Saturday, 3 February 2018

Aristotle at the Seaside

© http://www.visitthepast.co.uk/blackpool-tower-from-north-pier
In 1868 the South Jetty in Blackpool was opened in an attempt to keep the hoi-polloi away from the genteel North Pier; it was “the first major commitment of resources to pleasing this more plebeian public” (quoted in Chant, 2008, p.156).  This charming sentiment marks a new start for the seaside holiday, with activity-based attractions vying with the rather more sedentary approach favoured before that time. The new pier offered cheap pleasure cruises and all day dancing. A brief examination of secondary sources on Aristotle (384–322 BCE) suggests he might not value the more robust pleasures on offer; for example, Jonathan Barnes says Aristotle thinks that:
To flourish, to make a success of life, requires engagement in intellectual pursuits.  (Barnes, 2000, p.125)
...and Carolyn Price, answering the question “What is the best way to use one’s leisure?”, concludes that Aristotle’s answer is “intellectual reflection” (Price, 2008, p.19).

The South Jetty was later renamed the Central Pier and a new pier, the Victoria (now called the South Pier) was opened in 1893; as its regal name suggests, this was also aimed at the more upmarket clientele, and it banned dancing. So Blackpool had the North Pier and the Victoria Pier for what might be considered the higher pursuits, and the Central Pier for the more vulgar seaside attractions. A late Victorian textile worker may well have stood on the promenade at Blackpool and wondered at the two to one overprovision of Aristotelian diversions to Epicurean ones. Although perhaps it’s unlikely the worker would have thought so classically. (Very briefly, Epicurus, 341–270 BCE, favoured activities that felt good for promoting well-being (Price, 2008, p.27), so he and Aristotle oppose each other in a centuries old dialogue between the active and contemplative ways of life, that continues today.)

A class-based analysis of Aristotle’s philosophy of leisure is also suggested by these developments at the seaside, in addition to his rather rude dismissal of the ‘vulgar’ mass of men in the Nichomachean Ethics (1095b19-20). I shall discuss this more later, after considering support for the views quoted above from Aristotle’s own writings.

For Aristotle, eudaimonia, or human flourishing, is the ultimate objective of human life – the state to which we all aspire – and this is inextricably linked to certain activities, specifically leisure, which have no aims but themselves:
‘For, let me emphasise once again, leisure is the foundation of all that we do. Both leisure and work are necessary, but leisure is to be preferred to work, and is its aim.’ (Politics 1337b33-34, in Price, 2008, p.32)
So leisure is our aim, but what sort of leisure? To answer this, Aristotle asks: what is our function? He thinks that things, animals and humans have functions, and, that the expression of each thing’s distinctive function is the activity which perfectly expresses its being, and that activity must be valued as an end in itself. For example, a good hammer would be one that hammers nails well. In the Nicomachean Ethics he applies this ‘function argument’ to human beings:
‘What then might the human function be? Simply living seems to be something that we share with plants. But what we are looking for is something distinctively human. (...) What remains is the exercise of reason. [...] So the function of a human being is to engage in activities that use or are governed by reason.’ (Nicomachean Ethics 1097b33-1098a8, in Price, 2008, p.32)
He concludes that a good man would be one that reasons well, so it’s safe to assume that this teleological view of the world is what would drive his judgement on leisure activities, and this supports the quotes above, from secondary sources, that he would most value intellectual pursuits. With this in mind, we can consider how he would have viewed some seaside holidays, ancient and modern.

In antiquity, seaside Roman villas were popular with high born citizens at leisure. In Pliny the Younger’s (61–c.112 CE) description of his villa on the West coast of Italy at Laurentum, he says:
Round the corner is a room built round in an apse (...)  with one wall fitted with shelves like a library to hold the books which I read and read again. (...) When I retire to this suite I feel as if I have left my house altogether and much enjoy the sensation: especially during the Saturnalia (...) for I am not disturbing my household’s merrymaking nor they my work. (Pliny the Younger in Radice, 1969, in James, P, and Huskinson, J., 2008, pp91-93)
The whole piece emphasises the villa as Pliny’s sanctuary, with phrases such as ‘profound peace and seclusion’ and ‘retreat’ included. This conforms to the Roman idea of otium – leisure – in opposition to negotium, the business and public duties of everyday life. Even if he was exaggerating the contemplative aspect of his villa for public consumption, we can conclude that the Roman ideal for leisure, among the upper echelons of Roman society in which Pliny moved, was intellectual reflection. It’s evident that he also finds something about the seaside situation conducive to reflection – he remarks on how the rooms integrate with the villa’s surroundings.

