Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Suffer Little Children

There's been a lot of articles recently from people like Colin Tudge and John Gray saying that religious believers are caricatured by atheists, and that they don't believe the things they say they do. Perhaps, but how do they behave? Do they act as if magic happens, for example?

The Kingdom Faith Church is an evangelical church based in Horsham, Sussex, run by 'neo-charismatic' Christian, Colin Urquhart. According to Wikipedia, he spent some time in the seventies as an itinerant minister "with his living costs arising solely from donations - living on faith." Living on faith? Well, not exactly; living off other people might be a more accurate description. Anyway, he's managed to leverage 'living on faith' into a much bigger enterprise which includes a number of ministries, a training college and some expensive camera equipment too, by the look of their videos.

You'll see from their website that they're very 'Good News' about faith. Not my cup of tea, but I accept that if grown adults want to give their money to such a place then they have every right to; presumably the congregation feel they're getting some benefits from the community values on offer.

However, I'm not happy with what I've seen from the Youtube clips of their faith camps. Consider this:

'GoGen' is the name they give to their activities for 10-11 year olds. All sounds innocent enough and heart-warming. Until we see the testimonials from Faith10, the previous year's camp:

Listen to what these poor kids are saying:

"God showed me that I should speak faith over people" !

"This week I've been prayed for by a leader, for my bladder [??] problems, and I've been completely healed."

These are dangerous things to be indoctrinating in children as young as 10. One of the youth leaders says it's been a 'week of the supernatural' and 'the things that God has done to the children have been deep, have been real'. They do not know that there is supernatural healing going on here (there isn't), so to tell these kids that it's real is an abuse of their position. But this is even worse:

The leader of the 'Bouncies' says 'Monday we started with salvation', when the children learned that Jesus died to make them 'clean' (nice), and were asked to put sparkly men on a cross if they wanted to be made clean by Jesus! Which most of them did, surprise, surprise (I'd like to meet the kids who wanted to retain their uncleanliness). It was the Holy Spirit on Tuesday, then on Wednesday they listened to God; 'amazing things the children heard' (no kidding). One boy said that Jesus wants to heal his eczema, and his mother the following day said his skin wasn't inflamed any more, and the leader announces that 'he'd already got his healing'.

Finally, one of the Bouncies' testimonials:
Evie was singing about God's healing power over her. She's had a persistent cough all week, and since last night she's not coughed once, so we thank Jesus for her healing.
(Praise be, child recovers from the common cold! Did she thank Jesus for her catching it in the first place?)

The 'Bouncies' are just 3-4 years old.

This is all entirely inappropriate. If the faithful really want to teach their kids that Jesus is their salvation, I can't stop them. But it can't be healthy to tell such young children that they're unclean (unless, you know, they've got some dirt on them), and they should not tell them that Jesus can heal them. The little 'uns aren't equipped to see that this is nonsense. Every regression to the mean will be classed as a miracle, and there's a chance they'll grow up thinking that praying is a suitable course of treatment. There really should be a law against such dangerous mendacity.

This is in the heart of England, in a pretty secular country in a pretty secular continent, and it's a growing church. It seems clear that, even here, there are plenty of believers who still think that magic happens.

Read more »

Saturday, 24 September 2011

The Problem of Consciousness

Susan Blackmore's excellent Conversations on Consciousness (recommended by my friend Quine, I think) documents a number of chats she has had with eminent researchers on the subject over the years. The strength of the book for a layman like me is the conversational approach. No doubt this isn't appropriate for peer review papers, but it's great for getting some of the ideas across to science dunces like me!
Blackmore asks each subject the same questions (mostly), and I thought it would be a handy guide to summarise their answers in individual posts, starting with a question which attempts to frame the whole subject: what is the problem of consciousness?

I will only offer outlines of and quotes from their answers; buy the book for the Full Monty. Be aware that quote context is important, and I'm focussing on those comments that seem particularly relevant to me.

Bernard Baars: slightly avoided the question, but I could summarise as: what is the difference between knowledge which is conscious and knowledge which is unconscious?

Ned Block: "The problem is, what is consciousness? More specifically, I'm interested in what consciousness is in the brain." Consciousness is the "technicolour phenomenology; the 'what it's like'."

David Chalmers: "We can be terribly objective, but something very important about being a human being is left out. As human beings we all know that it feels like something, from the inside. We have sensations, thoughts and feelings...We all know this, and it's central to being a human being, but for some reason, in the last 50 or 100 years science has tended to ignore this."

