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...
..and:
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 (https://humanism.org.uk/2014/11/13/bha-questions-school-censored-evolution-exam-questions-receiving-good-rating-ofsted-inspection/). 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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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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