not exist, then morality is just a human convention, that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding. We might act in precisely the same ways that we do in fact act, but in the absence of God, such actions would no longer count as good (or evil), since if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. Thus, we cannot truly be good without God. On the other hand, if we do believe that moral values and duties are objective, that provides moral grounds for believing in God.
..and here's an article on Catholic website Strange Notions:
Objective morality is observable apart from knowledge of God, which is why atheists and agnostics can know right from wrong, and why philosophers can talk about self-evident moral propositions, and why everyone reading this knows what we mean by “moral” and “immoral.” Some things are just wrong, regardless of our philosophies, and even if we desperately want them to be right.
But objective morality isn’t explicable apart from knowledge of God: every attempt... fails to explain why objective morality exists.
But there are a number of theories that attempt to explain the grounding of ethics that have nothing to do with God; the Metaethics article at the SEP has an extensive bibliography that is mostly concerned with secular explanations.

Furthermore, God grounding is not a fruitful avenue for analysis, because that is where the buck stops, and that is that. (As such, it may be subject to Moore's Open Question argument.) But to get an idea of what is happening in contemporary metaethics, take a look at this diagram from Alexander Miller's An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics (2003 edition):

Here we have a handy guide to the current debate in metaethics, little of it concerning God. God doesn't even warrant an entry in the index, while Peter Railton has 20 references! Here are links to some of those theories:

Ayer's emotivism
Blackburn's quasi-realism
Gibbard's norm-expressivism
Mackie's error-theory
Moore's non-Naturalism
McDowell's non-Naturalism
Railton's reductionism
Cornell realism

This does not show that morality is not grounded in God, of course, but it does show it would be wrong to suggest that that there are simply no alternatives for the atheist seeking a metaethics for her moral behaviour.

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Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Darkening Preconceptions

This is a comment on the reaction to a book, rather than the book itself.

Catherine Nixey has written a new book called The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, about the transition from the ancient Roman world to a Christian world. She studied classics at Cambridge, but is now a journalist. It's clear that this book is a polemic, aimed at redressing the imbalance caused by the Christian-good, pagan-bad narrative that has (mostly) dominated since then, at least in the West, and because of that it has received very contrasting reviews.

I've not read the book yet, partly because of the polarising nature of those reviews; is it too polemical for a layman? Christians and those sympathetic to religion and the early middle ages have damned it, while classicists seem to mostly like it. It would be nice to have an objective view of this era, but the subject is emotive and the events discussed are multi-factorial, which allows prejudices and preconceptions to dictate one's interpretation of those events. Is it too glib to say that classicists defend the classical world and experts of the middle ages and Christianity defend theirs?

Here is a sample of the conflicting reviews:

Anti Nixey

Averil Cameron (professor emerita of Late Antique and Byzantine History at the University of Oxford) in Catholic magazine The Tablet: "Hearts will sink among historians of early Christianity and late antiquity, as well as medievalists and, needless to say, Byzantinists, when they see the title of this pugnacious and energetically written book. The words  ‘darkening age’ evoke everything they have been trying for years to overturn."

Levi Roach (lecturer in the early and high middle ages) in The Literary Review: “does not seek to present a balanced picture (…) this is a book of generalisations. (…) Nixey (…) is unwilling to see shades of grey.” (from here)

The most damning review comes from Tim O'Neill (anti-new-atheist-atheist historian blogger) here: "...this is a book of biased polemic masquerading as historical analysis and easily the worst book I have read in year."
"While Nixey does indeed detail several incidents of Christian violence and several more of Christian destruction, the problem is that she highlights these while neglecting or lightly skipping around other, similar incidents perpetrated by her heroes, the pagans. This makes for a good story – one with clear “good guys” and “bad guys” – but it is hopelessly biased, deliberately distorted and bad history."
"Anyone reading Nixey’s book is likely to come away thinking they know and understand more but will actually have learned things that would have to be unlearned or corrected later. Nixey’s is not a good history book. It is, as Dame Averil said so pithily, “a travesty”."