Further evidence for this intellectual leisure ideal can be found in mosaics found in Roman villas; many images from classical mythology are depicted to give the impression of a cultured property owner, reflecting highbrow interests. In the seaside Romano-British villa at Brading, for example, amongst many other mythical characters we find an unusual roundel of Medusa:



(Image from Roman Villa DVD, 2008)

Mosaics of Orpheus, Bacchus and other Roman gods and goddesses fill the rooms. And many similar characters and scenes from mythology have been found in the ruins at Pompeii. Because of this preponderance of scholarly subjects, Aristotle would find much to approve of in a visit to a Roman villa. The signs are not all one way, however; the Brading mosaics perhaps include the depiction of a gladiator, referring to the games put on in large stadia to entertain the masses in Roman cities. This might not meet with Aristotle’s approval so readily.

For a later seaside example, let us consider the introduction of sea bathing in the eighteenth century. Bathing doesn’t appear to meet the requirements for Aristotle’s ideal leisure activity – it’s not a uniquely human activity nor could it be said to be solely enjoyed for its own sake. The humoral system was the prevailing theory of medicine for many centuries, and the practice of sea bathing arose at a time when this theory still had some credibility, and perhaps as a consequence doctors began to recommend a medicinal dunking for some of their patients. Its persistence in popular culture is notable; bracing sea air and the benefits of paddling in ice-cold Atlantic waters were recommended to me by my mother in the 1960s!

It’s not really the case that bathing per se is health-giving, but empirical enquiry shows that vigorous activity of any kind promotes health. A contradiction is suggested here in Aristotle’s philosophy; we have an activity that promotes well-being but which isn’t, apparently, the ideal leisure activity. This can be resolved by observing that Aristotle would probably not dismiss bathing as worthless; it has medicinal value, even if it’s not the ultimate reason for being, so it cannot be the most valuable leisure activity.

Returning to the battle of the piers in nineteenth century Blackpool, Aristotle does rather dismiss the simple pleasure-seeking (dancing, games) in which many indulge:
To judge from the lives that men lead, most men, and men of the most vulgar type, seem (...) to identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure; (Nichomachean Ethics, 1095b14-16)
And because the vulgar lead a life pursuing pleasure, and are ‘slavish in their tastes’ (Nichomachean Ethics, 1095b19-20), it follows that this cannot be the epitome of what it is to be human, Aristotle reasons. In the Politics, however, we can deduce some value from play:
So we need to consider what we should do with our leisure. (...) Rather, play is needed by those who are hard at work and who need to rest from their labours, for the point of playing is to rest. Work involves labour and exertion, and so we should make room for play at the right times, applying it as a kind of medicine. (Politics, 1337b35-43, in Price, 2008, p.32)
The nineteenth century saw an explosion in concentrated populations of labour, thanks to the industrial revolution; this would have generated a demand for an antidote to the lives of drudgery led by most people week in and week out. The technology of the industrial revolution, such as railways and funfairs, together with the means to power them, helped to satisfy this demand. Scenes like this, photographed at Blackpool Central Railway Station in 1937, became commonplace:



  (Chant, C., Figure 4.18, 2008, p.154)

Since society was comparatively free (no slaves!), Aristotle could have predicted that this explosion of work would lead to a burgeoning of leisure activities that are, in his terms, medicinal rather than ideal (in his view). Dancing, fun fairs, bathing, crazy golf are all valid leisure activities from this viewpoint, and Aristotle would see the value in them. As a consequence, at Blackpool we see a move from a gentle, contemplative, middle class seaside holiday, for folk looking for the intellectual life of leisure, to a more active, pleasure-seeking, working class seaside holiday. And, for a more modern example, in the twentieth century we see a similar evolution in the resort of Benidorm. A quaint and peaceful Spanish fishing port, popular with the well-to-do, develops into a destination for the ‘fun-loving’ Brits, seeking sun, sea, sand and sex. Whilst Aristotle might have denigrated what the masses sought out, I think he would concede some value in them.

Despite these developments, Aristotle’s ideal was still part of popular culture. In 1918 Fred Gray produced this postcard, making explicit the contrast between workers’ everyday lives and their putative escape:



  (Chant, C., Figure 4.17, 2008, p.152)

The couple at the bottom, on an improbably deserted beach, may well have achieved eudaimonia. It’s to be hoped, for Aristotle’s sake, that the gentleman puffing on a cigarette is pondering the human condition; but the lady with a book open on her lap is surely fulfilling the ideal, once she stops posing. Sun bathing became fashionable in the twentieth century, and shortly after acquired a healthy connotation, with news that vitamin D from the sun was an important contribution to health. From this time, for our purposes, it can be compared to sea bathing – a valuable medicinal activity without being Aristotle’s ideal. Before that, he may well approve of folk simply lying on the beach, cogitating or reading like the couple above.