Patricia & Paul Churchland (treated as one mind, amusingly): Pat - "We don't know how neurons code information. That's a lot not to know." Sue objects that Pat has slipped from 'What's so special about consciousness' to "something we don't know about the brain". Pat responds: "Many people suppose that by sheer contemplation of a problem, they can tell whether it is hard or easy. This is self-deception, and usually self-aggrandising self-deception, to make it worse." Then..."People think that because we don't understand how consciousness is produced in brains, this must be telling us something really deep and interesting." She finds Chalmers distinction ridiculous. Paul cites examples of consciousness, like the difference between being awake and being asleep, and qualia (!), and says: "It's not clear how they knit together. It's not clear how the brain produces them."

Francis Crick: "[H]ow can you explain the redness of red in terms of physics and chemistry?"

Daniel Dennett: "[W]e have evolved a certain capacity for self-knowledge, a certain access to ourselves which gives us subjective experience - which gives us a way of looking out at the world from where we are. And this just turns out to be very hard to understand. How can something have that perspective?"

Susan Greenfield: "[I]t's a subjective phenomenon that we can't really define properly...it's very hard to know how to even frame the question as to how a subjective inner state is associated with something physical."

Richard Gregory: "[T]he huge gap between what qualia are like and what the physical system of the brain is like. In other words, how the hell does physics produce something which is so totally unphysical?"

Stuart Hameroff: "The brain is an excellent information processing system, but there's no accounting for how and why we have subjective experience, emotional feelings, an 'inner life'."

Christof Koch: "Well, the problem is to explain why sometimes I see something and sometimes I don't"

Stephen LaBerge: Not really asked directly, but he does say ""The problem to be explained is experience...".

Thomas Metzinger: "[C]onsciousness is opposed to all other states." Other states are only known from the outside. "Consciousness is different in that we gain knowledge about it from the inside as well as from the outside - and we don't really know what that statement actually means."

Kevin O'Regan: "A pseudo-problem." Then... " ...the problem is making the link between the experience and the brain process. And nobody seems to have found any reasonable physico-chemical mechanism that could make that link." He gives the move from vitalism as a comparison and says: "I think exactly the same paradigm shift could solve the problem that people call 'the hard problem of consciousness'."

Roger Penrose:  "[T]here's nothing in our physical theory of what the universe is like which says anything about why some things should be conscious and other things not."

Vilayanur Ramachandram: "[A]ll the problems we have tackled and solved so far have to do with the external world...But we're now finally confronted with in some ways the biggest problem of all, namely, understanding the very organ that made all those other discoveries possible, turning on itself and asking, 'Who am I?'."

John Searle: Not asked directly, but says "[W]hat is the difference between the conscious brain and the unconscious brain?"

Petra Stoerig: "[W]hy does consciousness come about, what is it good for, how is it made?"

Francisco Varela: "There is the world, and there is me."

Max Velmans: "If you accept...that neural causal processes in the brain in a sense produce these experiences, and that indeed there might be neural correlates in the brain going on at the very same time as you're having those experiences, but that there is something deeply mysterious about the fact that these neural states seem to be completely different from these phenomenal worlds - then what kind of explanations would start to count as explanations of what is going on?"

Daniel Wegner: "[E]veryone has a consciousness but they have no access whatsoever to anyone else's."

Some fascinating thoughts. Many highlight the gap between first person and third person; some think it's not such a problem. What Penrose says is also a common theme, and close to how I've often puzzled over the problem; how do the cells in my brain produce this feeling but all the other cells in the universe not? Assuming that consciousness is limited to brains, of course. But Penrose goes too far, I think.

Read more »

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Abuse and Positive Liberty

Isaiah Berlin famously made the distinction between negative and positive liberty in his essay Two Concepts of Liberty, which he delivered in a lecture at Oxford University in 1958. It seems plain to me that totalitarianism had been much on his mind (and why not!) and he wanted to show how some forms of liberty could be abused. It's tempting, because of the negative/positive nomenclature, to think they are two sides of a coin, but this is wrong. Berlin is talking about two distinct concepts of liberty.

By negative liberty Berlin means the freedom to conduct our lives without obstruction from other people or groups of people, including the state.