Josh Herring (Christian evangelist) for the religious think tank The Acton Institute: "The best of historical writing is accessible to educated adults of all disciplines, and it furthers our understanding of the human person; The Darkening Age is not such a work. Instead, it reveals more to us about Catherine Nixey and her understanding of history. The scholars she assembles are uniformly opposed to Christianity, presenting it as a destructive force that ended the “merry, jolly days” of pagan festivity. The prose she uses is filled with judgmental adjectives, indicating that she does not trust readers to draw their conclusion from the evidence; we must be told how to feel about the person she describes. Her book was several years in the making, but it does not reflect a clear understanding of Christianity, the complexities of Late Antiquity, or the nuances of historical craft. While this book is sold under the guise of popular history, treat it instead as an insight into how a secular journalist views Christianity in the year of our Lord 2017."

Pro Nixey

Gerard DeGroot (professor of 20th century history at the University of St Andrews) in The Times: "The Darkening Age is a delightful book about destruction and despair. Nixey combines the authority of a serious academic with the expressive style of a good journalist. She’s not afraid to throw in the odd joke amid sombre tales of desecration. With considerable courage, she challenges the wisdom of history and manages to prevail. Comfortable assumptions about Christian progress come tumbling down."

Bettany Hughes (professor of classical history) in the New York Times: "Nixey delivers this ballista-bolt of a book with her eyes wide open and in an attempt to bring light as well as heat to the sad story of intellectual monoculture and religious intolerance. Her sympathy, corruscatingly, compellingly, is with the Roman orator Symmachus: “We see the same stars, the sky is shared by all, the same world surrounds us. What does it matter what wisdom a person uses to seek for the truth?”"

Emily Wilson (Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania) in The New Statesman: "Nixey is a funny, lively, readable guide through this dark world of religious oppression. She wisely insists at the start of her book that this account of cultural violence should not be read as an attack on those who are “impelled by their Christian faith to do many, many good things”. It is instead a reminder that “monotheism” (or, one could say, religion in general and Christianity in particular) can be used for “terrible ends”. The book is also an essential reminder, in the age of Brexit and Donald Trump, that intolerance, ignorance and hostility to cultural diversity are sadly nothing new."

Tim Whitmarsh (professor of Greek culture at Cambridge) in The Guardian: "But this book is not intended as a comprehensive history of early Christianity and its complex, embattled relationship to the Roman empire, and it would be unfair to judge it against that aim. It is, rather, a finely crafted, invigorating polemic against the resilient popular myth that presents the Christianisation of Rome as the triumph of a kinder, gentler politics. On those terms, it succeeds brilliantly."

It's also worth bearing in mind the experts who gave Nixey a blurb:

Engaging and erudite, Catherine Nixey's book offers both a compelling argument and a wonderful eye for vivid detail. It shines a searching spotlight onto some of the murkiest aspects of the early medieval mindset. A triumph. Edith Hall (Professor in the Classics Department and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King's College London)

Captivating and compulsive, Catherine Nixey's debut challenges our whole understanding of Christianity's earliest years and the medieval society that followed. A remarkable fusion of captivating narrative and acute scholarly judgment, this book marks the debut of a formidable classicist and historian. Dan Jones (journalist and historian)

Nixey's elegant and ferocious text paints a dark but riveting picture of life at the time of the 'triumph' of Christianity, reminding us not just of the realities of our own past, but also of the sad echoes of that past in our present. Michael Scott (associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick)

Reading through the reviews it feels like they are talking about two different books, such is the discrepancy in their takes. The 'anti-Nixey' reviews make a lot of apparently valid points, and decry Nixey's bibliography. But then why would classicists and others find so much to approve of in the book? I think I know the answer: it's because it's a polemic against the presupposed goodness of the triumph of Christianity, so it's not supposed to be a balanced academic piece. In the end I guess her fans applaud that approach while her critics decry it.

I dare say one would have to study the era for some time before being expert enough to form one's own conclusion and, just as I'm not going to study cosmology to form an opinion on cosmology, I'm not going to study the history of that era either. I'm going to have to form a judgement based on scholarly consensus, and currently I lean toward the classicists. I know that science, technology and art was lost from antiquity; Christianity is prima facie culpable. The nuance that apologists for Christianity too often offer is sufficient to show other factors in play but insufficient to exculpate Christianity.

That betrays my prejudices and preconceptions too, but I've grown up in a Christian culture and have slowly realised how other cultures have been automatically and unthinkingly othered by the Christian narrative, so Nixey's book may well be a much-needed corrective.