To consider a more recent, but perhaps atypical, seaside activity, I shall look at the Mods in the 1960s, when I was freezing my toes in Ilfracombe. The Mods were a teenage subculture defined by their fashion, music taste and leisure choices, and, because of those choices they often clashed with another subculture, the Rockers. Trips to the seaside on the Mod’s trademark Lambretta scooters regularly resulted in clashes with their arch enemies, and if Aristotle noticed that their leisure time was spent “going to clubs, taking amphetamines, dancing to certain types of music” (Jones and Danson Brown, 2008, p.188), he might not be surprised that this didn’t result in a sense of well-being, since they aren’t the activities that he would identify as the best way to spend one’s spare time. The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia is a paean to the disturbed youth of that period; the hero is mentally ill and this is reflected in the film’s use of the seaside location. However, a line in the song “Bell Boy”, from the Quadrophenia album, suggests a link to Pliny the Younger’s more obviously healthy experience of the seaside location:
A beach is a place where a man can feel/He’s the only soul in the world that’s real. (quoted in Jones, N. and Danson, R., 2008, p.193)
This sentiment also harks back to Fred Gray’s postcard depiction of the beach (above), and points to a unique quality that the beach may have which helps us to achieve well-being.

To conclude, we’ve seen how Aristotle would find much to value in seaside holidays down the ages, even if he might not think it all ideal. The modern vogue is moving away from his ideal of intellectual reflection, catering as it does for entertainment of the masses, although many still value the thoughtful life. The basis for Aristotle’s analysis, founded on what a human being is, might be a naturalistic fallacy, and since modern science has shown that there is no need to posit a teleological life, his conclusions could be attacked. Further, I cannot agree with his attitude to the mass of humanity. But even if we have no ultimate purpose, it’s important to create our own purposes, and so Aristotle’s ideas still intrigue, and can inform our own choice of seaside holiday.

Bibliography:
Barnes, J. (2000) Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Price, C. (2008) ‘Aristotle and Epicurus on Leisure’, in Brunton, D.  (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 10-34
James, P. and Huskinson, J. (2008) ‘Leisure in the Roman Villa’, in Brunton, D.  (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 65-96
Faire, L. (2008) ‘Dressing for the Beach’, in Brunton, D.  (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 131-145
Chant, C. (2008) ‘Technology and the Seaside: Blackpool and Benidorm’, in Brunton, D.  (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 147-168
Brunton, D. (2008) ‘The Healthy Seaside’, in Brunton, D.  (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 169-182
Jones, N. and Danson, R. (2008) ‘Seaside Music: The Beach Boys and the Who’, in Brunton, D.  (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 183-204
Aristotle (2001) Nicomachean Ethics (trans. W.D. Ross), The Basic Works of Aristotle, New York, The Modern Library, pp. 935-1126.
‘Roman Villa’ (2008) (AA100 DVD), Milton Keynes, The Open University
‘The Seaside’ (2008) (AA100 DVD), Milton Keynes, The Open University
Brunton, D. (2008) ‘From Greece to the Middle East to Europe: The Transmission of Medical Knowledge’, in Danson Brown  (ed.) Cultural Encounters (AA100 Book 3), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 151-189

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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Non-existent Agenda?


Peter Harrison recently wrote a negative review of Yves Gingras's new book, Science and Religion, An Impossible Dialogue.

Yves Gingras has responded to Harrison, and Harrison has responded to Gingras's response:

Gingras makes some good points, but perhaps wants to have his cake and eat it by suggesting that he is primarily conducting a review of the history of science and religion, and not advocating a conflict thesis, whilst advocating it! I should say that I haven't read Gingras's book yet, so I'm not saying that his book is good or bad.