How free we are in the negative sense depends on the range of options available to us, and their nature. Berlin illustrates this liberty by comparing it to the availability of doors:
The extent of a man’s negative liberty is, as it were, a function of what doors, and how many are open to him; upon what prospects they open; and how open they are. 
We needn’t take advantage of the opportunities available to us; they should simply be there. For example, as a child growing up in the sixties, I spent Sundays in a fug of boredom. Sunday specific laws shut down shops and entertainments that were available on other days of the week, thus reducing my negative liberty. Today, my daughter regularly shops on a Sunday, visits the cinema and goes bowling. In that respect, she is freer, in Berlin’s negative sense, because those ‘doors’ are unlocked. However, I may ground her, and once again reduce her negative liberty. I am freer than I was too, even if I never go shopping, to the cinema, or bowling on a Sunday; it’s sufficient that I can if I want. Conversely, the religious might think that opportunities for worship have been reduced by this relaxation of Sunday laws, adversely affecting their negative liberty in this respect.

Berlin is concerned with political freedoms only, so natural constraints are excluded. If Sunday bowling was available to me, but I couldn’t play because I was disabled, this wouldn’t be an infringement of my negative liberty, since the restriction has not been placed on me by another person, group of people, or the state. So there is an element of coercion in the concept.

By positive liberty Berlin means the freedom to choose the ideal life; ideal, that is, according to informed reason.

Berlin draws the distinction between two inner selves – a ‘higher’ rational self and a ‘lower’ empirical self. If we behave according to our higher self we would act in the ideal way to fulfil our potential and goals as human beings. Our baser instincts and desires corrupt this ideal mode of behaviour.

So we may have been granted a completely free hand in Berlin’s negative sense, but still be unable to play that hand. To return to the Sunday example, I now have a number of activities available to me, on that day, which were not there before. Despite these distractions, I might spend the day sorting out some jobs around the house, doing some gardening, and enjoying time with my daughter baking a cake. Let us assume these are the proper goals of my higher rational self. However, if there’s a big game on I may ‘find’ myself down the pub watching Sky’s Super Sunday, and neglect those higher callings. Ironically, in this instance more negative liberty (the pub’s open and there’s Sunday football on TV) has resulted in less liberty for me, in Berlin’s positive sense. If I manage to resist the call of the pub, I would increase my positive liberty.

In some cases, coercion is employed by the state to help people realise these higher goals. For example, down the pub, it is now illegal to smoke inside, and this reduction in negative liberty is aimed at increasing our positive liberty, by gently coercing a healthier lifestyle. This is a paternalistic control imposed by the collective, to help us achieve more well-being; something we ‘really’ want; that is, what our rational higher self really wants.

Because some limited paternalistic coercion is understood as acceptable to increase positive liberty, a danger presents itself. Berlin argues that misuse of the notion of positive liberty can occur when this paternalism is extended, and a ‘final solution’ imposed by groups of people, or states, on the individuals within. By ‘final solution’, he means that those in authority come to believe there is one ideal way of living that reconciles every person’s ideal way of living, and so maximises freedom for the person and the state. Berlin does not think that such a reconciliation of a population’s aims is possible, so such a project would be ill-conceived from the start.

Coercion by the group is then seen as an extension of the individual higher self, and a judgement is made that what an individual truly wants is better known by the group than the individual. And, further, that the individual being coerced actually wants these things, only sub-consciously, to achieve more positive liberty. The result is paradoxical: coercion is employed to make folk ‘free’. Berlin saw the dangers of such misuse in the totalitarianism of the twentieth century, in Nazism and communism; an authoritarianism which coerces individuals for their own supposed good. Although I think Berlin had twentieth century totalitarianism uppermost in his mind when describing these concepts, it's plain to me that they also apply well to that other seat of authoritarianism - religion. Once a church gains sufficient power to wield over the populace, primarily through indoctrination, they wield that power by asserting their knowledge of the 'real' greater good and demanding believers follow their unlikely doctrines, for their own good.

It’s a rule of law that would be hard to argue against. If a citizen agrees with a course of action, all well and good; if she disagrees with it the authority could say that the higher self ‘really’ agrees, and assume a mandate for the greater good of the state, or religion. It’s a rule imposed against the wishes of the people but supposedly for the wishes of the people, in the mistaken belief that a set of unified wishes can be established. And so institutional cover-ups of massive abuse to further the institution become the norm. As Enda Kenny said:
The rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and 'reputation'.
One can't help thinking that throughout, the Catholic authorities believed they were protecting the priests because it was the best for the Church, because they know what is best for everyone.

That sort of approach cannot be allowed to continue in any institution. Until religious ones drop their claims to  a divine truth, the danger of this abuse of positive liberty, and therefore children and adults, continues.


Warburton, N. (2002) Arguments for Freedom (A211 Book 1), Milton Keynes, The Open University

Read more »