It's interesting how the Christian persecution complex comes to the fore when there is push-back against the prevailing Christian narrative, and this push-back doesn't just come from Christians. All of us raised in a Christian culture are rather too quick to defend the atrocities committed to perpetuate our culture, and find it difficult to push against our own culture. Nevertheless, push against it we must, because we now live in a multi-cultural society and our cultures need to be reconciled. It's time to reassign the credit Christianity claims, and the blame it disclaims.

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Saturday, 12 May 2018

Brexit and Xenophobia

Professor Tendayi Achiume, the UN special rapporteur on racism, has said:
The environment leading up to the [Brexit] referendum, the environment during the referendum, and the environment after the referendum has made racial and ethnic minorities more vulnerable to racial discrimination and intolerance...
Many with whom I consulted highlighted the growth in volume and acceptability of xenophobic discourses on migration, and on foreign nationals including refugees in social and print media.
It would be wrong to dismiss the entire Brexit movement as xenophobic; I know a number of Brexiters who are certainly not xenophobic and voted against the EU for reasons such as its institutional failings or for its support for globalisation. So there are two half-decent reasons to vote Leave, even if in the end I disagree with them. Ian Dunt analyses the left-wing 'Lexit' movement here. Some on the left see the EU as a barrier to certain left wing aims, but I agree with this assessment from Dunt:
The EU is basically a social democrat project, based along German or Scandinavian lines. That's probably too right-wing for some people, and it's certainly too left wing for others. But it has a lot of space there for a wide range of political arrangements, covering the vast majority of political views in the UK. It doesn't always get the relationship right between abiding by EU rules and workers' rights, but you have to be a very stern observer to conclude from these fairly limited problems that we should take the massive risk of leaving the EU altogether, especially under such a right wing government. But still, we shouldn't write off left wing criticisms of the EU. Many of them are perfectly valid. Remainers would do well to address them, rather than dismiss them.
I doubt there are many xenophobes amongst the Lexiteers.

However, I think it’s fair to say that xenophobes are more likely to have voted Brexit. Why do I think this is fair to say? Well, more than one survey has concluded that Brexit is strongly linked to xenophobia. Furthermore, more Brexit voters self report as racist.
The Institute of Race Relations said “‘Brexit means Brexit’ is already being translated for BAME and migrant communities into ‘Brexit means racism’ – not just on the ground but also in the repressive proposals already emanating from politicians and government departments in October 2016”.

Now, to be fair, the statistics aren’t completely clear; analysis of Yougov’s surveys for the Campaign Against Antisemitism in 2015 and 2017 shows a reduction in anti-semitic attitudes in that period (and, by the way, show a reduction in antisemitism amongst Labour voters, pace the recent accounts of antisemitism in that party).

Nevertheless, the weight of the evidence suggests a link between the Brexit vote and xenophobia, and at the very least existing xenophobes were more vocal about their xenophobia after Brexit.

And it comes to something when Jacob Rees Mogg effectively tweets that Enoch Powell’s famous speech was racist and gets a load of abuse for it from other right-wingers; click on this link and check out the abuse JRM gets for supporting his father's view that Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech was 'racialist':

If JRM is too moderate for some people, then the right wing really is heading in a bad direction!

Maybe the increase in reported xenophobia around the Brexit vote is just a temporary blip, and I am being too pessimistic; I certainly hope so.

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Friday, 11 May 2018

Success on Faith School Cap

Back in December 2016 I participated in the letter writing campaign to prevent the abolition of the 50% cap on selection for faith schools. This is what I wrote to my MP:

Dear Jeremy Quin MP,

I am writing to you as a constituent to ask you to oppose the plans to allow new and existing religious free schools to discriminate against all your constituents who happen to fall outside a school's denomination. I have at least 3 objections:

1) Principles of fairness: it cannot be right that my tax money, and that of most taxpayers, goes towards educational establishments that would bar our children and grandchildren. In fact, of course, equity dictates quite the opposite; that the public funding of schools should require that they are open to all, in principle.

2) Integration: we should all know by now that a major challenge to us in the modern world is to effectively integrate our multi-cultural populations. Secularism has proved the best approach to this problem, for the religious and non-religious alike. Gandhi, recognising the challenge that faced the Indian subcontinent, was religious and a secularist, and said that the state should never promote denominational education out of public funds. As I'm sure you know, David Cameron said about the existing 50% rule:

‘It cannot be right…that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths. That doesn’t foster a sense of shared belonging and understanding – it can drive people apart.’