Harrison is surely in denial, however, when he says, while doubting Gingras's claims that the Templeton Foundation has had a distorting effect on the history of science:
My review sought neither to praise nor bury the Templeton Foundation, but simply offer a factual account of its operations and correct the misconception that it is in the business of funding historical research.
But this claim that, effectively, Templeton has had a neutral effect on the recent history of science is implausible, as Harrison's reviews themselves show. He is no impartial observer here; he was a director of Oxford University's Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, an organisation whose very name is predicated on challenging the conflict thesis, and promoting the 'dialogue' thesis. In his response Gingras writes:
[Harrison] is also silent on the fact that I take care to define the meaning of the word “dialogue,” identify its main apostles, and show that the discourse involving dialogue takes off only after 1979, followed by an exponential growth after 1993, when the Templeton Foundation’s visibility and money was also ramping up. And far from explaining that growth by a single cause (namely Templeton money), as Harrison suggests, I clearly identify (p. 149–152) three other causes of the rise of the “dialogue” rhetoric: 1) the return of the religious after the 1970s (well analyzed in Gilles Kepel’s The Revenge of God), which led to the creation of many organizations promoting a dialogue with science, and which also put organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on the defensive; 2) Pope John Paul II’s creation (in 1979) of a committee to reconsider Galileo’s trial and to promote “dialogue” with science; and 3) the emergence of a postmodern lexicon among historians eschewing “false dichotomies” and “conflict” in favor of such terms as “conversation” (as used by Harrison), “meeting,” “exchanges,” and “encounters,” all suggesting that, after all, “everything is in everything,” and that making conceptual distinctions is a bit passé.
A reminder of the mission of the Ian Ramsey Centre:

"Members of the Centre also carry out extensive work on the history of science and religion, often challenging simplistic accounts of what has been a complex and varied interaction." (my emphasis)

We know what 'challenging simplistic accounts of what has been a complex and varied interaction' means in this context. Harrison continues this very mission when he concludes in his response to Gingras's response:
Finally, “there were many cases over the last 300 years of conflict between science and religion.” Quite, although we might quibble about what counts as “science” and “religion,” and how many is “many.” The point is that this is only part of the picture, and leaves out equally decisive cases of creative and mutual support between science and religion, and the more common instances of indifference or peaceful coexistence. Attempting to understand examples of conflict is indeed the role of the historian, but an understanding that considers only instances of conflict will be impoverished and partial, and will likely give rise to the kind of flawed and one-sided perspective that we encounter in Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue.
And the Ian Ramsey Centre 'receives significant financial support from the John Templeton Foundation'. Two recent Templeton grants to the Centre:

Special Divine Action, $2.4m

Science and Religion in Latin America, $0.5m

Templeton also supports the The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University – it has recently given it $2.4m to expand. These are substantial sums of money, and Templeton are welcome to give it. But the rest of us need to be aware that Templeton’s religious underpinning is playing a role, at the very least, in the fostering of this pseudo-discipline of science and religion. And this must surely have an effect on historians of science.

The Institute's role:
The Faraday Institute has a Christian ethos, but encourages engagement with a wide diversity of opinions concerning interactions between science and religion, without engaging in advocacy. It aims to provide accurate information in order to facilitate informed debate.
The Institute says it doesn't engage in advocacy, and it certainly doesn't advocate for the conflict thesis. Consider these research papers:

The Science and Religion Debate - an Introduction - "Science and theology have things to say to each other since both are concerned with the search for truth attained through motivated belief."

Does Science Need Religion? - "Must science constitute a closed system, assuming all reality is within its grasp? So far from science being autonomous, and its method defining rationality, it itself rests on major assumptions. We may take for granted the regularity and ordered nature of the physical world, and the ability of the human mind to grasp it. Yet theism can explain this by invoking the rationality of the Creator."

Models for Relating Science and Religion - "Interactions between science and religion are varied and complex, both historically and today. Models can be useful for making sense of the data. This paper compares four of the major types of model that have been proposed to describe science-religion interactions, highlighting their respective strengths and weaknesses. It is concluded that the model of ‘complementarity’ is most fruitful in the task of relating scientific and religious knowledge."

And so it goes on; papers all suggesting that conflict between science and religion is a myth. So, by consistently denying the conflict thesis, it appears to be advocating something.

All this evidence strongly indicates that Templeton is in the business of funding historical research to counteract the conclusion that science and religion conflict in many ways, and Peter Harrison is being disingenuous if he denies this.

