I started working on a reply to some of the comments of my last post, and decided I might as well as use it as an excuse for a new post.
My last post was a bit of normative philosophy. While I’m sure the point has been made elsewhere, I argued that one of the underlying assumptions of common forms of agnosticism, namely, that the non-existence of gods is something that demands proof, is logically absurd, and thus the resulting agnosticism is nonsensical. Relatedly, common definitions of atheism (as typically defined by non-atheists) are often set in contrast to such agnosticism, and thus are similarly silly.
I didn’t make a point to take a generous view of the ways that various versions of these positions play out in different social circumstances, but certainly the terms atheism and agnosticism take on different and more complex meanings for those who identify with them. The “New Atheists” are a good example of this. For them, atheism is about more than the basic non-belief in gods; it aligns with broader conceptions of rationality. I’ve written about this previously and find their notions of combating public ignorance with scientific facts wrong-headed.
The inevitable problem of trying to prescriptively define some term is that you will find that people attach different meanings to the term, and, the crucial point here, act on these meanings in different ways. Hence why terms like feminism, or environmentalism, or really any ism, are notoriously difficult to pin down. Though, incidentally, I do think that atheism as a concept is infinitely easier to make sense of than environmentalism, for example. I guess insofar as I’m interested in relatively neat normative definitions of atheism, I would say that the ways that people like Richard Dawkins act out their atheism is just extra-baggage, certainly in no way implied or necessitated by atheism per se. Or, perhaps more plausibly, atheism is merely the subsidiary. People like Dawkins, with their particular conceptions of rationality, are the kinds of people that would also be atheists. And obviously, many people self-identify as agnostics. They think it means something different than atheism. Bertrand Russell even thought it did. I don’t. Continue reading
I have long found the drawing of distinctions between agnosticism and atheism a dubious affair. Conventional wisdom has it that agnosticism involves a suspension of belief or disbelief in the existence of gods, while atheism decidedly affirms non-existence. This view was recently reinforced in a piece on Bertrand Russell by Claire Carlisle. In his essay “What is Agnosticism?” Russell defines the distinction thus:
An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial.
However, despite this, Russell acknowledges that, “An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.” But is there actually a theoretical difference? Are there any such atheists as defined by Russell? Even Richard Dawkins, the caricature of a “militant atheist” (a ridiculous term, of course), does not affirm the non-existence of gods, he merely argues for their extreme improbability (or, for the more likely kinds of gods, their superfluousness). While I’m sure that if you scoured the internet you could find some convenient strawmen who claim to “prove” the non-existence of gods, I have never met one. In any case, such a definition of atheism is nonsense and thus such a distinction between agnosticism and atheism empty. Continue reading
Now that I’m on Twitter, I realise that if I want to keep up with the daily polemics I have to be willing to masquerade knee-jerk reactions to some super-topical event as studied expert analysis. I was still unable to keep up, so here are my no-longer-relevant thoughts on Canada Post’s decision to eliminate door-to-door urban service.
One of the more pronounced voices in this “debate” has been the National Post‘s Andrew Coyne, who is pushing for privatization and liberalization (which he more or less conflates) of postal services. Prior to this recent announcement, Coyne already tried to make Canada Post’s “monopoly” a cause célèbre.
The following rhetorical question posed by Coyne reveals much about the assumptions he brings to his position: “By what principle of social justice are city residents, rich or poor, obliged to subsidize the correspondence of gentleman farmers?”
The answer to this question lies in the history of the state-building function of essentially all national postal services (obviously, Coyne has never seen Kevin Costner’s The Postman). The principle is one of social cohesion and political enfranchisement (or more cynically, state control). It is the same principle that guided the construction of a national railway in the early days of Canadian confederation. For there to be a coherent nation-state called Canada, its citizens need to be able to pay taxes, fill out censuses, and communicate with other Canadians. In order to ensure the political enfranchisement of all citizens, regardless of wealth or where they lived, access to communication needed to be ensured (indeed, those in the rural fringes were the most important to ensuring political coherency; just consider the government’s current interest in Arctic populations). Equal access to the post went hand-in-hand with democratic visions.