Well, he was wrong about Brexit, but I hope you’ll agree that on this score he was absolutely right! The evidence tells us that religious selection in schools entrenches religious segregation in the community, and reduces social cohesion.

3) Educational standards: faith schools have a worse record than other schools in teaching anti-science, such as creationism, and promoting views that discriminate against minorities, like the LGBT community. Despite the teaching of creationism being banned, this still didn't prevent Ofsted awarding a status of 'Good' to a school that censored questions on evolution in a science exam and admitted to teaching creationism ( Allowing full selection will increase the dangers of the wholesale indoctrination of children with these retrograde views. Of course, that is exactly why religious groups lobby for full selection!

So I hope you agree that on grounds of fairness, integration and educational standards, the removal of religious selection is what we should be aiming for, not its re-introduction. Thank you.

Mr Quinn's reply made the following defence of removing the cap:

While the number of children in a good or outstanding school has risen dramatically in the last few years it remains the case that too many children in this country still do not have access to either. The proposals that have been put forward look to deliver an even more diverse school system that gives all children, whatever their background, the opportunity to achieve their potential. 

Faith schools have a strong record of high pupil attainment and are often very popular with parents. Current rules, however, restrict the ability for more good faith schools to be opened, without succeeding in promoting integration. The proposals would see the current cap on the number of pupils who can be admitted on the basis of faith when the school is oversubscribed removed. 

At the time I didn't appreciate the significance of the sentence "Current rules, however, restrict the ability for more good faith schools to be opened, without succeeding in promoting integration.". This argument was driven by the decision of the Catholic Church in England and Wales to boycott the free schools programme because of the 50% cap. But, as Humanists UK (formerly the BHA) and the Accord Coalition have pointed out, the Catholic Church's stand on this issue is bogus; the Accord Coalition says:
The Catholic Church of England and Wales has opted not to open Catholic free schools, which is a self imposed boycott designed to undermine the 50% cap. It is very telling that state funded Catholic schools in other developed countries do not select pupils by faith, nor do most private Catholic schools in England.
Now the Government has announced that it will break its manifesto promise and keep the 50% cap on selection. Chief Executive of Humanists UK Andrew Copson said:
The decision to keep the cap on faith-based selection is a victory for integration, mutual understanding, and the interests of children. It is also a significant victory for Humanists UK and its supporters, who have successfully led the national campaign against the removal of the cap and in favour of open, integrated schools.
If this vision is to be fully realised, then attention must now turn to preventing new, fully segregated schools by another means, which the Government has now unwisely created. The need for the Government to save face, or to appease a handful of religious organisations and their unreasonable demands, should not be prioritised over what’s best for children and society. Today’s u-turn makes clear that fully segregated school intakes are anathema to an open, diverse society, but the Government should now recognise this throughout the education system and not create new segregation.
Kudos to him, and also to Rabbi Jonathan Romain, chair of the Accord Coalition, for spearheading this campaign. The second paragraph of Copson's quote above, however, points to a £50m expansion fund that the Government has announced for the voluntary aided sector. This appears to be a sop to the Catholic Church and others for the Government not following through on their manifesto commitment to remove the 50% cap. It is ridiculous to be spending money on segregated schools at a time of reduced community cohesion and a squeeze on budgets generally.

I agree with Copson and Romain that fully segregated schools are anathema to an open, diverse society. Here's Jonathan Romain:
There is a real danger that the growth in faith schools today will be blamed in 30 years' time for the social disharmony then. It is not too late to reverse that trend, if we want a society that has diversity within unity, not at the expense of it. Perhaps this Passover the message should be: "Let my children mix."
Hear, hear.

UPDATE - tweet from Andrew Copson today:

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Saturday, 21 April 2018

Miracles and Revelation Revision Notes

I produced a number of revision documents for my degree course, and maybe someone will find them useful. This is for A222 Exploring Philosophy, Book 2, Acts of God by Timothy Chappell.

I printed these revision notes on card as an aide-memoire to the issues I needed to touch on in an exam question on the subject; most exam questions require an exposition of the ground to be covered before any actual philosophy can be done (ie, the question answered!). Having these, almost bullet, points burned into my memory allowed me to write this background stuff whilst planning my answer.

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