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Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Archbishop of Canterbury's 'Breathtaking Hypocrisy'


Justin Welby has compared the BBC's approach to abuse to that of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches:
I haven't seen the same integrity over the BBC's failures over Savile as I've seen in the Roman Catholic Church, in the Church of England, in other public institutions over abuse.
This is a remarkable statement. Certainly, the BBC as an organisation was negligent in its handling of Jimmy Savile from the 70s up until his death (frankly the whole of Britain were; many, many people and institutions turned a blind eye to his activities, including the NHS). Dame Janet Smith said of the BBC:
There was a culture of not complaining or of raising concerns. BBC staff felt – and were sometimes told – that it was not in their best interests to pursue a complaint. Loyalty to and pride in a programme could hinder the sharing of concerns; there was a reluctance to rock the boat. 
(Although ironically one of the men she singles out for not doing more to stop Savile was Anglican priest Canon Colin Semper:
He was a producer in the Religious Broadcasting department and worked closely with Savile. With commendable honesty, when giving evidence to the Review, he accepted that he had come to think that Savile had casual sex with a lot of girls, some of whom might have been underage. He did not discuss what he knew with his managers because he thought that they already knew about Savile and did not seem to be concerned about it. In my view, he should have discussed his concerns with his line manager. I think he now deeply regrets that he did not. )
So, it's clear that the BBC were culpable for Savile's continuing activities over decades. But, as Noel McGivern points out:
...there are key differences between the BBC and Catholic Church. The BBC does not behave as a moral guardian of Britain or the world; it doesn't claim spiritual authority over 1.3 billion people. It is not a primary human identity. Any organisation can have paedophiles in it, but what sets the Catholic Church apart is how actively it sought to protect both them and itself.
Even before the report was published, the BBC had made steps to safeguard the vulnerable. In 2015:
The GoodCorporation conclude that the BBC has strong child protection policies in place and that considerable effort has been made to improve them. Their report states that “there is a clear commitment and recognition of the importance of child protection and safeguarding in the BBC”.
Now, no doubt it's important to keep monitoring the BBC at all levels to ensure abuse does not recur, but the signs seem to be promising. It's not clear to me that this behaviour represents a lower level of integrity to that of the C of E and the Roman Catholic Church. A BBC spokesman said of Welby's comments:
This isn't a characterisation we recognise. When the Savile allegations became known we established an independent investigation by a High Court judge. In the interests of transparency, this was published in full. We apologised and accepted all the recommendations. And while today's BBC is a different place, we set out very clear actions to ensure the highest possible standards of child safeguarding.
Re the Catholic Church, this is what Geoffrey Robinson QC says in his book The Case of the Pope:
The Church's response, still echoed by those like Alan Dershowitz who defend the present Pope, is that hierarchical sex abuse occurs in all religious institutions and in secular schools, and it is wrong to 'stereotype' the Roman Catholic priesthood. But the evidence does reliably show a remarkably higher level of abuse in Catholic institutions (see chapter 2) and in any event, the defense misses the point, namely that this church, through its pretensions to be a state, with its own non-punitive Canon Law, has actually covered up the abuse and harboured the abusers. Moreover, this particular religion endows its priests with god-like powers in the eyes of children, who are put into their spiritual embrace from the time when they first develop the faculty of reasoning...A church that puts its children from this early age under the spiritual control of its priests, representatives of God to whom they are unflinchingly obedient, has the most stringent of duties to guard against the exploitation of that obedience to do them harm. That duty includes the duty of handing over those reasonably suspected of child sex abuse to the secular authorities for trial and, if convicted, for punishment. It is this duty that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a.k.a. Benedict XVI, has for the past thirty years adamantly refused to accept. (pp3-4)
Certainly there is no way that the BBC could operate at the level of the Catholic Church, since that Church is also a state; a state that throws its weight around at the UN, for example. The Church's record on covering up abuse, and, in fact, facilitating it, are legion. These were the facts behind the award winning film Spotlight, focussing on the child abuse scandal in Boston. I previously reported on their behaviour surrounding Father Kit Cunningham:
...on the day that Pope Benedict XVI, during his visit to Britain last September, was in Westminster Cathedral expressing his "deep sorrow to innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes", the Rosminian order was writing to refuse to pay any compensation for what it has openly acknowledged are the crimes of four of its own priests.
(The Rosminian Order ran the school where the priest committed his abuse.)