By the way, Coyne is actually wrong about his rhetorical assumption. City residents do not subsidize the mail of rural-dwellers; the most expensive postal codes to service are urban.
Coyne’s real question is, why is the government involved in the delivery of mail at all? To understand why this is so and whether it makes sense one needs to look at the nature of the service being provided. There are compelling arguments as to why things like transit systems, police forces, and sewer infrastructure are publically controlled. It’s hard to imagine how an open market for subways would work, or how a coherent connected public transportation system would come about in a free-market environment. So, is mail service like public transportation? Is it essentially a public service, or merely a commercial enterprise? Does it make sense for mail to be centrally controlled? Does it make more sense from an efficiency point of view to centralise mail distribution? Does it make sense from a logistical point of view to have only one kind of mail box on the streets of cities and towns? These are questions that Coyne and others who rally against the “monopoly” of Canada Post dismiss out-of-hand. Continue reading
Recently Andrew Sullivan offered an elegant and virtuous definition of conservatism:
For a conservative should not be implacably hostile to liberalism (let alone demonize it), but should be alert to its insights, and deeply aware of the need to change laws and government in response to unstoppable change in human society. Equally, a liberal can learn a lot from conservatism’s doubts about utopia, from the conservative concern with history, tradition and the centrality of culture in making human beings, and from conservatism’s love and enjoyment of the world as-it-is, even as it challenges the statesman or woman to nudge it toward the future. The goal should not be some new country or a new world order or even a return to a pristine past that never existed: but to adapt to necessary social and cultural change by trying as hard as one can to make it coherent with what the country has long been; to recognize, as Orwell did, that a country, even if it is to change quite markedly, should always be trying somehow to remain the same.
Obviously, this is an ideal and prescriptive account of conservatism; no such conservatism exists anywhere in practice, even approximately. It’s also idiosyncratic. Sullivan’s conservatism does not mesh with most popular or populist varieties. It is primarily a statement about social conservatism, leaving “fiscal conservatism” (which probably isn’t even a thing) aside, despite economic views forming a crucial aspect of contemporary definitions of conservatism.
The thing that immediately strikes me is that in much of what Sullivan says one could easily switch the terms “liberal” and “conservative” and have a perfectly plausible, though perhaps similarly idiosyncratic, version of liberalism, though it takes on a different meaning. Continue reading
Occasionally I meet people who really love capitalism. They proudly call themselves capitalists. They extol its virtues. They confidently explain to me how capitalism fairly distributes scarce resources and encourages productive competition. They prattle on about something they call “trickle-down economics.” Apparently capitalism is just the best. It makes everyone’s life better (this hyperlink might be a satire. It’s hard to tell with these capitalists). I’m told that if it wasn’t for capitalism, I wouldn’t have a computer or a smartphone and I would have polio. Continue reading
One night two summers ago, I was walking with my friends Dave and Nick when we encountered a group of about five or six men and one woman. The woman approached us and we chatted amicably for a bit, when one of the men became confrontational and cornered Nick, demanding his wallet. Nick replied that he didn’t have his wallet on him (which was true) to which the man scoffed and asked about the visibly outlined object in his front pocket. The man then reached towards Nick’s pocket, but Nick stepped back and replied it was just a (crappy) cellphone and reached into his pocket to show the man. The man then grabbed his arm unexpectedly and violently. Nick recoiled and the man went to grab him again, this time more aggressively. He then yelled out something to the effect of, “Whoa, what are you doing? Relax!” and put his arms up in the air in a surrendering manner. By this time the man, who was bigger than Nick, had fully placed him in an arm lock. Nick yelled something like, “Ok! Ok! Ok! You got me! Relax!”
Climate change is an endlessly useful example for examining issues of public science, and it was Jasanoff’s preferred case study in her talk that I discussed in my previous post. As I noted there, the notion of a constitution is an important aspect of Jasanoff’s views on public science, according to which the rights and responsibilities of expert institutions – in particular their accountability to the publics they serve – are clearly outlined. One of the broad problems Jasanoff identified in the public aspect of climate change is that scientific institutions, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (arguably the most important of all institutions regarding climate change – the largest in any case), do not have explicit standards of accountability. Continue reading