As for the Church of England, its victims of abuse are none too happy:
In a statement, six survivors of abuse by powerful church figures rejected Welby’s comments and said the record of the church and Welby himself was one of “silence, denial and evasion”.
Their statement said: “Speaking from our own bitter experience, we do not recognise Archbishop Welby’s description of the integrity with which the Church of England handles cases of abuse in a church context.
“Far from the ‘rigorous response and self-examination’ he claims, our experience of the church, and specifically the archbishop, is of long years of silence, denial and evasion.
The Church of England needs to confront its own darkness in relation to abuse before confronting the darkness of others.”
Matthew Ineson, who was allegedly raped as a teenager by a C of E vicar, said Welby had shown “breathtaking hypocrisy”. The vicar, Trevor Devamanikkam, killed himself the day he was due in court to face charges.
“I know from my own experience, and the experience of others, that safeguarding within the C of E is appalling,” Ineson said. “The church has colluded with the cover-up of abuse and has obstructed justice for those whose lives have been ruined by the actions of its clergy. I have been fighting for five years for the church to recognise its responsibilities and I’m still being met with attempts to bully me into dropping my case.”
The independent report into the case of Anglican bishop Peter Ball (pictured) said:
This report considers the serious sexual wrongdoing of Peter Ball, a bishop of the Church of England (the Church), who abused many boys and men over a period of twenty years or more. That is shocking in itself but is compounded by the failure of the Church to respond appropriately to his misconduct, again over a period of many years. Ball’s priority was to protect and promote himself and he maligned the abused. The Church colluded with that rather than seeking to help those he had harmed, or assuring itself of the safety of others. 
The former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey was forced to resign because of his treatment of Ball.

So Welby himself is guilty of silence, denial and evasion, according to one of the Church's victims, and a report into one abuser states baldly that the Church colluded with the abuser rather than help those he harmed.

Remember, Welby's contention was that he hasn't seen "the same integrity over the BBC's failures over Savile as I've seen in the Roman Catholic Church, in the Church of England...over abuse." Perhaps he means the BBC have shown more integrity, but I doubt it!

I think one might make a case that the BBC have been equally as bad as the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church over abuse, but really the evidence shows that both these Holy institutions have been much worse than the BBC. The Archbishop should retract this claim, and ensure that his organisation stops bullying the victims of abuse, like Matthew Ineson, and recompenses them properly for their years of abuse.

UPDATE: See this Youtube recording of an LBC interview of Justin Welby with annotations by Andy Morse, an alleged victim of John Smyth, a some time friend, or acquaintance, or colleague, of Welby. The abuse is alleged to have occurred at Christian holiday camps in Africa. This is Part 1 of 4 parts.



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Friday, 22 September 2017

EASAC statement on Homeopathy


Here, dated September 2017:

http://www.easac.eu/fileadmin/PDF_s/reports_statements/EASAC_Homepathy_statement_web_final.pdf
EASAC – the European Academies' Science Advisory Council – is formed by the national science academies of the EU Member States to enable them to collaborate with each other in giving advice to European policy-makers. It thus provides a means for the collective voice of European science to be heard.
Extracts:
EASAC, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, is publishing this Statement to build on recent work by its member academies to reinforce criticism of the health and scientific claims made for homeopathic products. The analysis and conclusions are based on the excellent science-based assessments already published by authoritative and impartial bodies. The fundamental importance of allowing and supporting consumer choice requires that consumers and patients are supplied with evidence-based, accurate and clear information. It is, therefore, essential to implement a standardised, knowledge-based regulatory framework to cover product efficacy, safety and quality, and accurate advertising practices, across the European Union (EU).
Our Statement examines the following issues:
Scientific mechanisms of action—where we conclude that the claims for homeopathy are implausible and inconsistent with established scientific concepts.
Clinical efficacy—we acknowledge that a placebo effect may appear in individual patients but we agree with previous extensive evaluations concluding that there are no known diseases for which there is robust, reproducible evidence that homeopathy is effective beyond the placebo effect. There are related concerns for patient-informed consent and for safety, the latter associated with poor quality control in preparing homeopathic remedies.
Promotion of homeopathy—we note that this may pose significant harm to the patient if incurring delay in seeking evidence-based medical care and that there is a more general risk of undermining public confidence in the nature and value of scientific evidence.
Veterinary practice—we conclude similarly that there is no rigorous evidence to substantiate the use of homeopathy in veterinary medicine and it is particularly worrying when such products are used in preference to evidence-based medicinal products to treat livestock infections.
We make the following recommendations.
1. There should be consistent regulatory requirements to demonstrate efficacy, safety and quality of all products for human and veterinary medicine, to be based on verifiable and objective evidence, commensurate with the nature of the claims being made. In the absence of this evidence, a product should be neither approvable nor registrable by national regulatory agencies for the designation medicinal product.
2. Evidence-based public health systems should not reimburse homeopathic products and practices unless they are demonstrated to be efficacious and safe by rigorous testing.
3. The composition of homeopathic remedies should be labelled in a similar way to other health products available: that is, there should be an accurate, clear and simple description of the ingredients and their amounts present in the formulation.
4. Advertising and marketing of homeopathic products and services must conform to established standards of accuracy and clarity. Promotional claims for efficacy, safety and quality should not be made without demonstrable and reproducible evidence.

Our purpose is not to seek the prohibition of homeopathic products, and we recognise the fundamental importance of allowing and supporting consumer choice. Rather, we aim to explore the policy dimensions for ensuring informed patient choice with the emphasis on ‘appropriately informed’, and for achieving a standardised knowledge-based, robust regulatory framework and sound advertising practices across the EU, which can apply equitably to all medicinal products, whatever their origins and whatever their mechanisms.

The continuing popularity of homeopathic products worldwide might be taken as demonstrating an unfortunate point – that scientific evidence is not always relevant to the policy maker nor understood by the public-at-large. In this eventuality, there might be only limited room for optimism that EASAC and others – in reiterating that homeopathic products and practices lack proof of efficacy– could influence the present situation. 

Any claimed efficacy of homeopathic products in clinical use can be explained by the placebo effect or attributed to poor study design, random variation, regression towards the mean, or publication bias. Among these, the placebo effect can be of value to the patient but there are no known diseases for which there is robust, reproducible evidence that homeopathy is effective beyond the placebo effect.
• Homeopathy raises issues of concern for patient-informed consent if health practitioners recommend products that they know are biologically ineffective.
• There are also potential safety concerns for homeopathic preparations because of poorly monitored production methods, and these require greater attention to quality control and assessment of adverse effects.
• The scientific claims made for homeopathy are implausible and inconsistent with established concepts from chemistry and physics. In particular, the memory effects of water are too short-range and transient (occurring within the nanometre and nanosecond range) to account for any claimed efficacy.
• The promotion and use of homeopathic products risks significant harms. First, by incurring delay in the patient seeking appropriate, evidence-based, medical attention or, even worse, deterring the patient from ever doing so. Secondly, by generally undermining patient and public confidence in the nature and value of scientific evidence for decision making in health care and other societal priorities.
• In the absence of similarly robust evidence for homeopathic products in veterinary medicine, it is an error to require organic farmers to use these products in preference to prevention or treatment for which there is demonstrable efficacy and an established mode of action.


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Monday, 21 August 2017

Hume on Induction 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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Friday, 16 June 2017

It's 'Elf and Safety Gone Mad!

Well, contra the cliché, this is what health and safety gone mad really looks like:

A trapped resident tries to get help as the fire engulfs the Grenfell Tower block.
(c) Universal News and Sport (Europe)
It can lead to disadvantaged men, women and children being burnt alive in their own homes. It appears undeniable now that the Grenfell disaster is down to a failure in regulations somewhere.

Philosopher Jonathan Pearce highlights the narrative that makes life that little bit worse for the poor and vulnerable in our society, and which can lead to tragedies like this one, following George Monbiot in The Guardian:
But what is regulation? I think when the word is used, people really don’t think about what it is. Regulation means rules. Why do we have rules? Rules are moral proclamations about how the world should be. Regulation is codified morality. In shorthand, then, when people claim they want “deregulation”, they are actually asking for less morality, fewer moral rules.
And he links it to the movement that has brought us Brexit:
What regulation does (when done properly) is seek to make production ethically responsible, which is better for everyone. A company in Europe, now, cannot employ children, must have strict safety regulations such that the product won’t be faulty enough to blow up or catch fire, must be produced by a workforce that has minimum legislation for workers’ rights, and so on. These regulations work best when adopted by multiple countries across a wide platform. There is a uniformity for everyone such that no one in that marketplace can get away with not adhering to them.
... 
Now, with the UK, we are leaving a large regulatory network that has historically given us a massive amount of regulation. And this is a good thing [he means the network is a good thing, not the leaving!]. Either we take that all on (and manage that at a higher cost), or we drop some or lots of it. We become a low-tax haven full of corporations who define the rules of play. 
For at least the last 20 years, in my memory, there has been the constant narrative that we are all pandered, soft somehow, because we have 'elf and safety regulations, and that businesses should be allowed to carry on their trade without so many restrictions. Here's David Cameron responding to that retrograde sentiment in 2012, saying he will "kill off the health and safety culture for good":



He said:
I don't think there's any one single way you can cut back the health and safety monster.
You've got to look at the quantity of rules - and we're cutting them back; you've got to look at the way they're enforced - and we are making sure that is more reasonable; we're taking self-employed people out of whole classes of health and safety regulation.
... 
But the key about health and safety is not just the rules, the laws and regulations - it's also the culture of fear many businesses have about health and safety.
Rather than referring to the 'health and safety monster' he should have been challenging this shibboleth of the right and championing health and safety as a good and necessary feature of a properly functioning society.

Sadly, it looks like it's not only the health and safety culture he and his ilk have killed off.




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Friday, 9 June 2017

The Asymmetry of Pain and Pleasure


Jeffery Jay Lowder at the Secular Outpost blogged an excellent piece last year detailing 25 lines of evidence against theism. I think all of them bear consideration, and, if I remember correctly, one or two more lines of evidence against theism popped up in the comments.

I would like to add another modest line to this list, or maybe just an adjunct to his No.8: The Biological Role (and Moral Randomness) of Pain and Pleasure, following Paul Draper. It is prompted by a trivial injustice that surely everyone experiences on a daily basis, but that perhaps points to a bigger issue. The minor injustice is this: the fact that the more one experiences a pleasure the less it satisfies and, indeed, it can turn to pain, while the more one experiences a pain it is not relieved, and it never turns into a pleasure.

Now, for the purposes of this discussion, I am taking a pretty simple view of pain and pleasure as things that are, in order, fundamentally bad and good. I will not consider the paradoxes of people seeking out pain for pleasure, for example, although, granted, this does suggest we have a complicated relationship with pain and pleasure. I think it's also true to say that one can become numbed to further pain to a degree. But this numbing doesn't seem as effective as the numbing of pleasure. Note too that people who feel chronic pain report it as a bad thing, while people who feel chronic pleasure also report it as a bad thing.

These things are pretty understandable on, and consistent with, Naturalism; we are the products of a natural selection that favours survival and reproduction over all else, so pain and pleasure are regulating systems that have evolved to help bring about gene persistence through that survival and reproduction. The particular fate of the gene vehicles is not so important as the gene persistence, so, as we see in nature, any number of strategies to achieve this persistence is possible, including ones which serve up pain and pleasure to the gene vehicles unequally (are there any animals that experience an asymmetry of pleasure over pain, I wonder?*). On an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent account of theism, these pose a problem; why would an omnibenevolent god allow an asymmetry of pain and pleasure, leading to more pain than pleasure?

What these observations lead to relates somewhat to our attitudes to death. I wrote recently defending Bernard Williams's thoughts on eternal life, that it would end up become meaningless because categorical desires would be exhausted. I recently heard Shelly Kagan expressing a similar opinion on Philosophy Bites:
I do think that eventually life would grow excruciatingly dreadful, boring, tedious no matter what it was filled with, but for all that it would still have been true that during the initial satisfying, richly rewarding 100 years, 500 years, or however long it would take before it got boring, those initial 500 years will still have been worth living, they were still good. To give a humdrum, everyday analogy: if you offer me a piece of chocolate, I love chocolate, thank you, thank you, thank you; if you give me a second piece of chocolate, I love chocolate; you offer me a third piece of chocolate, I say thank you thank you thank you. Now there must be some number...of pieces of chocolate at which I would say: no more. Chocolate is no longer a good thing for me at this point, I'm not enjoying it.
He goes on to claim that the initial period before the boredom is worth living, and I think that's right. But what is going on here? Why do some of us think that these pleasures will stop? Pleasures derive from the satisfaction of desires. But once a desire is satisfied the pleasure stops. I guess that means that, in the Bernard Williams scenario, we are saying that over time all our desires will be satisfied. So no more pleasure will be possible.

Conversely, we could say that pain derives from the imposition of 'undesires'. But there is an imbalance: there is an effectively never-ending supply of 'undesires', while there is no never-ending supply of desires. So pain is inevitable in a way that pleasure is not.

This perhaps derives from our nature: we need a fine balance to maintain our health - nutrition, warmth, water - so evolution has shaped us to maintain that fine balance. If the pleasure was never turned off we would soon over-indulge and do ourselves serious harm. Chronic pain does not pose the same immediate risk to our health, (although, granted, it can lead to damage in some circumstances), so stopping pain is simply not as important or pressing as stopping pleasure. *Perhaps this answers my question in parenthesis above.

So I think the asymmetry can be expressed simply as:
Satisfaction of desires is inevitable, so pleasure must end, but relief from undesires is not, so pain never will (end).
I think this is clear evidence for naturalism over an omnibenevolent god. Not a knock-out blow, to be sure, just another strike against God. Further, I think this asymmetry is inevitable given our nature. God need not have given us a nature that results in this asymmetry, so it's more likely we are not products of such a divine being, but of indifferent Nature.

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